Friday, November 17, 2006

Refining a Topic


Introduction Narrowing a Topic Broadening a Topic


Once you have found some background information, you can refine your broad research topic into a narrow, focused topic. The sooner you can develop a broad subject into a focused topic, the sooner you can shape your research into a finished paper.

On the other hand, if your subject is too focused or detailed, you may have a hard time finding enough sources to write an acceptable paper. In this case, to need to broaden your topic.
If you need assistance refining your topic, please consult any reference librarian/librarian.


A topic that covers too much material is a common problem for students. Depending on your interests, a general topic can be focused in many ways. For example, if you want to do a paper on government funding of the arts, consider the following questions:

What do you already know about this subject?

Is there a specific time period you want to cover?

Is there a geographic region or country on which you would like to focus?

Is there a particular aspect of this topic that interests you? For example, public policy

implications, historical influence, sociological aspects, psychological angles, specific groups or individuals involved in the topic, etc.

Topic Narrowing:

General Topic
Government funding of the arts

Time Span


Event or Aspects
New Deal, painting

Narrowed Topic Sentence
Federal funding of painters through New Deal programs and the Works Progress

Boolean Searching

The logical operators AND and NOT can be used in database searches to narrow a search statement. For more information, consult Electronic Searching.

Using the Online Catalog to Narrow a Topic:

Sometimes the online catalog can give you some ideas for narrowing a topic. Many subject headings in the catalog are broken down into subheadings that define geographical locations, material types, or specific aspects of a topic. Some subject headings also have Search also under or See also notes and links that identify other related or narrower subjects.

Starting a subject heading search with a general topic may be a good way to discover related subject headings and more narrow elements of a topic.

Subdivisions of a subject headings are also useful for identifying more specific elements
of a topic.

Topics that are too narrow are fairly simple to fix. Think of parallel and broader associations for your subject to find a broader topic that will be easier to research. Sometimes a topic may be too new and sources to your research questions may not yet exist.

For example, if you want to do a paper on the effect of deforestation on Colombia's long-term ability to feed its citizens, consider the following questions:

Could you examine other countries or regions in addition to Colombia?

Could you think more broadly about this topic? Give thought to wider topics like agriculture and sustainable development.

Who are the key players in this topic? The government? Citizens? International organizations?

What other issues are involved in this topic? Such as, how can natural resources be allocated most economically to sustain the populace of Colombia?

Topic Broadening:

Specific Topic

What is the effect of deforestation on Columbia’s long-term ability to feed its citizens?

Alternative Focus

Agriculture, sustainable development

Alternative Place

South America

Alternative Person or Group

United Nations and its subgroups

Alternative Event or Aspect

Birth Control

Broadened Topic Sentence

How can the United Nations encourage South American countries to employ sustainable development practices?

Boolean Searching

The logical operator OR can be used in online database searches to broaden a search statement. For more information, consult Electronic Searching.

Using the Online Catalog to Broaden a Topic:

The online catalog may suggest other terms that are related to a subject heading. These terms show up when you click on "about" after a subject heading. This link will take you to a scope note that defines what kinds of materials are cataloged under that heading. Often links to broader terms can be found within these scope notes.

This term represents a broader aspect of the original search term.

Cramer, Steven. "Refining a Topic." Guide to Library Research. 1 November 2002. Duke University. 17 Nov 2006