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REL C402 Religion Illness and Healing

Guide for students in Prof. Brown's C402: Religion, Illness, and Healing class

Selecting and Narrowing a Topic

When starting out on your research, it is important to choose a research topic that is not only of interest to you, but can also be covered effectively in the space that you have available. You may not know right away what your research question is - that's okay! Start out with a broad topic, then conduct some background research to explore possibilities and narrow your topic to something more manageable.    

Choose an interesting general topic. If you’re interested in your topic, others probably will be too! And your research will be a lot more fun. Once you have a general topic of interest, you can begin to explore more focused areas within that broad topic. 

Gather background information. Do a few quick searches in OneSearch@IU or in other relevant sources. See what other researchers have already written to help narrow your focus. 

  • What subtopics relate to the broader topic? 
  • What questions do these sources raise?
  • What piques your interest? What might you like to say about the topic? 

Consider your audience. Who would be interested in this issue? For whom are you writing? 

Adapted from: George Mason University Writing Center. (2008). How to write a research question. Retrieved from 

From Topic to Research Question

Once you have done some background research and narrowed down your topic, you can begin to turn that topic into a research question that you will attempt to answer in the course of your research. 

Keep in mind that your question may change as you gather more information and as you write. However, having some sense of your direction can help you evaluate sources and identify relevant information throughout your research process. 

Explore questions.

  • Ask open-ended “how” and “why” questions about your general topic.
  • Consider the “so what?” of your topic. Why does this topic matter to you? Why should it matter to others?

Evaluate your research question. Use the following to determine if any of the questions you generated would be appropriate and workable for your assignment. 

  • Is your question clear? Do you have a specific aspect of your general topic that you are going to explore further? 
  • Is your question focused? Will you be able to cover the topic adequately in the space available? 
  • Is your question sufficiently complex? (cannot be answered with a simple yes/no response, requires research and analysis)

Hypothesize. Once you have developed your research question, consider how you will attempt to answer or address it. 

  • If you are making an argument, what will you say?
  • Why does your argument matter?
  • What kinds of sources will you need in order to support your argument?
  • How might others challenge your argument?

Adapted from: George Mason University Writing Center. (2008). How to write a research question. Retrieved from

Sample Research Questions

A good research question is clear, focused, and has an appropriate level of complexity. Developing a strong question is a process, so you will likely refine your question as you continue to research and to develop your ideas.  


Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?

Clear: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook?


Unfocused: What is the effect on the environment from global warming?

Focused: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in Antarctica?

Simple vs Complex

Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?

Appropriately Complex:  What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?

Adapted from: George Mason University Writing Center. (2008). How to write a research question. Retrieved from

General Online Reference Sources

Reference sources like dictionaries and encylopedias provide general information about various subjects. They also include definitions that may help you break down your topic and understand it better. Sources includes in these entries can be springboards for more in-depth research.

A note on citation: Reference sources are generally not cited since they usually consist of common knowledge (e.g. who was the first United States President).  But if you're unsure whether to cite something it's best to do so. Specific pieces of information and direct quotes should always be cited. 

Why Use References Sources

Reference sources are a great place to begin your research. They can help you:

  • gain an overview of a topic

  • explore potential research areas

  • identify key issues, publications, or authors in your research area

From here, you can narrow your search topic and look at more specialized sources.