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SOCC34: Migrations & Transnationalisms

Fall 2023 - Dr. Patricia Landolt

What is a Search Strategy?

A search strategy is a plan for how you'll execute your search for materials on your research question. Creating a search strategy involves breaking down your research question into important concepts, selecting search terms for each concept, choosing how to combine search terms, and entering them into a relevant database. By doing so, you'll transform your research question into a format that is searchable and possible for a library search tool or database to interpret.

Writing Effective Search Strategies

  Why? How? Example
Step 1: Identify key concepts Key concepts from your research question are the most effective search terms to quickly locate relevant sources.

Underline key nouns, like people, places, time periods, or issues, from your research question.

Research question: What are the institutions that create family separation through detention in the international migration context?

Key concepts: family separation, detention, international migration

Step 2: Identify alternative search terms To find everything relevant to your topic in a database. Brainstorm alternatives (synonyms, alternative spelling) for your key concepts.

Key concept 1: Family separation

  • Family separation(s)
  • Separation of families
  • Separating families
  • Child(ren)
  • Family / families
  • Parent(s)

Key concept 2: Detention

  • Detention
  • Custody
  • Imprison / imprisonment
  • Confine / confinement
  • Incarcerate / incarceration
  • Captivity

Key concept 3: International migration

  • International migration
  • Migrant(s)
  • Border crossing(s)
  • Cross border
Step 3: Combine your search terms In order to get more focused results, use Boolean operators (and, or) as well as the wildcard* to combine key concepts.

And: Combines key concepts together to find articles that contain both concepts.

Or: Combines alternative search terms to find articles that contain either/any term.

Wildcard*: Finds variations in spelling, prefixes, and suffixes (pregnan* will find pregnant, pregnancy)

Quotation marks: searches for word or phrase as a unit (e.g. "birth outcome")

("family separation")


(detention OR custody OR imprison* OR confine* OR incarcerat* OR captiv*)


("international migration" or "border cross*" or "cross border")

Step 4: Consider using limiters (available in a library database) In order to focus on articles that are appropriate for your assignment. Choose limiters in a library database that are relevant to your research needs.
  • Scholarly or peer reviewed
  • Format: e.g. newspaper, magazine, scholarly journal
  • Publication date
  • Language
Step 5: Review your search results Check if articles are appropriate for your assignment to ensure you find the right information to write a high quality paper.

Check if you articles are:

  • Relevant to your topic and discipline
  • Popular or scholarly (depending on whether you're working on the first or second annotation assignment)
  • Current enough (publication year)
Step 6: Adjust your strategy If you don't find relevant articles, change your search strategy.

Too few articles? Try...

  • Adding more synonyms or related terms (combine with OR)
  • Deleting the least relevant term from your search
  • Using the wildcard*

Too many articles? Try...

  • Focusing on a specific component of the topic
  • Adding more keywords (combine with AND)

Too few articles? Try...

  • Expanding the population, group, or phenomena in your research question
  • Adding related terms to your search, which may have a broader or narrower meaning

Example: expanding the search to look at trends in family separation worldwide

Too many articles? Try...

  • Limiting the search to a specific population, group, or phenomena
  • Looking at your topic in a specific location or region

Example: narrowing your search to focus specifically on instances of family separation at the U.S. - Mexico border

Adapted from The University of Manchester Library: Making Your Search Work (Cheat Sheet)

How to Choose Keywords

The following short video (2:42 min) from McMaster Libraries explains how to choose effective keywords for database searching.

If you need more help, check out the University of Toronto Libraries' instructions for how to choose good keywords.