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SPARK: Managing a Topic

A resource for students wanting to improve their academic and research skills.

Managing a Topic

In some cases, your topic and questions may be too broad to be handled successfully within the length limits of a written assignment. You will need a strategy for narrowing the focus to something more manageable.

On the other hand, some topics and questions may prove too narrow and focused for an assignment, and you need to consider ways to broaden the topic.

It is not always easy to determine if a topic is too broad or too narrow for a specific assignment. Consult with your instructor if you are unsure.

Review the sections below to review common strategies for narrowing or broadening topics. Also review Nutshelling located in Resources for Choosing a Topic.


When: Time period


Focusing on a specific time period is a useful strategy for narrowing some topics. Below are examples of issues that you might narrow by time period to make them more manageable.

For example:

1. Development of women’s rights in Canada

    Consider narrowing by time:

  • prior to World War I
  • in the 1960s
  • post-1980

2. Worker unionization in the United States

    Consider narrowing by time:

  • in the 1960s
  • post-1980

For a topic with time constraints that are too narrow, you might consider broadening the time period.


What: Aspects or facets of a particular topic


Most issues/topics have several aspects or facets. To develop a manageable topic, consider narrowing to one or two specific aspects. Below are examples for particular issues:

Post-secondary Education:

  • Pedagogical approaches
  • Employment opportunities for graduates
  • Administrative organization of universities

Parliamentary Democracy in Canada:

  • House of Commons
  • Senate
  • Powers reserved by the executive
  • First-past-the-post system

You may consider including additional aspects or facets of an issue in order to broaden your topic.


Where: Geographic region/country


Similar to considering a specific time period, a geographic focus can help narrow a topic. Below are examples of issues that one might narrow by geographic area to make them more manageable.

For example:

1. Indigenous/aboriginal self-determination

    Consider narrowing by geographic region:

  • in Canada
  • in Australia

2. Environmental risks of oil exploration

    Consider narrowing by geographic region:

  • below the ocean bed (e.g., North Sea)
  • from sedimentary deposits (e.g., Alberta oil sands)

You may broaden a topic by removing specific regional or country parameters or adding additional ones. For example, to broaden the topic “harm reduction drug strategies for youth in Regina”, expand the geographic aspect to include other Canadian urban centres.


Who: Key groups, thinkers, and institutions


For a particular issue, you may want to limit your consideration to a small number of key groups, thinkers or institutions, and their role or influence on a particular issue. For example, the following examples of “who” can help narrow a particular issue into a more workable topic:

Delivery of aid for developing countries:

  • Influence of International Monetary Fund
  • Role of Doctors Without Borders
  • Impact on women

Concept of archetypes:

  • Northrop Frye
  • Carl Jung
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss

To broaden the topic consider the roles played by multiple institutions and individuals. How might these relate to one another or conflict? What comparisons in approach and effect can be made?


Why: Disciplinary perspectives and theoretical lenses


Consider employing a particular disciplinary perspective or theory from which to approach your topic. Keep in mind the themes of the course for which you are writing the assignment and the perspectives or theoretical approaches addressed in class.

Scholars from different disciplines will often approach the same issue quite differently. Consider the issue “income inequality”. Some possible topics that may follow from different disciplinary perspectives include:

  • Economics: relationship between income distribution and economic growth
  • Sociology: relationship between income inequality and population health
  • Political Science: relationship between income inequality and democratic transparency

It can also be useful to imagine what questions different groups connected to the issue might pose. For example, consider the range of questions that might be asked about funding for post-secondary education:

  • Government: how to increase access to post-secondary education for economically marginalized students without increasing budgets?
  • Student: how can I access sufficient funding while going to school full time?
  • Teacher: what effect do larger class sizes have on the ability to engage in active learning techniques in the classroom?