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ANT 160 / ANT 220 Cultural Anthropology and Diversity: How to Identify a Topic

Developing a Research Topic

Developing a Research Topic will give you insight into the process of what makes a good research topic and how it often evolves over the course of a project.

Length: 1:16

Explore Your Topic

Before beginning in-depth research it might be helpful to do a little initial exploration of your topic just to see what is or is not already out there.  A quick search of the Libraries' catalog or a periodical database will give you an idea of how much has actually been published on your topic.  If you get way too many search results you can begin to think about how to make your search more specific.  If you get too few results, you will need to think of strategies to broaden your search and increase your results. 

Exploring your topic in reference sources can help jump start your research too.  Reference sources are authoritative works that are usually meant to be read for specific answers or information rather than cover-to-cover.  Some of the most common reference sources are dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauri, directories, almanacs, handbooks and bibliographies. 

Reference sources can provide the following about a topic you might be exploring:

  • Background information
  • Brief, factual overviews
  • Information about important dates, events, and people associated with the topic
  • Terminology and definitions of terms
  • Articles written by authors with expertise on your topic
  • A list of further readings you can use as a springboard for your research.

Specialized reference sources can also help you develop your research outline--look at the table of contents headings and subheadings. 

Explore your topic in the following online reference tools and collections.

Best Bets for ANT 160 Research

Using Boolean Operators

AND only returns search results that contain both keywords - A search for "amphibian" AND "pollution" includes only results that contain both keywords


OR returns results that include either keyword - A search for "amphibian" OR "pollution" includes results with either of those keywords


NOT excludes one or more of your keywords -  - A search for "amphibian" NOT "pollution" will include results that contain the keyword “amphibian” but not "pollution"

Search Statements

Whether you are using Google, the Libraries catalog or a commercial periodical database, in order to retrieve a manageable set of relevant search results, you must develop a search statement or search query the database search software can recognize and execute. 

Most databases allow you to combine search terms with Boolean operators.  Don't let the fancy term scare you.  All it means is combining the search terms with AND or OR or NOT or some combination of these operators.

The important thing about Boolean operators is how they are interpreted by the search software. 

AND combines terms-all specified terms must be present for the article/citation to be retrieved. This operator narrows a search.  Example:   dogs and cats

OR creates sets of similar terms (or synonyms). This operator broadens a search.
Example:  colleges or universities or "higher education"

NOT eliminates a term from the search. (Use with caution.) Example:   animals  not  horses

Selecting Search Terms

Selecting Search Terms is a quick video that helps students understand which terms will best help them find resources related to their topic.

Recommended for: Students


Length: 1:26

Identifying Search Terms

Typing keywords into an online search box is the way most of us begin our search for information on a topic in which we are interested.  Hopefully we have chosen keywords that are unique and important and our search results are appropriate if perhaps too many.  However, there is another way to search which will result in fewer and much more precise search results.  This kind of searching uses predefined words or phrases to find relevant items on the same topic. This is called subject searching.  However, it is not always easy to guess which subject terms (also called descriptors) are used in a particular database and, if you use the wrong subject, your search results could be very disappointing.  So how do you find the appropriate subjects to use for your searches?

1.  Identify those words/phrases that seem most unique and important in describing your research topic and research questions.  Add words from your class note, texts, readings, etc.  Examine several appropriate records from your initial searches in the Libraries' catalog or one of our subscription database.  Look for the subject terms assigned to each record.  Take note of these terms.  What works in one database as an "authorized" heading for the topic will often work in other databases. 

2.  Use the Library of Congress Subject Headings, LCSH to identify appropriate subject terms from the beginning.  This 4-volume set is located in the Young Library Ready Reference collection under LC 26. 7: (Year). The LCSH will identify the correct heading to use, as well as list broader topics, narrower topics, and related topics.  

3.  If an online resource provides a thesaurus/subject list, use it to identify the most appropriate search terms for that particular database or use a print thesaurus for suggestions for synonyms, related terms etc. 

Advantages of keyword searching:

Use "natural language words" to describe your topic.
Searches for these natural language words anywhere in the database-do not need to know authors, titles or subjects to get search results.
Can use jargon, buzz words,  etc and get results.

Disadvantages of keyword searching:

Can retrieve a large number of irrelevant search results.

Advantages of subject searching:

Search results are fewer in number but more relevant than keyword search results. 

Disadvantages of subject searching:

Must use the predefined "controlled vocabulary" for successful searching.

When you search a database and do not get the results you expect, Ask Us.