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Anthropology How To

A guide for undergraduates undertaking an in-depth anthropological research project

Choosing Your Topic is Research

A focused topic is only the beginning of a good research project. As you explore and refine your topic, keep track of questions that occur to you. This list of questions will come in handy when you are refining your topic idea into a research question, or series of questions. The research questions you develop will further focus your project and serve as a guide for developing your methodology and for identifying participant groups or other research materials (e.g. samples, museum collections, archives, and datasets).

If you are struggling to select a topic, here are a few tips:

  • Spend time browsing the literature in the more general subject area. Oxford Bibliographies Online is an excellent resource for this. You could also select a couple of journals that look interesting and read titles or skim abstracts from articles published in the last five years or so to see if anything sparks your interest.
  • Look for book reviews or literature reviews related to the topic area. These two types of writing can give you a higher-level picture of the field and might direct you to interesting debates or underexplored research areas.
  • Talk with your colleagues, friends, or other students about what projects they are considering. If you already have a topic, discuss your ideas with them. Their comments and questions can help you focus your ideas and reveal assumptions that may be holding you back.  

Finally, watch this brief video from NC State on choosing a research topic, Picking Your Topic IS Research!. It shows how topic development and research are intertwined.

Developing Research Questions

A well-formed research question should include three parts: 1) the problem that you are investigating, 2) your thesis or argument, and 3) the limits of your project. Research questions should be focused enough to guide your project. They will serve as the primary tool for defining the scope of your research, analyzing your data, and communicating results.

The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth is an excellent resource for any researcher. This book covers the entire research process from topic development to writing. It is full of sound advice presented in a straightforward and engaging style. See section 3.3 in the 2016 edition for advice on developing questions.