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Step 3: Choosing an International Topic to Research

It is helpful to start with a broad topic and narrow it down to a theoretically and empirically interesting research question or puzzle. Keep in mind that you will spend at least 4 months developing and researching a topic for an independent study, senior seminar paper or directed research project, and possibly over a year for a senior honors thesis. So, being passionate about your research topic, while not necessary, does help you get through it.

Choosing a topic, and then developing a question to answer, is often the hardest part of research. Follow these guidelines to get started:

  1. Begin by defining a general area of interest. This may come from a passion of yours, a topic you explored in a previous class, a topic you find puzzling or odd or a required topic for a seminar.

  2. Brainstorm! This is called the "starburst" phase of research because you are thinking about many issues within a general area of interest. You might begin reading up on various issues within your general area of interest that lead you to other ideas.

  3. While the starburst phase is critical to develop your future research questions, you cannot get stuck here for too long. Depending on the type of project you're doing and the amount of time you have, you will need to make a decision on your topic. Students rarely begin with too narrow of a topic.

  4. Hone in on specific aspects of your general interests and make a list. This is critical to developing a question or series of questions (which is your next step in the research process).

Example of refining topic from broad to narrow (too broad to manageable):

Penvenne was generally interested in urban African women in Mozambique in the period 1945-1975. [General issue] She decided to work in Mozambique's capital city, Maputo, because the country was at war and the capital was relatively safe. [Practical considerations] In the early stages of research it became clear that the demographic category "African urban women" in that period was increasingly comprised of migrant over local women. [Topic] That piece of information helped shape several of Penvenne's key research questions: "Why did African women come from rural areas to the capital city, Maputo, Mozambique? How did they come? When did they come? Where did they stay when they arrived? How did this new and growing presence of migrant women shape the city and how did their developing urban experience shape these migrant women? Were migrant and local women different? If so how?" By asking those questions instead of an alternative set of questions, Penvenne began to shape her research and direct her analysis.


Excerpts adapted from Professor Jeff Taliaferro's resources for PS 51: Introduction to International Relations

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