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Humanities Research Paper Ideas

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


 __ Groupof 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)


__ Themein 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. Keep the following points in mind:

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):

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

  •  islam encyclopedias
  • world war i 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
  • Moral and ethical aspects


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
  • core journals in the field
  • archival and rare-books collections


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 _____________



We will demonstrate the above strategies in class.



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

  • Subject terms in library catalogs or databases


Writing a research paper even though may seem challenging is a substantial part of everyday student life. You are required to write at least one research paper in a semester for the majority of the subjects. Do not underestimate research projects, as they demand a huge effort and a lot of time from you. Nevertheless, do not let your research paper assignment give you anxiety and influence your overall studies. To minimize worries and inconsistencies while working on the research paper you must be sure in your research paper topic. There are times when you are assigned to the topic but more frequently, you will have to create a topic by yourself. The whole research should be built around or from the topic. In order to choose an interesting topic, which will demonstrate your best talents, you should keep reading.

How to select the best research paper topic?

When choosing your research paper topic, you need to make sure it is neither boring nor worn out. An interesting innovative topic will intrigue the readers and motivate them to read your whole research. But if you don’t know how to create a topic on your own, use help of writers in topic creation.There are some things to consider when selecting an appropriate topic:


There is no secret that you will not be able to write a good insightful research paper if you are not interested in the subject overall and in the topic in particular. If on the other hand the topic is linked to the field of your interest, you may consider yourself lucky. It would be easier to explore the theme and write about it. You may even find some additional resources on your computer or I cloud service for the topic, which excites you. If you enjoy science, you are sure to talk non-stop about it. The same goes for writing.


You need to be sure to understand everything clearly when you choose an essay topic. Do not hesitate to ask questions if there are some unclear points. The more you understand the simpler it is for you to write a successful research paper. If the indistinct issues are still at large, it is advisable to leave this topic be and simply select another one. You need to show the readers that you master of the topic and not a confused newbie who does not know what he or she is talking about.


You need to understand completely that you are not writing a descriptive essay. A research paper is an accurate and thorough work, which is based on facts details. You cannot add watery text about anything into the paper. Your statement should be supported with examples or reference other profound research and academical works.


This advice may seem dull if you are working on historical paper. How innovative can you get discussing French revolution or Perl Harbor? However, an innovative approach can give you the edge among other students. A topic should address the matter from a different and surprising perspective. With a deep investigation, you may even find the unknown until now facts that can blow your readers’ minds. This approach will intrigue your readers and will make research paper stand out.




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