In this module, you will be introduced to one strategy that has proven to be effective for many kinds of research.

Your teacher has assigned a research project, and you have thought of a topic. Great! But now what?

 

Here's the basic strategy:

Decide on your general topic (but be flexible you may decide to modify it)
Identify the main terms for your topic
Use appropriate research tools to retrieve good resources
Refine your topic as needed
Gather additional resources to support your new topic

In this strategy, you start with a general topic, narrow it down to a manageable topic, and then expand your search by identifying additional resources. It can be illustrated with this hourglass diagram.

 

Here is an example to illustrate this strategy.

1. Decide on your general topic

You are required to write a 10-page paper in a Peace and Justice course. You decide you want to write about prisons.

2. Identify the main terms for your topic

So far, all you have is the main topic "prisons." Think of some other terms:

jails
penitentiaries
criminal justice
prisoners
etc.

What do you already know about your topic? What questions come to mind? Do a little brainstorming and write down everything you can think of, no matter how trivial it may seem. The purpose is to get you thinking about the topic. For example,

Prisons are where criminals go.
Some innocent people get sent to jail.
What is the role of power (guards over inmates, inmates over guards)?
Prisoners have little outside contact.
What happens to the families of prisoners?
Why do women on the outside marry prisoners while they are in jail?
Prisons are overcrowded.
Etc.... You could keep going.

Now you have some more ideas to work with, but you still aren't finished defining the topic.

3. Use appropriate research tools to retrieve good resources

You are still trying to define the topic. Any - or all - of these can help:

Look for a reference book (encyclopedia or dictionary) on prisons and prisoners to get an overview of the topic, identifying key words or interesting sub-topics.

Look up "prisons" or "prisoners" (or other terms) in Sadie. Browse through the list of records that come up, looking for a book that is especially interesting to you. Identify subject headings.

Look up "prisons" or "prisoners" (or other terms) in a periodical index. Pick an index that's likely to have something on the topic (Social Sciences Index looks good). Browse through the list of articles, looking for something interesting.

4. Refine your topic as needed

Now you have some more ideas, and you know that the general topic of "prisons" is too broad. If your topic is too broad, you will have too much information to sort through, and you won't be able to write a very good paper. You need to narrow the topic.

Think about everything you have done so far: the brainstorming you did earlier and the ideas you saw in Sadie, reference books, or periodical indexes. You have several other topics to choose from, and you finally decide that you are interested in this topic:

What happens to the children of parents who are in prison?

5. Gather additional resources to support your new topic

Now that you have a more focused topic, gather the resources you need to research and write the paper. You have a specific topic in mind, and can eliminate a lot of books and articles on prisons and prisoners that don't relate to the topic. The research is a lot easier this way.

You have already looked at the online catalog and periodical indexes, so you have a good idea of the proper terms to use (controlled vocabulary), and you know which periodical indexes cover your topic.

You have discovered these subject headings that relate to your specific topic:

Children of prisoners
Families of prisoners (a little bit broader than "children" but still very useful)

You now have a better idea of what kinds of information you need, and you can return to Sadie and the periodical indexes, and find books and articles on the specific topic. If there aren't enough resources in this library, you can also request some by interlibrary loan.

It may seem as if this strategy takes a lot of unnecessary time, but it really only takes a few minutes. And it can save lots of time in the long run because you won't waste time chasing after resources that don't apply to your topic.

If your topic is too broad, you will have too many resources to choose from, and your task will be overwhelming. And, if you pick a topic that is interesting to you, you may even find that the research is fun!

 


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