What’s in the Background?


Dissertations usually contain a section entitled Background in Chapter 1. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? But do you know what your background is supposed to cover? The entire topic? The social problem? The research problem? Also, how far back do you go?

Typically, social science dissertations are studies, not historical projects. So, you do not need to give the entire history of your topic or go back to antiquity. The purpose of the background is threefold: to give the reader an understanding of the development of the social problem in broad strokes, to give the reader an understanding of the research that has been conducted to address the problem, and to help set up the research problem. Also, because you are tracing the development of the problem and associated research, a chronological structure is often appropriate for the Background section.

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You are expected to trace the social problem and how it has developed into its current form. However, think of this as a summary of the development of the social problem. You only need to focus on the past to the extent that you can use it to set up the present state of the social problem. For background on the research problem, you cannot cover all the research that has been conducted in the area, and you are not expected to. But you are expected to cover the major studies and trends in the research on the topic.

Here are some questions to consider as you write your Background section: How have researchers approached the topic? What kinds of studies have been conducted? What are the points of agreement? What are the points of contention? What has past research told us about the topic? What hasn’t it told us? What is the present state of the research? What still needs to be addressed? As you can see, following this line of inquiry leads to setting up the research problem by showing what has been done and what still needs to be done to understand the problem and address the issue.