Choosing a topic
A topic is a place
We embark on research because we want to know more. Any research project can potentially go on forever, and but any project must come to an end, so you have to set limits on what you will study. The topic of a research project is like the setting of a story. It has people, a place, and a time. In fact, that is sort of where the word topic comes from. Topos in Greek means ‘place’. What place will you be going to in your reading of ethnographic writing on your interests?
Finding a topic is a process. We start with something we care about, usually. Issues and interests become topics when we think about who, what, where and when.:
- 'Immigration' is an issue. 'Immigrants coming from Papua New Guinea to Australia to work in the mining industry' is a topic.
- 'Shamans' is an interest. 'Shamanic healers' knowledge about nature in traditional Siberian societies' is a topic. 'Changes in the role of Siberian shamans in the post-Soviet revival of religion' is another kind of topic.
- 'Islam oppresses women' is an opinion. 'Ideas about women and men's roles in the family in Shia Islam in contemporary Lebanon' is a topic.
And remember, this is about setting limits. A clear topic tells you what facts you will be seeking, and what you are not researching too. Brainstorming topics helps here.
In order to make your topics specific, you may actually have to do some preliminary reading on your own in the library (see Booth, Colomb and Williams 2008: 35-40). Look over the reading lists from your classes, especially those that you thought were the most interesting and exciting. These assigned readings can lead you to other, related work on the same topics.
Also, be aware that many things are not topics at all. Academic literature is littered with buzzwords and empty phrases. Phrases like 'Phenomenology of religion' or 'ritual symbols' or 'language ideology' are shorthand terms that scholars use to characterize their analyses. They are used by academics whose work may be very useful for your own research, but these phrases are not topics of research. If you have encountered ideas and concepts you want to learn more about, and you think they are relevant, you need to think about the factual stuff that people apply these ideas and interpretations to. What are the examples that these scholars use? Can you derive a topic from these factual examples?
What’s a good topic?
There are many peculiar and interesting things one can learn about, but we want to go beyond collecting trivia and esoterica or becoming subject-matter experts in a specialized area. We hope to discover new ideas, new reasons, and new explanations. That’s interesting! Ultimately your research paper will be your attempt to argue for your own answer to the question of why.
Anthropology is particularly good at finding interesting topics. We love to look at things that are not just different from what most people know, but also challenge what we assume is normal. That’s important when you think about whether your topic deserves your attention.
In other words, a good topic has a problem. Your investigation will lead to questions that ask why, and when you attempt to answer these question, you get closer to solving the problem.
A problem, in this sense, is a contradiction, a knot, or a puzzle. It’s one of those things that make you go hmmm…. (Things that make you go hmmm…!) It is a set of facts or conditions which seem not to fit. They challenge what you expect you will find. A problem is an obstacle on the road to greater, and eventually complete knowledge of the reasons for things. We can tell a general story of the causes, purposes, functions, or deeper meaning of the world and special parts of the world. But as we move along the empirical terrain of facts in a specific topic, we will encounter things we do not expect, things that block the passage along the road or interrupt the general explanatory narrative we want to tell. To remove this obstacle, we must first acknowledge that it is an obstacle, and then ask why it is there. Our answers can add to and improve the general understanding of our topic. Answers to questions about problems are attempts to remove the problem and continue on the path, or perhaps a new and better path.
This is, frankly, the only reason to come to lecture in my classes. Lectures are presentations of theoretical explanations, master perspectives that tell you why things are the way they are. But in fact many theories raise more problems than solutions, because real cultures and real lives are so complex. In this class we learn theory to become better acquainted with what scholars agree on as explanations, but also to know the terms of debate for all the stuff they don’t agree on. Which is a lot. These disagreements are, at their root, disputes over different ways to resolve the problem, to clear the obstacle from the path, and continue towards a more complete and more general understanding of the world in the abstract.
So for instance the historian Rodney Stark studies early Christianity (1997). It’s reasonably clear as a topic: The Roman Mediterranean world. But who cares? Stark is interested in why Christianity spread, but there’s more to it than that. Christianity, in retrospect, was highly similar to many other new cults, both Jewish and Egyptian. They all attracted followers from across the Mediterranean. Why was the Jesus movement so successful as opposed to all the others? That’s a problem. It leads him ultimately to the question of why did people convert to Christianity when it seemed to be so marginal, and often treated as subversive? More on questions later. For now, as you read on new topics, watch yourself when you get surprised. Why are you surprised? Have you found a problem? What would you like to ask?
Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. 2008. The Craft of Research, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
C + C Music Factory. 1990. Things That Make You Go Hmmm… Columbia. http://youtu.be/XF2ayWcJfxo.
Stark, Rodney. 1997. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco.