CRM 447w

Senior Seminar in Criminology

Selecting a Topic

Choosing a topic is easy for experts, because they are already involved in the problems and ideas of their discipline.  It is more difficult for beginners.  Many students will say that the biggest mistake they made in a paper assignment was to settle on a topic too quickly. Take the time to select a topic! 

Remember: picking your topic is part of the research! (see this video: https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/tutorials/picking_topic/)

When exploring, apply your curiosity: ask open-ended questions (see this video: https://video.lib.uwf.edu/research_tutorials/research_questions)

How to look for a topic:

  1. Your topic choice will be shaped by your assignment as well as your interests, so read the assignment carefully.
  2. Consider the lectures and readings in all your courses.  Did something come up that piqued your interest?
  3. Talk to experienced students about your interests and studies.
  4. Read newspapers and magazines such as:  New York Times (or the NYT Learning Network), Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, The Atlantic, Popular Science, or similar. Even Wikipedia can help with topic exploration.
  5. Explore reference books.

Look for a topic that is not common or typical. Usually the top topics in a database like Opposing Viewpoints are already over-worked.  Dig a little deeper to find something fresh.

Once you have some general ideas, it is time to focus.  In order to write a coherent paper, you must focus or sharpen your topic by exploring different aspects and problems, or by addressing a question.  This handbook give excellent guidance about focusing on pp. 8-9: http://dl.icdst.org/pdfs/files/91389c9e0b17a7298d308e782f72b480.pdf

How to focus:

  1. Ask questions.  For example, if your topic is "climate change" - ask, what about climate? Evidence that it is happening?  Impact or effect on something (on what specifically)? Causes or explanations? Popular or creative discourse about it?
  2. Read to learn.  Later you will be reading for research, but start with reading to get an overview or outline of your topic.  Good places for this kind of reading might include Wikipedia (Wikipedia is not a reliable source to cite, but it can be a place to begin exploration), reference articles or book chapters that give overviews of the topic, and for more advanced students, search for literature reviews or the Annual Reviews series for your subject area.
  3. Repeat. Cycle back and forth between reading and formulating questions.

Even when you have focused your topic, you are still not quite done with this phase.  Now it's time to make sure you have something that is not too general and also not too narrow, so you need to check the focus.

How to check the focus:

  1. Make sure your topic has something in it that will allow you to compare, contrast, analyze or derive meaning.
  2. A research paper is not an opinion paper. If you are only presenting opinions that something is good or bad, or it should or shouldn't be done or exist, you're not focused yet.
  3. A research paper is not a report.  If you are only reporting or repeating information, then you do not have a good focus.
  4. If there is too much information, then limit to one particular problem, place, time or other aspect. For example, if 'the effect of climate change on poverty" turns out to be too scattered or broad, consider one city, or one time period, or only indigenous people, or impact on one factor such as employment.
  5. Sometimes people get stuck with overly narrow questions (such as "cause and effect of copper contamination in the EMU campus soil") It is possible that research has not been done and you will find no information. If this happens, then broaden to question to a wider area or more general problem (copper contamination in soil generally, and implications for EMU).
Established: consensus The Sweet Spot - innovation, conversation Unknown: controversy

Identifying Workable Research Topics: find the sweet spot
(based on a lecture by John S. Dunn, Jr. at EMU in 2009)

Already established beliefs and positions Discussion (agreements, disagreements) based on shared assumptions but differing perspectives about issues/questions Not enough consensus among experts to allow constructive dialogue
Accepted fact Exploration about what information would contribute to the conversation, and about questions that might lead to tentative answers Not enough meaningful distinctions or information to agree or disagree
"Nothing here to talk about, let's move on!" "There's something to discuss, and we are still in conversation about perspective or explanation." "Way out in left field here, or we're talking apples and oranges"

Only when you have focused are you ready to start exploring and searching for information with your questions in mind.

More help?  You might like these pages:

Where to start? what are you looking for?

What you are looking for: Where to start:
Background about an issue Reference Sources, Books
Background about the case (names, dates, etc.) News Articles, Legal Information, Books (only sometimes)
Court Decisions Legal Information
Scholarly Analysis on an issue Journal Articles, Books