Asking Questions to Explore Your Topic
Learn about how to explore your broad topic in order to narrow your focus for a research assignment.
Research papers often start with a broad topic, like the historical significance of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. However, the expectation is usually that you focus your research on a specific aspect of the topic rather than trying to cover as much about the topic as possible. For example, a paper about Martin Luther King might focus on his significance as an activist who was monitored by the U.S. government. But the question is "how do you focus your research if you know little-to-nothing about the topic to begin with?"
The first step is to brainstorm specific questions to help guide your initial exploration of your topic. Start with basic questions such as "Who?", "What?", "When?", "Where?", and "Why?" For example, some basic questions about Martin Luther King, Jr. could include "Who was he?", "What were the major events and actions he was involved in?", "When was he alive and when was he most active?", "Where did he live and work?", "And why did he do the work that he did?"
You can follow up these kinds of basic questions by brainstorming more detailed ones. For example, who did Martin Luther King, Jr. interact with? And which individuals, organizations, and/or groups were impacted by his work? Which ideas, practices, and institutions did he support? and which did he criticize? What else was happening at the time he was alive and in the places he was most active? And what broader issues of historical significance does his work connect to? You probably won't end up providing detailed answers to all these questions in your paper. Instead, the specific questions you brainstorm provide specific starting points for exploring the background to your topic from different angles.
Focus on One Specific Aspect
And once you understand the background to your topic, it's easier to pick a specific aspect to focus on. For example, discovering that King advocated non-violent protest might lead you to focus your research on exploring the specific details and significance of these views. Discovering that King was a religious leader might lead you to focus your research on exploring the specific ways his religious views influenced his activism. Discovering that the U.S. government monitored King's activities might lead you to focus your research on exploring the details of, and reasons behind, this surveillance. In sum, it's a lot easier to move forward with research if you have a solid understanding of the background to your topic -- and you can develop this background by asking basic questions to start with, then asking increasingly more detailed follow-up questions as you delve deeper into your topic.
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