Focus on Research| How to Begin Researching a Topic PART TWO

In Part One of this post I outlined the ideal sequence for locating sources for a university  research paper, emphasizing the importance of accessing peer-reviewed and verifiable sources of scholarly information ahead of the typical Internet search that so many students erroneously begin with. I want to stress here again that Wikipedia is very useful for a general overview or "taste" of a subject area ahead of scholarly research, but should be used with caution and never replace a solid search effort.

In this post I will discuss more specifically how to identify and focus research on a topic, providing some useful tools to refine and pinpoint your efforts while researching library databases.

Dada is the subject of research and the topic I choose will narrow the research focus

Dada is the subject of research and the topic I choose will narrow the research focus


A good topic will fit within the boundaries of the subject and not be too general or too specific. First, make sure to read over the assignment instructions very carefully and highlight the specific areas that your final paper must cover. Note any restrictions or parameters for the paper (for example: topic must be related to Twentieth Century, cannot include artists already discussed in class, must utilize readings discussed in class etc...). Also, make sure to locate the main point/reason that the professor is assigning the paper.  This is a critical step when formulating a topic question that will eventually lead to your thesis or core argument in the paper. With art and film history and most visual culture and performing arts research papers, you will almost always need to consider the relationship between individual producers/artists and their body of work (art objects, films, performances, images etc...). Here it is useful to start thinking about which individual producers/works might interest you.

Using the Dada research example I started with in Part A, you could approach a topic in the following ways once you have a general overview of the subject area you are interested in (more variations exist of course, but make sure to think about how you might proceed as you begin formulating your topic):

  1. comparing/contrasting different artists/producers  (i.e. the work of one Dada artist compared to the work of another);
  2. consider one body of work on its own (i.e. studying the development of Marcel Duchamp's art over time);
  3. consider a larger category of producers/works through their distinguishing features/theories (i.e. studying the readymades/theory of art of Marcel Duchamp as they relate to the category of readymades/theory of art of other artists);
  4. consider a common theme/theory/shared concern that is reflected in one area of study (i.e. looking at the theme of the "everyday" as it emerges in the Dada movement)


Marcel Duchamp,  Fountain  (1917)

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)

You could pick one work of art (such as Duchamp's Fountain (1917) and think about how it has influenced other related works. The next step in the process is creating a topic question (or questions if you want to test a few ideas) that pose a relevant and important question that can be answered in your paper. At the beginning of the research process, this question will also help guide your efforts towards the right sources and begin to focus your approach. Also, this key step will prevent you from writing a merely descriptive paper that has no clear argument.  In other words, the answer to your topic question will help create your argument/thesis when you begin the writing process.

Sample topic questions based on my Dada example noted above could include:

  1. What are the similarities and differences between Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara as Dada practitioners? (here I would likely pick 1-2 works of each to compare and contrast)
  2. How did the work of Marcel Duchamp transform from his earlier years living in France to his later works created in the United States? (here I would chose 3-4 works to discuss)
  3. How does Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) influence the work of other artist’s producing readymades in the twentieth century? (here I would pick 3-4 artists and an example of their readymades to compare and contrast)
  4. How does the theme of the "everyday" emerge in relationship to the work of Dada artists? (here I would pick 3-4 artists and an example of their art to compare and contrast)


Once you have your topic question(s) formulated, you can test your topic through library catalogue and journal database searches at the library. Make sure to extract key words for your search. In my example, “Dada”, “Marcel Duchamp” , and “readymade” are obvious first picks.

You could simply begin by entering each of these terms separately into a database to generate materials (remember to use quotations around phrases or names).  If however you are finding too much information and too many sources, narrow your topic by using Boolean Operators such as AND, OR and NOT to fine-tune search results in library catalogues and databases (some special databases also let you refine the search through checking boxes—make sure to look for these functions on your chosen database)

For example:

The Boolean Operator AND narrows a search often producing fewer but more relevant results.

  • If I wanted to find information about Dada artworks as they relate to Marcel Duchamp: Dada AND “Marcel Duchamp”

The Boolean Operator OR broadens a search – results contain either term or both terms.

  • If I wanted to find research the Dada movement as it related to more artists: “Marcel Duchamp” OR “Tristan Tzara”  

The Boolean Operator NOT narrows a search – results can contain one term, not the other.

  • If I was not interested in Marcel Duchamp for my topic and was getting too many hits on Dada related to Duchamp:  Dada NOT “Marcel Duchamp”

Truncating a search term allows you to search for a range of word endings within one search.

  • If I was interested in all variations of the word “Dada” in a search, typing a * after the word Dada (Dada*) will pick up all variations such as “Dadaism” or “Dadaist”

Finally, Phrase (or proximity) searching combines two or more common words together to form a specific and unique search term. Phrase searching allows you to combine words so that your search only produces results where the words are next to each other in the order you have specified.

  • The phrase search “Marcel Duchamp readymade” for example, if you are looking for information on that particular category of Duchamp’s work, will produce more relevant results than a search using the same search terms such as: “Marcel Duchamp” AND readymade.