The Problem with Topicism: Why Research Needs to Focus on Problems, Not Just Topics

The Problem with Topicism: Why Research Needs to Focus on Problems, Not Just Topics


In the realm of research, topics are abundant, but problems are what make the process truly engaging and meaningful. Studies that lack a clear intellectual problem often end up being dull and unsatisfying, a phenomenon known as “topicism.” This issue is particularly common in social science research, where studies frequently focus on broad topics without identifying specific puzzles or contradictions to be explained. In this article, we will explore the concept of topicism, its root causes, and the benefits of focusing on problems rather than just topics.

 What is Topicism?

Topicism refers to research studies that aim to cover a broad subject area but lack a concrete intellectual problem to solve. For example, a researcher might choose “ethnic conflict in Africa” as their topic and proceed to gather data about ethnic groups, conflict events, and economic conditions without focusing on a specific question or tension that requires explanation.

As noted by the author, topicism treats research as a process of gathering facts to comprehensively “cover” a subject, similar to painting a wall or filling a blank slate. Without a specific problematic question to answer, research tends to become a dull cataloguing of information.

 The Root of the Problem

 Topicism stems from some common misconceptions about the nature of knowledge and inquiry. Many researchers start from the view that the aim of science is to objectively gather facts about reality and accurately describe the true “essences” of things.

However, the author argues that all observation relies on pre-existing expectations and theories, whether conscious or unconscious. There are no “theory-free” facts waiting to be gathered. Data only acquires meaning in relation to questions and problematic gaps in current knowledge.

 The Method of Problems

 An alternative approach is what the author calls the “method of problems.” This involves focusing research around identifying and resolving concrete intellectual problems. Such problems arise when empirical observations clash with or contradict existing assumptions, expectations, or theories.

Intellectual problems take the form of logical inconsistencies between beliefs about how the world works and observations of how it actually works. It is this feeling that something is amiss or doesn’t add up that drives the search for new explanations and theories that better account for the evidence.

For example, Einstein was troubled by the contradiction between Maxwell’s equations predicting a constant speed of light and the prevailing notion that the speed of light varies depending on the observer’s motion. Resolving this logical inconsistency led him to the theory of relativity.

 Examples of Research Driven by Problems

 The author provides illustrations of research sparked by concrete intellectual problems across the sciences:

  • Alexander Fleming noticed that bacteria wouldn’t grow in petri dishes contaminated by mold. This puzzling observation contradicted the expectation that bacteria should multiply across the gel, leading Fleming to isolate penicillin.
  • Physicists were perplexed by new elementary particles that didn’t fit existing quantum theories, spurring the development of quark theory and new physics.
  • Political theorist Hobbes sought to explain how self-interested individuals would agree to be governed, contradicting the notion that humans are inherently individualistic and freedom-loving.
  • Anthropologists were puzzled by finding democratic self-governance in Swiss communities that lacked features like individual liberty and rational legal authority thought to be pre-conditions for democracy.

In each case, intrigue and effort arise not just from a topic, but from wrestling with concrete problems and logical tensions within current thinking. As the author writes, “it is a problem that gives rise to curiosity, that is, to a feeling that explanation is needed.”

 Topicism in Social Science Research

While the method of problems is standard in the natural sciences, topicism is rampant in the social sciences. Much current research starts from broad topics like “anti-poverty policy,” “health disparities,” or “immigration.” But it fails to focus on specific explanatory problems and tends to involve cataloguing facts or testing half-hearted hypotheses.

He suggests social science methodology courses and textbooks often reinforce topicism by promoting data-driven, hypothesis-testing views of science. They overlook problem-driven inquiry aimed at resolving logical contradictions. Terms like “problem” and “explanation” appear rarely in methods texts, or only in the context of topics or practical issues.

Implications for Better Research

Doing research centered on concrete intellectual problems requires imagination and struggle. Good research problems are challenging to formulate and hold onto. But problem-driven inquiry provides the spark that can lead to exciting new insights and theories.

The author argues that to avoid topicism, we must accept the uncertainty and conflict that comes with challenging existing knowledge. This requires us to leave our intellectual “comfort zones” and expand the horizons of our understanding. Even though it can be chaotic, problem-oriented research helps us stay true to the most essential aim of science – making sense of the world around us.

In conclusion, by shifting the focus from topics to problems, researchers can breathe new life into their work and contribute to a richer understanding of the world. The method of problems offers a path to more engaging, dynamic, and impactful research in all fields of study.


In conclusion, by shifting the focus from topics to problems, researchers can breathe new life into their work and contribute to a richer understanding of the world. The method of problems offers a path to more engaging, dynamic, and impactful research in all fields of study.

This approach has far-reaching implications for research methodology and practice. By embracing problem-driven inquiry, researchers can foster a deeper connection with their work, leading to more meaningful and significant findings. The struggle to formulate and resolve problems can spark creativity and innovation, pushing the boundaries of knowledge in various disciplines.

Furthermore, focusing on problems can help researchers to better engage with the practical implications of their work. By addressing concrete issues and contradictions, researchers can contribute to the development of evidence-based solutions for real-world problems. This approach can foster a more responsive and relevant research agenda, one that is attuned to the needs and challenges of society.

Moreover, the method of problems encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, as researchers from different fields can work together to tackle complex, multi-faceted issues. By pooling their expertise and perspectives, researchers can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the problems they are addressing, leading to more effective and holistic solutions.

In essence, the method of problems represents a paradigm shift in research, one that prioritizes intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and problem-solving over the mere accumulation of facts. By adopting this approach, researchers can transform their work from a tedious cataloging of information to a dynamic and meaningful pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

In the end, the goal of research is not merely to generate knowledge, but to make a difference in the world. By focusing on problems and striving to resolve them, researchers can contribute to a more enlightened and informed society, one that is better equipped to address the challenges of our time.

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