Performing Background Research

After you have decided on a topic, you may not be very familiar with it. In that case, you will want to dig into some background research to educate yourself and find a way to narrow your focus to be manageable. Here are a few questions to ask as you dig.

  • gray smoke in funnel formationWhat is the history of the issue? How have events affected it?
  • What are the arguments that recur?
  • Which areas of study (e.g., psychology, popular culture studies, religion, science, etc.) have addressed the topic?
  • Who are the major players? People? Countries? Corporations?
  • Which terms, combined with the major search terms you’ve already used, lead you to more detail?

Places to look for background research:

  • Newspapers. You can collect information to pursue for the deep research in traditional, low-tech newspapers. You’ll find several publications around campus, and the library has many more. Be critically evaluative of what you discover!
  • Encyclopedias. Reference resources, like encyclopedias, dictionaries, biographies, etc., can give you a quick introduction to a word, idea, person, entity, or topic. These sources are intended to inform and introduce only and to deliver information that is as unbiased and as balanced as possible.
  • Web searching. Spend some time on the web reading: there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. When you see terminology and other information repeat itself across sites, you’ll know you’re likely on the right track. But be warned: it’s usually even more important to confirm the quality of the information you find on the open web than it is to confirm the quality of what you read in more proprietary sources. Sometimes misinformation spreads faster than the facts, so comparing and contrasting what you discover will lend to the credibility of the information. Though you may use websites, finding an authoritative, academic resource to re-state what you have found will lend authority to your own voice and writing.

Whenever you think about your topic, pay close attention to the issues authors address in your background information. These major subject areas will lead you to databases that have articles on a particular subject. Think about the following:

  • How can I distill the issues and their questions into one- or two-word concepts? Are there significant recurring terms or phrases?