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Administration of Justice - T. Raber

A guide for ADMJ 1501, 1502, & 1505

Background and Overview of a Topic

It is important to find out what is already known about your topic before moving forward because you may not be aware that your topic has already been researched--and many answers are already known. Here's one strategy for developing a research topic once you have a broad topic in mind:

  • Background research will help you develop your topic and hone or change it in more appropriate ways. Knowing more about your topic's background can help you develop a more effective topic, and therefore, a more interesting research paper. Use subject encyclopedias to learn what is already known about your topic.
  • Brainstorm concepts. Once you think of a broad topic that interests you, try to brainstorm all of the words or concepts you can of that might be related to that topic (and write them down!). For example, if your topic is "Gangs" you might think of the following words and topics in association: female gangs, organized gangs, motorcycle gangs, racial gangs: Black gangs, Mexican gangs, Asian gangs, etc.
  • Develop a research question. Once you have come up with a broad topic and done some background research, you may want to develop a research question, or a question you're going to answer in your paper by doing more, in-depth research.
  • What's your general approach to the topic? Think about some general approaches that may help you further develop your topic: use a historical angle by focusing on a particular time period; a geographical angle, focusing on a particular part of the world; or a sociological angle, focusing on a particular group of people.
  • Start doing some exploratory, in-depth research. As you do more in-depth research, like looking for scholarly articles, books, and other sources to include in your paper, you can, and probably will, modify or refine your topic based on what you find.
  • Research is a dynamic process. Don't be afraid to discover new things and modify or refine your topic.

The topic development process will help you to develop your thesis, which is essentially your proposed answer to your research question. You will then be ready to use the sources you've found, and find more sources in order to support that thesis, or to answer your research question.

Research Topic to Research Question

Usually researchers start out with a broad topic then narrow down to a question. Here are some strategies for generating a good research question.

  • Think about what questions you have or that currently exist about your topic. For example, when researching the local food culture, you could ask "Why do people buy local?"
    • "What specific food items are people more likely to buy local and why?"
    • "What are the economic aspects of buying local? Is it cheaper?
    • "Do people in all socio-economic strata have access to local food?"

The 5 W's

Think about the 5 W’s –who, what, when, where, and why– to help you brainstorm different ways you might narrow your question to be more specific.                                

The Five W criteria can add context to your investigation and turn a topic into a research question.

  • WHO describes an individual or select population you are investigating.
  • WHAT describes a specific aspect or element that directly impacts the WHO.
  • WHEN is a time frame in which you might limit your investigation?
  • WHERE is a geographical location where you might focus. 
  • WHY is the reason why this investigation is important or meaningful. The WHY is not necessarily a part of the final research question but more informative of the scope of the project in general.


Research Question: What effect does alcohol have on college students?