Developing a General Topic in Research


There are many topics in social research; part of the difficulty is finding one that is interesting, important and for which there is neither too much nor too little information.  It’s a balance.  Since this class is directed toward socio-legal research, I will divide potential topics into three main areas: Civil law, Criminal law and International law.  There are many other potential divisions, but this is a start. 


Civil law covers social relations among individuals, and with governments, as found in law, social science research and literature.  Here are some examples:


Criminal law covers government efforts to restrict certain types of behavior through penalties, as found in law, social science research and legal literature. Here are some examples:


International law covers relations between governments, as found in law, social science research and legal literature. Here are some examples:  


You should look at the following website from the Law and Society Association:  Click on “View the preliminary program” on the left.  Select “Search by Individual Presentations.”  It lists paper topics from the most recent annual meeting of the Association, starting with the letter A.   Look at five paper topics to get a sense of the range of topics.


Ultimately, from all of the choices of research topics out there, the ones that make the best topics are those that are both interesting to you and important to society.  One good way to tap into your interests is to think about what interested you in your major.  Some people are fascinated by the social processes in detecting and punishing crime.  Others are excited by the idea of understanding how the works of artists and musicians are protected from commercial exploitation by others.  Some want to eliminate poverty and war.  The problems and challenges of immigration policy is interesting to others.  Whatever your interest, there are many possible research topics stemming from it. 


Exercise:  Write down three to five sentences about what made you interested in your major (or potential major, if you don’t have one yet), aside from factors such as “my mother made me” or “I want a good career.”  Put your name on it and hand it in to Professor Weiss at the next class session.  


The Research Question


(from The Writer's Complex, by Cathy Copley, Larry Greenberg, Elaine Handley, Susan Oaks and contributors.

Once you identify your interest, there are many possible research topics stemming from it.  In developing a research question, it's absolutely essential to develop one that you're interested in or care about in order to focus your research and your paper. For example, researching a broad topic such as "business management" is difficult since there may be hundreds of sources on all aspects of business management. On the other hand, a focused question such as "What are the pros and cons of Japanese management style?" is easier to research and can be covered more fully and in more depth.

How do you develop a usable research question? Choose an appropriate topic or issue for your research, one that actually can be researched (Exercise 1 below). Then list all of the questions that you'd like answered yourself. Choose the best question, one that is neither too broad nor too narrow. Sometimes the number of sources you find will help you discover whether your research question is too broad, too narrow, or okay?

If you know a lot about the topic, you can develop a research question based on your own knowledge. If you feel you don't know much about the topic, think again. For example, if you're assigned a research topic on an issue confronting the ancient Babylonian family, remember, by virtue of your own family life, you already know a great deal about family issues. Once you determine what you do know, then you're ready to do some general reading in a textbook or encyclopedia in order to develop a usable research question.

It's a good idea to evaluate your research question before completing the research exercise (Exercise 3 below).


A topic is what the essay or research paper is about. It provides a focus for the writing. Of course, the major topic can be broken down into its components or smaller pieces (e.g., the major topic of nuclear waste disposal may be broken down into medical, economic, and environmental concerns). But the important thing to remember is that you should stick with just one major topic per essay or research paper in order to have a coherent piece of writing.

An issue is a concept upon which you can take a stand. While "nuclear waste" is a topic, "safe and economic disposal of nuclear waste" is an issue, or a "point of discussion, debate, or dispute" (American Heritage Dictionary).

Choose a Question that is Neither Too Broad or Too Narrow

For example, if you choose juvenile delinquency (a topic that can be researched), you might ask the following questions:

a. What is the 1994 rate of juvenile delinquency in the U.S.?
b. What can we do to reduce juvenile delinquency in the U.S.?
c. Does education play a role in reducing juvenile delinquents' return to crime?

Once you complete your list, review your questions in order to choose a usable one that is neither too broad nor too narrow. In this case, the best research question is "c." Question "a" is too narrow, since it can be answered with a simple statistic. Question "b" is too broad; it implies that the researcher will cover many tactics for reducing juvenile delinquency that could be used throughout the country. Question "c," on the other hand, is focused enough to research in some depth. (Exercise 2)

Exercise 1: Can the Topic be Researched?

Which of these questions cannot be easily or fully researched (given that you are writing a research paper right now, at the beginning of the 21st century?

Click on the letter to see if that question has research potential.

Question A:

Do the economies that result from a trash burning plant outweigh or not outweigh its environmental impact?

Question B:

Is sexual preference a result of nature (physically based) or nurture (socially-culturally based)?

Question C:

Does McDonald's or Burger King make a better burger?

Question D:

Is Prozac a good way to treat clinical depression in certain cases?

Question E:

Is there a link between hours of television viewing and violent behavior in children aged 8-14?

Exercise 2: Is the Question Too Broad or Too Narrow?

Below are five exercises designed to improve your ability to select a good research question. Click on any letter to start the exercise.

      • A. Exercise: Is the Question Too Broad or Too Narrow?
      • B. Exercise: Is the Question Too Broad or Too Narrow?
      • C. Exercise: Is the Question Too Broad or Too Narrow?
      • D. Exercise: Is the Question Too Broad or Too Narrow?
      • E. Exercise: Is the Question Too Broad or Too Narrow?


Exercise 3: Evaluate Your Own Research Question

Ask the following 8 questions to evaluate the quality of your research question and the ease with which you should be able to answer it:

1. Does the question deal with a topic or issue that interests me enough to spark my own thoughts and opinions?

2. Is the question easily and fully researchable?

3. What type of information do I need to answer the research question?
E.g., The research question, "What impact has deregulation had on commercial airline safety?," will obviously require certain types of information:

§                                 statistics on airline crashes before and after

§                                 statistics on other safety problems before and after

§                                 information about maintenance practices before and after

§                                 information about government safety requirements before and after

4. Is the scope of this information reasonable (e.g., can I really research 30 online writing programs developed over a span of 10 years?)

5. Given the type and scope of the information that I need, is my question too broad, too narrow, or okay?

6. What sources will have the type of information that I need to answer the research question (journals, books, Internet resources, government documents, people)?

7. Can I access these sources?

8. Given my answers to the above questions, do I have a good quality research question that I actually will be able to answer by doing research?