Defining Your Topic

Step One: Do Preliminary Research

Begin the research process by browsing through sources to acquaint yourself with your topic, get ideas, and see what others have said about your subject. You can also talk with your classmates, TA, instructor, or other experts to get their perspective on your topic.

  • Browse through print encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Britannica. Also try online encyclopedias, such as Gale Virtual Reference Library, Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences or Access Science, accessible through the Library’s E-Resource List.
  • Try your search in one of the Library’s general article databases, such as ProQuest Direct or LexisNexis Academic, accessible through the Try These First page.
  • Look through the subject categories on the Find Articles by Subject page and click on any subject to get a list of specialized databases in which to try your search.
  • Look through the topics listed on the Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center homepage, accessible through the Try These First Page. Click on any topic for a list of related articles.

Step Two: Map Your Ideas

Once you’ve done some preliminary research, begin to “map out” significant ideas to create a concept map.

A concept map is simply a way to visually display the concepts and relationships among ideas.

This will help you to further organize your ideas and define your topic. Let’s look at how a concept map on “sustainable development” is developed.

Concept Map on Sustainable Development

2.1 First, write down the main idea in the center.

Draw a circle around the idea. This will be the starting point for the concept map.

Here, “sustainable development” is the central theme.

Next, think of some issues related to the central theme.

Link these issues around the central theme, and draw lines connecting them.

Here, three possible research issues relate to sustainable development:

  • agricultural issues
  • environmental issues
  • ethical/social issues.

Only one of these possible sub-issues will be fully explored

For each issue, think of sub-concepts that relate to it and connect them to the appropriate issue.

Here, each of the three issues have sub-ideas for possible research exploration.

Continue to brainstorm possible ideas. Not all will be included later, but this approach lets you see the relationship among possible topics.

Like this sample, your concept map will grow.

At this point, select the issue that has the most potential for further research.In this example, we’ll develop the section on Ethical/Social Issues.

Here, only this sub-set of the brainstorming concept map will be fully developed. Think of sub-issues which will support each concept.
Here is the fully developed concept map. Each element of the map will help you to:

  • generate a list of research questions, and
  • develop a topic definition statement.

Step Three: Develop Research Questions

Develop questions to guide your search for information using the concept map.

Move your mouse over each of the Yellow
concepts in the diagram on the right to see a sample question.

Here is a summary of the research questions we developed for our topic of sustainable development.At the end of this unit, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your own research questions from the concept map you’ve created on your own topic.

Step Four: Write a Topic Definition Statement

There is a difference between a topic definition statement and a thesis statement. Characteristics and examples of a topic definition statement can be found in the table below. However, click thesis statement to learn what a thesis statement is.
Provides background for the issues
Much collegiate sportswear is produced in sweatshops in third world countries. Laborers earn pennies a day under horrible working conditions. Yet consumers pay exorbitant prices for these goods.
Summarizes the purpose of your project and how you will accomplish the project
This paper will examine the degree to which consumers are able to influence corporations to do business in a socially responsible manner. Therefore I will identify instances of abuses in the collegiate sportswear industry and demonstrate how consumers can make an impact upon corporations.
Includes a “working title”
“Ethical Consumerism: Can It Make a Difference?”
Indicates questions to be answered
Key question: “What impact can ethical consumerism have on corporations and the environment?” Sub-questions:

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Source: Library of The Pennsylvania State University