The list of suitable topics is wide-ranging. Browse through subject or topic searches on online databases such as Academic Search Complete to get a sense of the extensive possibilities.
However, contestants should AVOID the following three pitfalls regularly found in student topic choices:
1. POLARIZING, SENSATIONAL TOPICS
Choose topics from tabloid magazines or websites featuring one-sided source information such as “legalization of marijuana.” Starting research on this kind of footing often generates an opinion piece or argumentative essay which disposes the author to consider one side or the other as though a debate needs to be won.
Choose evidence-based topics such as “elasticity of cannabis demand” based on existing research literature in one or more social science disciplines. Choose a topic or angle of inquiry that provokes scientific investigation, not tabloid rhetoric.
A research proposal is not a journalistic or tabloid account of a chosen topic but rather a systematic interrogation of a research question. Such questions are grounded in the research literature and are evaluated in light of current scientific knowledge.
Human trafficking, sports violence, ethnic cleansing and workplace discrimination are examples of topics that generate viable problem-based research questions.
- One of many “problems” tackled by researchers on the topic of human trafficking, for instance, is the relative ineffectiveness of counter-trafficking programs.
- Questions such as “What is being done to better train law enforcement officials on intervention and prevention?” or “Why are victims of human trafficking not getting the protection offered by police or counter-trafficking programs?” or “What are the statistics about this largely hidden crime not telling us?” beg for answers.
HOW? Create questions from gaps, inconsistencies and disagreements in the literature. Take cues from the conclusions in research papers where there are usually suggestions for further research.
2. TOPICS NOT DIRECTLY RELEVANT TO SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH
Choose topics that are exclusively based in non-social science fields of health, medicine or the pure sciences such as chemistry or physics.
“High mortality rates of captive cetaceans (orca and dolphin)” is a marine biology topic, not a social science topic.
Choose topics where social science relevance is clearly evident or where a social scientific perspective can be adopted.
Instead of the marine biology topic of “high mortality rates of captive cetaceans,” look at captive cetaceans from an anthropological perspective in terms of the educational value to humans of aquatic park amusements or from a business perspective in terms of aquatic cetacean park management or marketing.
This adjustment in perspective corrects what otherwise would be a pure science topic to a viable social science topic.
HOW? Search an online academic database from a number of different discipline perspectives; try at least three. A discipline name such as psychology, political science, business, economics, geography, anthropology or the like should be placed as a search term along with the topic.
3. TOPICS THAT ARE UNMANAGEABLE
Choose topics that are broad in scope (“causes of genocide”) or cause-effect (“long-term effects of cannabis consumption”) in orientation.
These require elaborate and powerful research designs such as replicable, randomized, controlled experiments that are well beyond the reach of a student.
Choose topics that lend themselves to feasible and ethically viable research plans typically conducted in college and university social science courses.
Included in many course syllabi:
- primary document analysis
- secondary analysis
- content analysis
A few examples of topics that are not too broad in scope are:
- “use of social media in the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian genocide”
- “college cannabis myths”
- “victim-blaming in news coverage of intimate partner violence”
Broad topic areas and powerful experimental designs are not feasible for college student research assignments, whereas focused topic areas, secondary and content analyses and interviews are actively encouraged and more ethically viable.
HOW? Consult your methods textbooks, examine the Decision Circuit and speak to your teacher to determine which research designs are recommended for student research projects at your level. Also, recall techniques that you have already used such as interviews or secondary analysis. Then cross-reference these with existing study designs in the required subject area.