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Mellon Mays Guide to Research

Need help researching in the Social Sciences?

Need help researching in the Social Sciences?

Ask the Social Sciences Teaching and Research Team-- SSTART!

Getting Started

Choosing a topic

The first thing you will need to do, of course, is come up with a research topic. You may already have a very specific topic in mind, or you may have a general idea of what interests you. In either case, it can be enough to begin your research. Very often you will find that your research will mold your topic and you may end up writing about something you had never even considered in the beginning!

If you’re having trouble coming up with a topic, think about what has interested you most in your class so far. What would you like to know more about? Maybe you have a few ideas and can’t narrow it down. That’s ok. You’ll be guided by your research: while you scan, browse, and read, you'll gain a better sense of the important issues surrounding your topic-- and you'll watch your research question come into focus.

Often, the best way to start searching is to use keywords, those words that describe the topic in your mind. You can start off in the main library search box, or Discovery Tool, with a Google-like search of words that seem to fit. It’s usually best to start off with a general search – don’t use too many words that will limit your options. You can narrow down your focus as you go along.

Beginning your search

Where to start? If you don't know much about your research topic, do a bit of background reading. A quick Google search may land you on Wikipedia, one of the places you might go to get a sense of the important ideas, people, organizations, places or events surrounding your topic. You might also consider Credo Reference, a collection of online reference sources, as well as subject-specific encyclopedias that can be found in the search box on the library's home page. Take note of the concepts and keywords you discover as you do your background reading, as they give focus to your research question. Consider keeping research notes or a journal; even a simple list of keywords and helpful resources will offer a springboard for your ideas and save you time.

Using the Library Search Box

Books (in paper and electronic format) and articles are core resources in Social Sciences research. You'll find access to these as well as CDs and DVDs, primary source archival material, subscription information to journals, and access to much of our online journal content. Using the discovery tool to do in-depth and extensive research in our periodical literature is not recommended; for more efficient searching, consider choosing specific databases that index information on your topic.

For more information about using the search box, including tips on how to narrow your search results and find specific kinds of sources, please see Using the Catalog in this LibGuide.

Doing a literature review

The literature review is an important part of researching in the social sciences. Research and the literature review in particular are cyclical processes. There is an art to the sometimes messy, thrilling, and frustrating process of conducting a lit review.
Where do I start? The Research Question
Begin with what you know: what are the parameters of your assignment? Do you have any particular interests in a relevant topic? Has something you're read or talked about in class caught your attention, and you'd like to learn more?
Brainstorm some keywords you know are related to your topic, and start searching. Do a search in the library search box and see what comes up. Scan titles. Do a Google search. Read an encyclopedia article. Get as much background information as you can, taking note of the most important people, places, ideas, events. As you read, take notes-- these will be the building blocks of your future searches.
It's probable your question will change over the course of your reading and research. No worries! If you're unsure about your topic, check with your professor.

Some tips
Throw out a wide net and read, read, read. Consider the number and kinds of sources you'll need. Which citation style should you use? What time period should it cover? Is currency important? What do you need to be aware of related to scholarly versus popular materials?

  • Read widely but selectively.
  • Follow the citation trail -- building on previous research by reviewing bibliographies of articles and books that are close to your interest.
  • Synthesize previous research on the topic.
  • Aim to include both summary and synthesis.
  • Focus on ways to have the body of literature tell its own story. Do not add your own interpretations at this point.
  • Look for patterns and find ways of tying the pieces together.

Where should I look?

  • Databases, journals, books
  • Review articles
  • Organizations
  • Experts
  • Books

How do I know I am done?
One key factor in knowing you are done is that you keep running into the same articles and materials. With no new information being uncovered you can assume you've exhausted your current search and should modify search terms, or perhaps you have reached a point of exhaustion with the available research.

How do I organize my literature review?

  • Identify the organizational structure you want to use: chronologically, thematically, or methodologically
  • Start writing: let the literature tell the story, find the best examples, summarize instead of quote, synthesize by rephrasing (but cite!) in context of your work

More information on Writing a Literature Review (UNC)

Subject Databases

We have hundreds of databases containing journal literature, newspaper articles, images, and much more. How do you know which databases to search?

On the main library page, under Get Help, you’ll see a pop-up list called Find an Online Subject Guide. There’s a guide for every subject area. And because the social sciences are by nature interdisciplinary, if you're researching water resources in Africa, consider databases that cover this complex topic-- perhaps resources in Economics, Political Science, Anthropology, and Sociology, but also Environmental Sciences.

Each guide will list the most useful databases for that particular subject area and you will also find a link to your Subject Librarian, whom you can contact for research help, whether it’s a simple question or an in-depth research consultation. Subject librarians love working with students, so don't be afraid to contact them.

Some social science research guides include: