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Sociology

Where do I start?

So you've been assigned a paper and you don't know where to start. Before beginning, it's important to remember that research is a process.

Image of The Research Process

Searching Tips and Tricks

Analyze the Assignment

The first step is to analyze the assignment. Professors generally outline exactly what they are looking for in an assignment. What kind of assignment is it? Knowing this will help determine the types of information you will need. The following chart lists three common types of assignments and words commonly used in their descriptions.

Image of types of assignments

After reading your assignment carefully, if you still have questions about your professor's expectations, you should ask for clarification.

 

Select a Topic

For many, this may be one of the more difficult parts of the assignment. Although this is only the second step in the research process, your topic selection will affect every other step.

You should choose a topic that interests you since you'll be spending a lot of time with it. Generally speaking, it's much easier to do research on topics you enjoy learning about, and know something about already. Even if your professor assigns you a topic, you can choose an aspect of that topic that interests you.  The topic of "gay marriage," discussed above, can be discussed from a historical, psychological, economic, and even medical perspective.

If you're struggling with selecting a topic, ask your professor or a librarian for help.

 

Find Background Information

After choosing a topic, you'll begin formulating a thesis statement. If you are unfamiliar with your topic, you may need to research background information before you can develop a strong thesis statement. Background information can come in many forms. You may hear a librarian or professor refer to the sources that contain this kind of information as reference books.

How can background information help you?

  • Identify key names, dates, events, issues, concepts, and terms associated with the topic
  • May include bibliographies that will point you to more sources

Examples of background information sources:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Dictionaries
  • Biographical Sources
  • Handbooks
  • Statistical Sources

If you're unsure which type of source will be most useful for finding background information on your topic, a reference librarian can help you.

 

Refine the Topic

After you conduct some background research, you should be able to refine your topic. Narrowing your topic will help  give your paper precision. For example, writing a paper about gay marriage will often be too broad a topic. What about gay marriage interests you?

Here are some questions to ask that may help narrow your topic. The gay marriage topic is continued in the following examples:

Who? Are there particular people you could focus on to narrow your topic?

Example: How did Edith Windsor impact the gay marriage debate?

What? What key concepts and themes arose from your background research?

Example: What are the advantages and disadvantages for a state's government if gay marriage is legalized?

Where? Can you narrow your topic geographically?

Example: How do Nebraskans feel about legalizing gay marriage?

When? Can you narrow your topic to a particular time period or era?

Example: How have Americans' attitudes towards gay marriage changed from the 1990s to today?

 

Librarians can help you refine your topic. If you're feeling stuck, contact a librarian for help

How do I evaluate what I have found?

The Five Ws

You already know that information comes in a variety of formats, but how do you know if the information presented in a source is accurate? There is no easy way to do this, because there is no single format that is guaranteed to be accurate, and quality information can be found across all formats. After you find a source, you will have to carefully evaluate it to see if its contents are accurate and useful for your assignment.

Take a moment to think about how you evaluate new information in your everyday life. When you encounter new information, what makes it believable? You probably consider what form the information takes, where the information is coming from, who the author or creator is, and when and why the information was published. All of these details are important. The Five W’s are a mnemonic device that can help you remember the essential criteria for evaluating a source. The following chart explains the criteria and the important questions to ask when evaluating an information source. 

 

                                                                        The 5 Ws

 

Who?

  • Who is the author? 
  • Does their education or experience qualify them as an authority on your topic? 
  • If the author is an institution or organization, what is its stated mission?

What?

  • What information is provided by this source?
  • Is it relevant and appropriate for your research need? 
  • How will you use the information for your assignment?

Where?

  • Where does the information appear?
  • Is it from a book, a journal, the news media, or some other type of source? 
  • Does the scope, depth, and timeliness of the source suit your need?
  • Does the source offer news and opinion, or research and scholarship?

When?

  • When was the source published or updated?
  • Is the information provided the most current available?
  • If the source is not recent, does it still provide historical context?

Why?

  • Why has the source been produced?
  • Is the purpose to sell, persuade, entertain, or inform?
  • Is it written for professionals or the general public?
  • Does it show any bias or omissions?