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Guide to Research and Writing for the Academic Study of Religion

Topic Pyramids

Developing a question begins with choosing a preliminary topic. A preliminary topic is simply a place to begin researching.  The more general your preliminary topic is, the closer it will be to the overarching topic of the class. No matter where your topic falls on the  topic pyramid, remember that you are not trying to come up with a perfect question yet but simply a place to start.

The following are two inverted triangles or "topic pyramids" that illustrate a hierarchy of categories that proceeds from general to specific.


















The broadest level of the topic pyramid will be set for you by the content of the course. How far down the pyramid your initial topic falls often depends on how familiar you already were with the area you have chosen for research. If you had a general interest in sociology, but no specific ideas on what you wanted to research, you might begin at the top of the pyramid and browse through books on the sociology of religion. If you were interested in the ritual theory of Mary Douglas, you might begin by searching for sources by and about Mary Douglas.

Keep in mind that the scope of the pyramid varies. Depending on your research requirements, you may have to go narrower or broader than these examples suggest.


TIP - Be flexible with your topic and pay attention to what is coming up in your research. Sometimes a particular idea is not working but another seems to come up everywhere or a different approach to your topic seems more interesting or more appropriate. As long as it fits the criteria of a good topic, go with the new idea or approach!

Identifying a good research question  is rarely a linear step-by-step process. Sometimes different aspects of research will develop at the same time or certain “steps” will be returned to again and again.