Sociology: Search Strategies

Searching Databases

Search Terms

  • Brainstorm a list of possible search terms related to your topic first.
  • Once you start searching, pay attention to the terms authors use in their title and abstracts. Also, view the subject heading assigned to the article; these are the "official" controlled vocabulary the database is using to describe a given idea. 
  • Be flexible and revise your searches as needed. It's helpful to write down what terms you've used, or save your search history. 

Searching Tips

Most all databases have similar search functionalities. 

  • Quotation marks searches the database for those words together as a term; for example, "social identity".
  • An asterisk (*) searches the database for that word plus any variants of the root word. This is called truncation; an example is using the search term work* will provide results that include work OR worker OR workplace, OR worksite. You can also use this for the beginning of the term; *camp will search for camp OR encampment
  • Use the OR search fields to search for synonyms; for example, consider searching for discrimination OR bullying OR harassment

An example of using these search functions in Sociological Abstracts: 

tips for searching sociological abstracts

Searching for Literature for your Thesis

A few tips on literature searching from fellow Sociology students:

  • Start with a list of questions related to your topic.
    • Ex. What forms of discrimination do transgender persons experience? How does previous research define transgender? 
  • Get to know the primary researchers in the field.
  • Look for listservs and social networks related to your research area.
    • A great resource is H-Net Discussion Networks, a list of hundreds of academic listservs spanning the social sciences and humanities.
  • Remember that Google doesn't search everything! There is a lot of information available via proprietary databases (like Web of Science) or in networks not crawled by Google. This is often referred to as the Deep Web.
  • Use the reference list of articles and look for who else has cited the article. How many times an article has been cited can tell you not only how influential an article has been, but can lead you to more articles on your topic. 

Find Literature Review Articles

Literature review articles can be very helpful in providing background information for your research.

In order to find these articles quickly, add "Literature Review" OR "Review of the Literature" as a title field search in the database. 


Or, if available, select the research methodology limit for "literature review". 

literature review limit in psycinfo

Where to Search

Venn diagram of database coverage

Part of deciding where to search is recognizing the differences between tools. The search scopes of Google Scholar, Web of Science, and a disciplinary database are fairly different, but also have some overlap. 

Google Scholar searches across resources from all disciplines/subject areas:

  • journals publisher websites
  • professional association websites
  • university websites
  • Google Books

Web of Science searches citations of high impact journals in the field (not every journal in the feld, so Web of Science is less comprehensive in regards to discipline). 

A Disciplinary Database, such as Sociological Abstracts, searches a defined set of resources, all focused in that field of research, usually this includes: 

  • Journals
  • book chapters
  • dissertations


Ask yourself as you search: Are most of your hits from Sociology journals? Or another field, such as Psychology? Turn to the primary database of the field where the research is happening. A few examples are:

Discipline/Subject  Primary Database
Environment Environment Complete
Education ERIC
Psychology (including Organizational) PsycINFO
Gender Gender Studies Database
Urban Studies Urban Studies, Sage Full Text
Public Health/Health Sciences PubMed

Also considering using multidisciplinary databases like Web of Science, Google Scholar, and JSTOR. Web of Science is highly recommended. 

Related Guides

Search Alerts

It can be difficult to keep up with all the new information that might be relevant to us. One way to make it easier is using search alerts. These are simply tools that send you information on an ongoing basis after you have subscribed to them. Most every database has this functionality available; you usually just need to create an account on the database platform. 

By setting up alerts you don't have to remember to check if a journal has published a new issue, you will be notified (almost always via email). You can also use search alerts to find if there are any new articles that match your search terms. 

Google Scholar also offers search alerts. 

google scholar search alert

About this page

This guide page was created in collaboration with Sociology graduate students in SOC 594, Spring 2015: 

Sasha Bassett, Adam Bond, Katrien Cokeley, Emma Deppa, Lauren Ferguson, Aaron Levine, Joyce McNair, Madeline O'Neil, Nathan Rochester, Shah Smith, Corrie Stocking.