Skip to main content

PAM 3120 / SOC 3150: Research Design, Policy and Practice (Fall 2014): Understanding your topic

Explore Your Topic and Get an Overview

In order to determine appropriate search terms that will effectively capture the body of literature on your topic, you must first have a background knowledge of the topic.  So the first step, before commencing the lit review, is to find some background material.  You can use sources like encyclopedias, review articles, and books to gain a better understanding of the topic.  See the boxes below for where to find these sources.

Library Catalog


The Cornell University Library Catalog allows you to search for materials across the many libraries that make up Cornell University Library.

You can search by keywords, title, author or call number using the drop-down menu to the right of the search box.

The results page will list Cornell holdings and will be sorted by relevance by default.  You can sort by year, author and title using the drop-down menu in the upper right-hand corner of the search results. 

You can search the holdings of libraries worldwide by choosing "Library Worldwide" under the Expand your search menu on the left side.  Consider Interlibrary Loan or Borrow Direct for access to non-Cornell holdings.

  1. To do a basic book search, go to the catalog and enter your search terms in the main search box. First do a very general keyword search for your subject.
  2. Using the choices in the lefthand column, narow your search to books (under Format).
  3. When you find anything useful look at the record and find the subject terms.  By clicking on these terms you can find all holding about that particular subject.
  4. You can also use the links on the side to find books in certain date ranges or languages.

More catalog search tips

Review Articles

Review articles are scholarly articles that describe and summarize a body of research or knowledge on a particular topic.  These can be useful in getting to know more about a topic and beginning to understand where gaps in the literature exist (i.e., what questions still need to be answered). 

Review articles can be found in the many scholarly research databases available through the library.  See the "Searching the Literature" section of this guide to learn more about the databases that cover topics such as sociology, psychology and public policy.

To find review articles,  do a search in one of these database, for example Web of Science.  Most databases will allow you to refine your search by document type.  Choose 'Reviews' to narrow your search to review articles only.

Note:  Reveiw articles and peer-reviewed articles are not the same!  Peer-reveiw refers to scholarly literature that has gone through a rigorous review and revision process prior to publication.  This can include review articles, but also empirical studies (which are NOT review articles).


In Web of Science:


Examples of relevant articles

Read these articles to gain some background knowledge on parenting education for families of lower socio-economic status.  These articles will help you identify key terms for searching the literature for more recent articles on this topic.

Other Background Sources

Encyclopedias contain useful introductory and overview material on various topics.  Try searching general terms on your topic in the following encyclopedia and e-book collections.

Gale Virtual Library

Sage Reference Online

Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology Online

Other Resources

CQ Electronic Library:

CQ's authoritative and balanced coverage includes information articles on American government, politics, history, public policy, and current affairs.

Web Accessibility Assistance