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First, you develop and narrow down your topic -- the general idea of what you're going to be researching. From that, you need to develop your research question, i.e. what is the question you are attempting to answer by doing your research? This, in turn, will form the basis for your paper's thesis (your claim/argument/answer) which you'll explicitly state in your introduction.
Organize Your Brainstorm
While you know the topic you will be researching, bridging the differences in modern American society, you still need to narrow the topic and formulate a specific research question that you will answer. Start with your textbook and go from there!
Another place to get some general topic ideas related to your textbook.
Organize Your Thoughts with a Mind Map
Mind maps are a great tool to help you organize your thoughts and see new information or connections that you might not have previously been aware of. As you develop your mind map, narrow your topic down from a broad topic to a specific research question. You will use this research question, and the keywords you've identified on your mind map, to search the library databases for resources. As you utilize the research databases, continue to fill in information on your mind map to help you see if there are gaps in your research that you need to address.
Free online mind-mapping tool. Use this to develop your topic ideas-- what exactly you are going to focus on, what concepts relate to that topic, what words you can use to craft your search.
Mind Map Process
Start off with your overall central topic: in this example, we're starting with racism. What does racism impact? Education, law enforcement, voting... And what does it look like? White supremacism (though not just that, of course)...
You're trying to accumulate lots of ideas at this point! Big picture. Make connections, and write whatever comes to mind. When you start getting stuck, turn to Google, Credo Reference, and Wikipedia to get more ideas.
Once you've filled out the map of your topic a bit, look at where you have the most ideas: this is probably the strongest aspect of your topic, and what you should focus your research on.
All those other ideas? We're not going to use them. We want to deeply explore one narrow aspect of the big topic, not try to talk about everything to do with the big topic ever. (That's the job of probably a multi-volume book, not a short essay!)
It's important to still go through this process, though, even if we aren't using most of the ideas, because a) we have to see all this to figure out which thing we're targeting, and b) it still gives us context for how we actually understand the overall topic -- everything is connected! Plus, if we decide we hate our chosen topic, we can come back to drawing board and go another direction easily.
This end result of our mind map is the research topic we'd look into further for the paper: how racial gerrymandering affects representation of voters. This is what we research! Based on these ideas, and a bit on our research, we'll figure out questions to ask in that vein (which our research will provide answers for).
Credo Reference: Useful Starting Point for Pre-Research!
Credo is an easy-to-use tool for starting research. Includes materials from over 650 reference books on a variety of topics in higher education, including art, business, history, languages, literature, science, criminal justice, and political science.