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Prof. Erhardt-Clohessy - ENG 101 - Social Problems in Contemporary America

Questions to Guide Your Research

From what academic discipline is your topic (it can be interdisciplinary)? i.e., Media Studies, Linguistics, Political Science, Public Health, Psychology, etc.  Are there leading thinkers in this field? i.e. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Ta Nehesi Coates, Alain de Botton, Malcolm Gladwell,  Barbara Ehrenreich, Deborah Tannen, Brene Brown 
Is there a "code" or professional vocabulary around your subject or around the academic discipline in which your subject is often studied? i.e. "social stratification"; "intersectionality"; "case study"
Are there any "case incidents" that would be heavily covered by the media that illustrate your idea. e.g. Colin Kaepernick; Stoneman Douglas High
Who is studying this subject? Are there key studies? Does the field have cornerstone thinkers? e.g., "The marshmallow test"; ACEs research; "Nurses Study"
Is there a conflict or a controversy? If so, what is it how much of a part will it play in your discussion? e.g. evidence of Russian "fake news"
What articles/books (or video documentaries) have there been on this subject in the past several years? (SEE Library Catalog and Films on Demand Collections)
Can you find a reputable piece of journalism that gives you an up-to-date overview on your topic. Some source that will give you leads to the questions above? HINT: Places to look include The New York Times (Weekend and Longer Pieces); Scientific American; The Atlantic; The New Yorker; Christian Science Monitor; Radio Interviews

Developing Research Questions

Types of Research Questions

Academic communication should include an introduction in which your topic and thesis is clearly defined, an analysis of your topic, and a clear conclusion.

Start out by introducing your topic, communicating to your audience why the topic is important, and providing enough background information to allow your audience to understand the analysis that is about to take place. Your introduction is also the logical place to embed your thesis.

Examples of defining/introductory questions:

What is _________________?

o Why is ____________ an important issue?

o What background information is necessary to understand ______________?

o What are the different types of ____________?

All academic research demands analysis. Some projects lend themselves well to a cause/effect structure ("What caused hip-hop to emerge and what are some of the effects its had on American culture?), while other assignments require a pro/con format ("What are the positive aspects of stem cell research? What are some of the negative implications?). Some projects can easily conform to both modes.

Examples of analytical/body questions:

What are the causes of ________________?

o What are the effects of ________________?

o What are the “pro” arguments about_______________?

o What are the “con” arguments about ______________?

o How can I refute arguments about ______________?

o What is being done about ______________?

Your conclusion allows you to demonstrate to your instructor that you have synthesized the information you found and clearly answered your thesis question (informative projects) or effectively proven your thesis statement (persuasive/argumentative assignments).

Examples of concluding questions:

o What do I think should be done about ________________?

Based on my research what do I think about ________________ and why



  • Too many different ideas:

EG "Race Relations in the US" - Issues of Crime, Violence, Death, Unequal access to education/resources, Interpersonal Issues; "White Privilege"; Micro aggressions; Representation in the Arts, Media (Asian Representation in film), etc. See

  • ‚ÄčToo many search engine results, i.e., over tens of thousands. 
  • You are finding your writing to be general, not specific, banal, and even uninteresting!


Here are some lenses or aspects you can look at to narrow the topic:  

  • Theoretical approach: Limit your topic to a particular prevailing theory or compare two theories about the issue. For example, if your topic concerns Racism, consider the recent discussion/Theory of "Microaggressions", white privilege, unconscious bias, or covert versus overt racism. 

  • Aspect or sub-area: Consider only one piece of the subject. For example, for childhood health, consider gov't regulation of school lunches, or preventative programs for LGBT youth (in light of ACE research). 

  • Time: Limit the time span you examine. For example, for school violence, track the changes in gun legislation against the rise of school shootings in the 2000s. You can also compare two eras in which a factor was different, i.e. pre- and post social media. 

  • Population group: Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group. For example, gender and hiring practices in healthcare environments. 

  • Geographical location: A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue. For example, life skills education in the American South or in NYS educational systems. 


Your topic is too specific and yields very little or no information. 

  • Your topic is too specific. Generalize what you are looking for. For example: if your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, Africa, broaden your topic by generalizing to all ethnic groups in Ghana or in West Africa.
  • Your topic is too new for anything substantive to have been written. If you're researching a recently breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news media, consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively.
  • You have not checked enough databases for information. Use the Library catalog to find other databases in your subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective. Also, use excellent searching techniques to ensure you are getting the most out of every database.
  • You are using less common words or too much jargon to describe your topic. Use a thesaurus to find other terms to represent your topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is expressed in these materials. When you find citations in an article database, see how the topic is expressed by experts in the field.


REMEMBER! You are not married to the research question you write now. It can evolve. Once you have narrowed or expanded it, it still interesting to you? 

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