UNST 121-123: Forbidden Knowledge

The Research Paper

Step 1: Coming Up with an Area of Interest
Formulating a Research Question
© 2006-2008 Martha J. Bianco, Ph.D.

I.  Overview of Basic Concepts in Research Topic Selection

Your first step is coming up with an area of interest (e.g., cloning).

You will then need to narrow this topic down to several subtopic.  Your goal is to find a topic that is:
Topic Example Reason Improved Example Reason
not overly broad defining human cloning very broad topic to cover in 10 to 15 pages Better: the ethics of human cloning narrower and affords a pro and con position
not overly narrow using genetic marker technology to screen embryos for Tay-Sachs syndrome too specific and technical for an undergraduate paper; requires specializiation Better: the ethical debate about genetic screening broader and affords a pro and con position
not too bland defining genetic screening rather bland (and broad) Better: arguments for and against genetic screening in at-risk populations immediately suggests an argument (pro and con) and is narrow enough for focus
not grounded in beliefs, but rather in evidence human cloning should be banned topic stems from opinion, not objective facts Better: the ethics of human cloning allows author to research and present both sides objectively, allowing for analysis (e.g., breaking arguments up into categories)
not simply a fact-finding mission percentage of at-risk mothers who submit to embryonic genetic testing narrow topic that will lead to a fact-finding mission rather than critical analysis Better: how race, class, and religion are related to at-risk mothers' decision to submit to embryonic genetic testing brings in several variables, affording the author an opportunity to propose theory
not impossible to form into a research question God's attitudes toward cloning "God" is a subjective matter of faith; topics associated with faith-based concepts cannot be empirically researched Better: relationship between people's religiosity and their attitude toward cloning can be directly transformed into an empiral research question (What is the relationship between people's religiosity and attitude toward cloning?), for which data (GSS data or survyes) is accessible

A.    Research Modes:

There are three basic types of research:
  1. exploratory (just trying to find out about something; this is often qualitative in nature, without necessarily a lot of "number crunching"; however, it is always possible that quantitative data may emerge from exploratory research.)
  2. descriptive (describing something, usually with descriptive statistics, such as mean, median, and mode, and with the use of tables and graphs; you will still need to interpret the data and suggest correlations and other relationships)
  3. explanatory (this type of research is more advanced and requires the use of inferential statistics, with a statistical hypothesis; here you may be attempting to explain the relationship between variables and identify causality)
"Triangulation" refers to a research process that involves more than one approach.  You may be likely, for example, to do research that includes both exploratory and descriptive methodologies.

B.    Methodology:

There are six basic types of research methodology:
  1. literature review
    1. primary sources (e.g., court documents, medical records, slave narratives)
    2. secondary sources (e.g., scholarly articles about court cases, medical issues, slavery)
  2. use and analysis of secondary statistics (e.g., Census data, GSS data, etc. -- data someone else collected)
  3. observation (e.g., field work, content analysis)
  4. survey (questionnaires, usually administered to 30 or more people)
  5. interview (focus groups, one-on-one, etc.)
  6. experiment (control group and experimental group; some "treatment" is administered to the experimental group)
Which methodology?

The methodology you use emerges from your research question. But your research question emerges from your initial area of interest or curiosity.

curiosity rightarrow background reading rightarrow narrowing of research area rightarrow more background reading rightarrow
research question
 rightarrow more focused background reading rightarrow identification of methodology

II.    Choose a General Areas of Research Interest

Step A.    First:  Examine the following general subject areas (in bold) and the subtopics within each and identify any that might be of interest.  There may be topics of interest that are not listed here.  Use these lists to help identify a general and then more focused research area.

1.  Controversial science and/or Medicine
2.    Psyche and Soul
3.    Environmental Issues
4.    Privacy, Freedom, and Democracy
5.    "Isms" (classism, sexism, racism)
6.  Message in the Music

Before going on, write down at least two general subject areas from above.  Then, go on to Step B.

Example:  (1) when kids kill and (2)transcending poetry: jazz, rap, and hip-hop

Step B.    Narrow Your Topic

Use either (or both) of the following techniques to help you identify some narrower topics for each of the general subject areas you identified in Step A.  Write down at least two narrower topics for each of the general subject areas from Step A, above.

  1. Go to http://www.lib.pdx.edu/instruction/survivalguide/getstartedmain.html#donthave (type in your odin userid and password).  You should see a listing of Hot Topics links.  Begin exploring one or more of the subtopics from above in the Hot Topics links on the library page.
  2. Skim through the list of General Topic Areasbelow.  Each of these is followed by "starter" readings.  These are, for the most part, scholarly articles that contain a fairly broad overview of the topic and a good list of references from which to develop your reading list.  Researchers build bibliographies through a "snowball" process of reading one thing, which leads to another, and so on.  The pieces below are meant to serve as good launching points for the "snowball" method of bibliography building.  Using your PSU (odin) ID and password, you can access articles immediately and skim through them to help you identify an area of interest.   Many of the topics above can be researched through this section, as well.

Remember: write down at least two narrower topics for both of the general subject areas from Step A.  
Then, go on to No. III, below.

(1) when kids kill

(a)reasons children kill

(b)increasing violence in schools/safety of schools

*these narrower topics came from my following these links, beginning at the PSU Library's Ho tTopics page:
  1. Hot Topics from the University Library at California State University, Long Beach
  2. County College of Morris (NJ) - Hot Topics for Research
  3. Then I scrolled down to School Violence and followed the link at When Kids Kill, http://whyfiles.org/065school_violence/

(2)transcending poetry: jazz, rap, and hip-hop

(a) the different types of messages that jazz, rap, and hip-hop lyrics convey

(b) conflict in hip-hop (racism, sexism, classism)

*these narrower topics came from my following this link, beginning at Message in the Music from the General Topics link on the current page, to the list of "Starter(s)" for that topic, where I found:
  1. Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. "Rap, Black Rage, and Racial Difference." Enculturation 2.2 (Spring 1999)<http://enculturation.gmu.edu/2_2/best-kellner.html>.

III.  From Curiosity to Research Question and Thesis Statement

You will probably need to do a little reading on your four (or so) more narrow topics before deciding which one you want to begin narrowing down into a researchable question and then a thesis statement.  

Do a little reading around your narrowed-down topics from Step B above, and then move on to:

From Curiosity to Research Question: The Thinking and Writing Process, at http://www.marthabianco.com/Courses/Research/idea-to-thesis.pdf

Still need help?  Contact biancom@q7.com.

General Topic Areas
cloning & stem cells eugenics, involuntary sterilization, etc. "isms": racism, sexism, ageism, classism, etc. the mad, the sad, and the evil: the tortured human soul testing & experimentation on human subjects message in the music/beat in the streets globalism & imperialism film and reality

Cloning and Stem Cell Research (Dangerous / Perilous Knowledge)


Eugenics, Involuntary Sterilization, Etc. (Dangerous / Perilous Knowledge)


"isms" (Racism, Sexist, Classism, Ageism, etc.) (Denied / Prohibited - Unwelcome Knowledge)

A larger number of resources are listed here, because this subject is upcoming next term.  For those who may want to focus on this topic for research, the following resources may help.  Note:  At the present time, this list is misleadingly incomplete, as it contains few, if any, sources on sexual minorities, ageism, the differently abled, or what I will refer to here as "cultural intolerance": that is, intolerance of people with values, religious beliefs, and political views that differ from those of the local majority -- for example, religious conservatives at a public university in Portland, Oregon.  If you are interested in any of these topics, please contact me to discuss how to proceed.

The Tortured Human Soul (Frightening / Fragile Knowledge)

This is not a very complete list.  There are many additional areas besides child abuse that might fall into this category.  Contact me if you are interested in pursuing a particular topic.

Ethics of Testing and Experimentation on Human Subjects (Dangerous / Perilous Knowledge)


Message in the Music/Beat in the Streets (Frail and Unwelcome Knowledge

A larger number of resources are listed here, because this subject is upcoming next term.  For those who may want to focus on this topic for research, the following resources may help.

Globalism and Imperialism (Unwelcome, Dangerous, and Double-Bound Knowledge)


Film* and Reality (Inaccessible, Unattainable, Ambiguous Knowledge)


*The student wishing to engage in a critical analysis of "Literature and Reality" may choose to review appropriate literature and write about those works in the same way that the student writing about film would; the idea here is to discuss how works of art (cinema, literature, poetry, etc.) urge the audience to ask the question, "What is real?"  Note that students wishing to focus on other forms of art (music, poetry, drawing, animé, etc.) may wish to do so under the "Frail and Unwelcome Knowledge" category, which is addressed above in "Message in the Music / Beat in the Streets."  Work with the instructor to modify this topic to fit your needs.

Questions?  Contact Dr. Bianco, anytime!

(c) 2006-2008, Martha J. Bianco, Ph.D.