Figuring out Your Research Topic
- Resources Project Guides
This is, of course, difficult if you don’t have much of a background in the field. And it’s doubly tricky when you have a limited amount of time (like a single university term) to carry out your project. You’ll need to think very carefully and strategically.
First, you might review as much linguistics research as you can. The field is extremely diverse. Depending on the focus of the specific course you’re taking, your options may include:
Sociolinguistics is the study of language as it is used as a symbolic resource in the navigating and structuring of our social worlds. Research in this area may ask questions related to language and identity, language ideology, and linguistic representation, such as:
- How are social identities performed and constituted through language?
- How is language variation perceived or understood?
- How do language ideologies shape our understandings of ourselves and others?
- How is language variation represented in “staged” performance (like television and film)?
Investigating these kinds of questions may result in studies of individuals or of groups. And researchers may be interested in language’s relationship to large social categories like gender, race, class, and sexuality, as well as regional variation. Increasingly, researchers are interested in intersectionality and the expression and performance of local identities (or communities of practice).
Applied Linguistics is concerned with using research and theory to solve practical problems related to language. Research in this area may ask questions related to the teaching and learning of language, language policy, and language for specific purposes, such as:
- How do students (often, though not exclusively, in SLA contexts) carry out the language-related tasks of school?
- How do students construe the demands of language learning?
- How can teachers most effectively design language-learning tasks?
- How can we understand and facilitate the communicative tasks and events essential to professions like medicine, law, and engineering?
- What have been the effects of particular language policy efforts?
Investigating these kinds of questions may involve the analysis student produced materials, like essays. It might also require classroom observations or perhaps surveys of students or teachers. One might also examine particular kinds of text-types like advertisements or genres in specific professions like business. Or one could explore the public discourse around a specific language policy.
Stylistics and Literary Linguistics are concerned with the poetic, aesthetic, and metaphorical functions of language as it is used (often, though not exclusively) in literature. Research in this area may ask questions related to the practices of individual authors or groups of authors, such as:
- How does a specific set of linguistic features distinguish the work of a particular writer?
- How does a writer use a specific set of features to realize a particular poetic purpose or create a particular kind of meaning?
- What kinds of features distinguish a particular period or genre (like detective fiction)?
- And how might such features relate to a particular meaning-making function or historical context?
Investigating these kinds of questions may involve the study of a single work, of the collected works of an author, or of many authors. Additionally, one might be interested in exploring stylistic features in text-types other than fiction like narrative in social media or reportage.
Pragmatics, Discourse Analysis, and Critical Discourse Analysis are separate but related areas of linguistic inquiry. Both are concerned with the constituents and structures of discourse (like words and phrases) as they are used in context to make meaning. Pragmatics often focuses on the social and genric constraints (like politeness conventions, relative social status, etc.) that shape communicative situations, while discourse analysis may foreground how discourse constructs social meanings, serves rhetorical purposes, or creates subject positions. Critical discourse analysis is particularly interested in the relationship between discourse and the preservation or subversion of power. Research in these areas may ask questions related to language-in-use and its meaning-making functions, such as:
- How do writers express their attitudes toward their assertions and propositional content?
- How do speakers negotiate politeness in a specific social and cultural context?
- How does a text (or group of texts) figure people into particular subject positions?
- How are language patterns in texts implicated in propagating asymmetries of power?
Investigating these kinds of questions may result in a study of spoken language, but it could equally result in a study of Twitter. One might examine a specific feature and interrogate its functions in context or examine how a feature’s use has changed over time. Alternatively, one might start from a contextual function and examine how that function is expressed. Another approach would be to explore how particular kinds of labels attach to groups of people in public discourse.
As you might have noticed by now, linguistics is not only a diverse field (really this is just the tip of the iceberg), many of the areas I have described have intersecting interests and emphases. In addition to the journals that I linked to above, that diversity is evident in some of the more general journals like the Journal of English Linguistics and American Speech.
In addition there are journals that are dedicated to corpus linguistics, which is a methodology that can be used to explore any of the questions that are listed above. These include Corpora, the International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, and the ICAME Journal.
Given all of these potential choices, it is useful to think through the nature of the specific class that this project is for (is it for a general linguistics course? or something more specific?) your own interests, and any skills you may want to develop over the course of the project.
Another important factor may be your interest in and access to particular speakers, communities, or other potential sources of data. Ready access can save valuable time and can also provide insight when it comes time to analyze your data (though we also need to be careful if we have personal relationships with study participants and always follow ethical standards).
These kinds of considerations may help you to narrow your topical area somewhat. In any case, you should review published research looking for:
- research areas that you find compelling
- methodologies that you find useful
- scholars whose work speaks to you and can serve as a model
Reviewing research does not mean that you read everything you come across with great care. Look first at titles and abstracts. If those are compelling, then skim the introduction and conclusion. If those continue to spark your interest, save the article to a folder on your computer. You can go back and read them more thoroughly later.
Use Google Scholar to search for potential interesting articles using appropriate search terms (e.g., gender identity sociolinguistics). If you find something that you like, you can also click on the “Cited by” link at the bottom left of each result and then select “Search within citing articles” to locate other scholarship that has cited that piece. In that way, you can follow a kind of scholarly genealogy.
Another way to find interesting pieces is to go to a journal homepage and look at the list of the most read articles. Many of these are often broadly interesting and more accessible to those less familiar with the discipline.
The idea is to think of linguistics research as an invitation, an opportunity. It is a big tent. And though some quantitative studies, studies of complex syntactic phenomena, and studies of phonetics can seem highly technical and forbidding to the novice, other research is more approachable. Seek out the latter and use it as springboard to follow your own interests. One of the nice things about linguistics is that it is often interdisciplinary. Thus, you can find ways to build from your existing skills and passions.