How to Narrow a Research Topic

May 2017

Perhaps the greatest challenge for students in history research courses is to define a topic of an appropriate breadth. Occasionally, a student may start with a topic that is too specific, but far more commonly, students begin with a broad interest in a subject that is too vast to be explored in weeks or months.

This is not a bad thing. Historians care deeply about the biggest questions in their field. For historians of the United States, these include such matters as how the American state transformed from the one envisioned by the Constitution of 1787 to today’s more powerful federal government, how American understandings of gender and sexuality evolved over centuries, and even “why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

But all historians must define questions that they can answer in the finite time available to them, whether that’s a university semester, the years allotted to a dissertation, or even one’s entire lifetime. A good example of this process is seen in Carolyn M. Goldstein, “From Service to Sales: Home Economics in Light and Power, 1920–1940,” Technology and Culture 38 (January 1997): 121–52. Goldstein takes on profound questions about the relationship between gender and technology, yet she also tells a discrete story in fewer than 9,000 words. She does so by carefully delineating the boundaries of her narrative.

Ask big questions

Goldstein does not shy away from big questions. The research she presents in her article was part of a longer history of the work of home economists, which she began as her dissertation and published in 2012 as Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America. In that book version, she explains that she wanted to understand the “formation of modern consumer society” and “three interrelated historical processes: (1) technological change in the home and the rise of a new kind of consumer market for household goods; (2) the changing role of the state in relation to consumer capitalism; and (3) the cultural influence of gender ideology and the central role of women in the first two processes.”

Her article contributes to other conversations as well. Most obviously, it appeared as part of Technology and Culture’s 1997 special issue on gender analysis and the history of technology, whose editors sought “to expose some of the fundamental dynamics of modern industrial society.” And in the article itself, Goldstein explains how her work contributes to previous scholarship on gender roles and the gas and electric industries.

Yet in this particular essay she was not trying to tell the whole story of home economics, much less the gender dynamics of modern industrial or consumer society. Her challenge, then, was to craft a relatively small story that helps us understand bigger ones.

Choose your characters

The quickest way to narrow a topic is to determine whose story you will tell. The diffusion of gas and electric appliances between the world wars is, by itself, too amorphous. What makes Goldstein’s project manageable is her focus on home economists. Goldstein introduces one of these home economists, Ada Bessie Swann, in her opening sentence, and frequently sprinkles the term “home economists” throughout the article, especially in topic sentences. Goldstein also clearly identifies her people in her thesis statement:

Generations of scholars associated the realms of production and consumption with men and women, respectively. They interpreted men as part of the public sphere and women as tied exclusively to the private. Yet in recent years, historians of women have found so much evidence of men and women crossing these supposedly rigid boundaries that they have called into question the entire “separate spheres” concept. As a group of female technical professionals operating between the realms of production and consumption, home economists used their expertise about consumption and new domestic technologies in ways that similarly challenge interpretations of producers and consumers, men and women, as distinct communities shaped by rigid, hierarchical power relations. Rather than forcing a dismissal of these categories, however, the paradoxical and ironic nature of home economists’ experience leads to an exploration of the complex ways in which gender shaped the very categories of production and consumption themselves. By pinpointing women as actors in the social process of domesticating new technologies, we learn that the two realms were not fixed, and that the story of the production, marketing, and consumption of new domestic technologies is a story of constant interplay between masculinity and femininity, factory and home, public and private. (Emphasis added.)

Note how this fits the Thesis Statement Template: Why did Americans adopt new domestic technologies? Generations of scholars interpreted men as part of the public sphere and women as tied exclusively to the private, but in fact home economists operated between the realms of production and consumption, showing the constant interplay between masculinity and femininity, factory and home, public and private.

The focus would be even clearer had Goldstein put “home economists,” rather than “home economics,” in the subtitle of her article, as she does in the subtitle of her book.

Imagine how this focus on home economists helped Goldstein prioritize her research. She could scan headlines and text for references to them, and perhaps do database searches for them as well. It’s not that she would be uninterested in the views of, say, electric company executives. Indeed, eight paragraphs of her article (126–131) feature utility company managers as agents, so Goldstein had to understand their motives. But no historian can read every relevant text, and knowing which people you care about most allows you to budget your time.

Match sources to characters

Knowing whom you are looking for in history can tell you what you are looking for in an archive. In an ideal world, you would be able to find the voices of all your main characters directly, in the form of letters, diaries, memoirs, or even the opportunity to interview them. Barring that, you can look for sources in which your people show up frequently. Like many historians of technology, Goldstein does great work with industry publications, especially Electrical Merchandising and Peoples Gas Club News. Whatever your field of interest, look for specialized periodicals that would be more likely to quote your people at length than would be a general interest newspaper. Obviously, for policy history, legislative hearings and debates and official documents are important, while for bottom-up social history, you may need to rely on census data, tax records, and other sources in which relatively powerless people are counted, rather than quoted. Or you can find testimony in a murder trial or riot investigation, some of the rare occasions when someone in power wrote down what a poor person had to say.

You can also reverse the process. If you have an event that interests you, but don’t know who the main players were, you can start by reading in a relevant archive or periodical and find your characters there.

Tell one story

Aristotle advises in his Poetics,

As to that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs a single meter, the plot manifestly ought, as in a tragedy, to be constructed on dramatic principles. It should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It will thus resemble a living organism in all its unity, and produce the pleasure proper to it. It will differ in structure from historical compositions, which of necessity present not a single action, but a single period, and all that happened within that period to one person or to many, little connected together as the events may be. For as the sea-fight at Salamis and the battle with the Carthaginians in Sicily took place at the same time, but did not tend to any one result, so in the sequence of events, one thing sometimes follows another, and yet no single result is thereby produced. Such is the practice, we may say, of most poets. Here again, then, as has been already observed, the transcendent excellence of Homer is manifest. He never attempts to make the whole war of Troy the subject of his poem, though that war had a beginning and an end. It would have been too vast a theme, and not easily embraced in a single view. If, again, he had kept it within moderate limits, it must have been over-complicated by the variety of the incidents. As it is, he detaches a single portion, and admits as episodes many events from the general story of the war—such as the Catalogue of the ships and others—thus diversifying the poem.

All honor to Aristotle, but the best histories do not try to narrate “all that happened within that period to one person or to many, little connected together as the events may be.” Instead, like poetic narratives, they concentrate on “a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end,” producing a single result. Just as Homer detaches a single portion of the Trojan War for his poem, Goldstein, in this article, detaches the work of home economists within companies’ home service departments from the larger story of the profession she tells in her book.

Some unities of plots provide neat chronological boundaries. Stories of policy debates, elections, battles, engineering projects, and other events can have relatively clear beginnings, middles, and ends. One of my colleagues, Robert Kreiser, asks his research seminar students to write about a single trial, while another, Cynthia Kierner, has them pick a disaster.

Not all events are so discrete, which is why we have continuing discussions about the periodization of the Progressive Era or the Civil Rights movement. Goldstein’s story features a trend that emerged over two decades. It ends not with an abrupt resolution—such as the passage of a law—but rather with a gradual shift among managers from wanting their home economists to build a market through education to insisting on a more direct sales role. But a gentle beginning, middle, and end can still drive a narrative; a processes as gradual as the evolution of lumber wholesaling can have narrative arcs. if you can take for your subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, you will have an easier time.

Add and subtract

Once you have defined the basic scope of your project, you will be able to add and subtract words with relative ease. In this case, Goldstein offers more detail about cooking lessons (139–140) and lighting advice (144–147) than about other work performed by home economists. Had she been constrained by time or word limits, I imagine she could have shortened these sections. Conversely, writing a book gave Goldstein the opportunity to tell the story of home service departments at significantly greater length, which she uses to add details and examples.

But these are matters of depth, not breadth. (The breadth comes in the other chapters of the book.) And even in the longer versions, Goldstein stays focused on a set of protagonists, the sources that allow her to tell their story, and the main action of her narrative. If you can define these three elements, you have control.