In choosing a topic for a research project, it is useful to remember that you will be spending a significant amount of time and energy thinking, reading, and writing about it. It seems obvious, but students sometimes forget that research is an activity driven by passion. For this reason, it is vital that you choose a topic that interests you. It is also important to choose a topic that is:
- Broad enough that other scholars have said something about it
- Specific enough that you can contribute something unique to the scholarly conversation
This can be a challenging task. In smaller research projects (like an undergraduate paper), it is helpful to move from a general idea / area of interest to a specific “case study.” Distinguishing between topics and questions can help you make this move more smoothly.
A topic is the broad subject of your research. Topics provide you with a sense of what secondary literature you will want to look at and which historical conversations you might enter. For instance, these are all topics:
- Post-WWII suburbanization
- The Boston School Desegregation Crisis of the 1970s
- American Imperialism in the Pacific
- Japanese Internment
A question is what you want you want to know about your topic. Questions narrow your field of study, guide you towards potential primary sources, and suggest potential arguments. For instance, these are all questions:
- How did depictions of back yards in “house and home” magazines reflect popular ideas about gender roles during the 1950s?
- How did newspaper coverage of the desegregation of Boston schools during the 1970s differ between the mainstream and the Black press?
- How did the Anthropologists depict native Filipinos in their ethnographic research?
- How did the accounts of Japanese-American women interned during WWII differ from accounts of Japanese-American men?
As you may have noticed, it is necessary to know something about your topic before you can settle on a good question. Knowing what other scholars have said about a topic can help you figure out which questions have already been asked and answers. It can also help you uncover gaps in the scholarship on your topic that you might want to fill. In your preliminary secondary research on topic number two, for example, you might find two or three important books or articles about the Boston desegregation crisis in the 1970s, but nothing on how the crisis was covered in African-American media. This discovery can lead to a good question, like the one listed above. You might also notice that the questions above follow a particular pattern. They are “why” or “how” questions that are narrowly focused on a particular aspect of a topic. They are NOT questions with “Yes” or “No” answers, or moral questions with a subjective bias.