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Humanities Research: Sources and Strategies: Topic refinement

Tips for refining your topic

Research process and topic refinement:

  • This is a process: you may not come up with a complete topic or question by the end of class today, or by the middle of the course. As you continue with your research, you will find new information that will help you narrow your topic or modify it in a different direction than what you planned.
  • Research is cyclical: after initial reading in books and articles, you may want to return to reference sources to pursue futher references you encounter in your research.

Important factors:

  • Length of the required paper -- the shorter the paper, the more specific your topic needs to be.
  • Exploration -- take the time to look at what you find, don’t just read things that answer your question directly. You may be answering a question that is not explicitly covered in other resources, so you are putting the pieces together and creating the connections that need to be made. Examine footnotes (the first one or two tend to be particularly rich in references to further literature), bibliographies, and other accompanying apparatus.
  • Serendipity -- sometimes you find things by dumb luck: you just happen across them without being purposeful about it. Browse the shelves near the book you've come to get; follow online links.
  • Time -- all of this is dependent upon you giving yourself time to be curious and explore the options that are out there.


Resources and strategies that can give you ideas for refining your topic:

  • Subject-specific encyclopedias
  • Browsing databases (on our "Find a Database" page)
  • Browsing current journals (shelved in Reference Room, or on our "Find a journal" page)
  • Bibliographies (separately published, or in journal articles and books)
  • Professors

Topic refinement workform

Humanities Topic Refinement Worksheet




Your topic idea:












Can you narrow it by one or more of the following?



__ Time period (early 20th century; Renaissance)



__ Geographical region or country



 __ Group of people/artists/writers (women writers; African-American composers; a religious community)



 __ Genre, form, or medium (novel; jazz; diaries; sculpture)



 __ School or movement (Art Nouveau; Harlem Renaissance; Stoics)



__ Theme in literature or art (love; death; exile; utopias; heroes; Biblical events; mythological figures)



 __ Related social, ethical, or political issue (bioethics; women’s rights; role of the state/government)



 __ Related historical events (wars, revolutions, movements; new technologies; epidemics)



Critical approaches:


__ Historical


__ Historiographical (how views on a subject have changed over time)


__ Comparative


__ Theoretical


__ Textual criticism (the different editions, versions, etc. of a work)


__ Feminist, masculinities, or gender studies


__ Ethnographic or area studies


__ Cinema studies (treatment of a subject in films)


__ Postcolonialism


__ Psychoanalytic


__ Ecocriticism


__ Transnationalism


__ Hybridity



Specific person / artist / writer:


__ Early influences in their life


__ Relationships


__ Residences


__ Historical events during their lifetime


__ Early works, late works, or lesser known works


__ Reception history (how audiences reacted to their works)


__ Themes, symbols, or images in their work


__ Their views on specific issues


__ Their influence on or by other artists, writers, etc.


__ As a subject of fiction, art, etc. (portraits, historical novels, films)




Interdisciplinary approach:


You could link a social or science-related issue to the following humanities-related aspects :


__ Ethical aspects (many social issues or scientific innovations have ethical dimensions; ethics are a branch of philosophy)


__ Religious aspects (what religious traditions say about a social issue or scientific development)


__ Relation to the arts (how artists, musicians, literary writers, or filmmakers have reacted to a social issue in their creative work)


__ Historical aspects (how views on a social issue, or scientific discovery/theory, have changed over time)


 Comparative approach:


It can be interesting to compare two people, cultures, or other entities, either of the same or different time period, place, school of thought, etc.

You will need to identify a central aspect by which you compare and contrast your two entities (“How did [writer A] and [writer B] treat the subject of ….?” “How did [empire A] and [empire B] solve the problem of….?”).

You’ll also need to consult resources, and develop search strategies, for each entity individually. This is because you may not find much existing literature that makes exactly the same comparison you’re making; you may be drawing your own conclusions.








An encyclopedia in your subject area can help you narrow your topic.



Finding print encyclopedias


In the library’s catalog, enter a keyword for your subject area and the term “encyclopedias”:


  •  religion encyclopedias


Also try it with the term “dictionaries” (some of these have extensive entries like encyclopedias):


  • music dictionaries


Don’t underestimate how specialized encyclopedias can be. Try other keywords for your topic:


  •  islam encyclopedias


  • world war i encyclopedias


  • fiction encyclopedias


  • piano encyclopedias




Finding online encyclopedias


On the Library’s homepage, select the “Databases” tab, then “Browse by Subject,” then “Arts & Humanities.”




For an interdisciplinary approach:


You can try looking up a specific social issue in a literature, religion, art, or music encyclopedia. You may find an article discussing how artists, writers, etc. have reacted to the issue in their creative work.


 You can try this strategy in humanities-related databases too. On the Library’s homepage, select the “Databases” tab, then “Browse by Subject,” then “Arts & Humanities.” Check MLA Bibliography (literature), ATLA (religion), or RILM (music).


Try a subject search in the library’s catalog, combining a social or scientific issue with one of the following terms/phrases:



  • In literature; in art; in music; in motion pictures


  • Religious aspects


  • Moral and ethical aspects


  • Songs and music




For a comparative approach:


Be sure to consult encyclopedias on both of the entities you’re comparing.




Keywords in encyclopedias


In encyclopedia articles, notice the section headings. These indicate areas where extensive research has been done -- areas where you will find a sufficient body of literature to work with.




Encyclopedias can also introduce you to the terms scholars use for your topic. You can use these as additional keywords in your research. Watch for keywords in:



  • the article’s main text


  • “see” references or links


  • titles in the bibliography



Most print encyclopedias also include indexes (sometimes in the final volume) that direct you to the terms used in that encyclopedia.







Your narrowed topic:












You will need to use both broad and narrow search strategies, depending on the type of resource you’re looking for, or the results you get from a search.


For an interdisciplinary or comparative approach:

For the exercises below, you’ll need to develop sets of keywords for both disciplines /entities that you’re addressing.



List keywords for a BROAD search on your topic (think of time period, geographic region, discipline or subject area):


Keyword ________________


Keyword ________________


Keyword ________________


Keyword ________________



Some examples:

If your topic is:Public reaction to Bay of Pigs incident                                  

Broad search terms: American history; 20th century American history


If your topic is: Class in Jane Austen’s Emma

Broad search terms: Literature; English literature


If your topic is: Concept of jihad in the Koran           

Broad search terms: Religion; Islam



You would use these broad keywords to locate:


  • encyclopedias and other reference sources


  • databases


  • core journals in the field


  • archival and rare-books collections


  • websites


  • scholarly associations


Link your broad keywords using the Boolean term AND.






List keywords for a NARROW search on your topic:


Keyword ________________


Keyword ________________


Keyword ________________


Keyword ________________


Keyword ________________


Keyword ________________



You would use these when searching:


  • online databases, for journal articles, book chapters, or reviews


  • library catalogs, for books


  • or when looking for websites or scholarly associations devoted to a single person


Link your narrow keywords using the Boolean term AND.






List SYNONYMS for your keywords:


Keyword __________ Synonym ___________ Synonym ___________


Keyword __________ Synonym ___________ Synonym ___________


Keyword __________ Synonym ___________ Synonym ___________


Keyword __________ Synonym ___________ Synonym ___________


Link your synonyms using the Boolean term OR.






Can any of your terms be TRUNCATED?


Truncation is the use of a symbol (often an asterisk or question mark) to represent all the different grammatical forms a term might take. For example, if you enter “paint*” in an online database, the database will search for “paint,” “painting,” “paintings,” “painter,” “painters,” etc.

 To find out which symbol a particular database or library catalog uses for truncation, click on a “Search Tips” or “Help” link.


Keyword ____________ Truncated _____________


Keyword ____________ Truncated _____________


Keyword ____________ Truncated _____________









Look for additional search terms in books and journal articles you find. Check:


  • Titles


  • Abstracts


  • Bibliographies


  • Subject terms in library catalogs or databases