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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Background Information

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.

Definition

Background information identifies and describes the history and nature of a well-defined research problem with reference to the existing literature. The background information should indicate the root of the problem being studied, appropriate context of the problem in relation to theory, research, and/or practice, its scope, and the extent to which previous studies have successfully investigated the problem, noting, in particular, where gaps exist that your study attempts to address.

Importance of Having Enough Background Information

Background information expands upon the key points stated in the beginning of your introduction but is not intended to be the main focus of the paper. Sufficient background information helps your reader determine if you have a basic understanding of the research problem being investigated and promotes confidence in the overall quality of your analysis and findings. This information provides the reader with the essential context needed to understand the research problem and its significance.

Depending on the problem being studied, forms of contextualization may include one or more of the following:

  • Cultural -- placed within the learned behavior of specific groups of people.
  • Economic -- of or relating to systems of production and management of material wealth and/or business activities.
  • Gender -- located within the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with being male or female.
  • Historical -- the time in which something takes place or was created and how that influences how you interpret it.
  • Interdisciplinary -- explanation of theories, concepts, ideas, or methodologies borrowed from other disciplines applied to the research problem rooted in another discipline.
  • Philosophical -- clarification of the essential nature of being or of phenomena as it relates to the research problem.
  • Physical/Spatial -- reflects the space around something and how that influences how you see it.
  • Political -- concerns the environment in which something is produced indicating it's public purpose or agenda.
  • Social -- the environment of people that surrounds something's creation or intended audience, reflecting how the people around something use and interpret it.
  • Temporal -- reflects issues or events of, relating to, or limited by time.

Background information can also include summaries of important, relevant research studies. This is particularly important if there is an essential or groundbreaking study about the research problem or a key study that refutes or supports your thesis. The key is to summarize for the reader what is known about the specific research problem before you conduct the analysis. This is accomplished with a general review of the foundational research literature [with citations] that document findings informing your study's aims and objectives.

NOTE: Research studies cited as part of the background information of your introduction should not include very specific, lengthy explanations. This should be discussed in greater detail in your literature review section.


Background of the Problem Section: What do you Need to Consider? Anonymous. Harvard University; Hopkins, Will G. How to Write a Research Paper. SPORTSCIENCE, Perspectives/Research Resources. Department of Physiology and School of Physical Education, University of Otago, 1999; Green, L. H. How to Write the Background/Introduction Section. Physics 499 Powerpoint slides. University of Illinois; Woodall, W. Gill. Writing the Background and Significance Section. Senior Research Scientist and Professor of Communication. Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions. University of New Mexico.
 

Structure and Writing Style

Providing background information in the Introduction of a research paper serves as a bridge that links the reader to the topic of your study. But precisely how long and in-depth this bridge should be is largely dependent upon how much information you think the reader will need to know in order to fully understand the topic being discussed and to appreciate why the issues you are investigating are important.

From another perspective, the length and detail of background information also depends on the degree to which you need to demonstrate to your professor how much you understand the research problem. Keep this in mind because providing pertinent background information can be an effective way to demonstrate that you have a clear grasp of key issues and concepts underpinning your overall study. Don't try to show off, though! And, avoid stating the obvious.

Given that the structure and writing style of your background information can vary depending upon the complexity of your research and/or the nature of the assignment, here are some questions to consider while writing this part of your introduction:

  1. Are there concepts, terms, theories, or ideas that may be unfamiliar to the reader and, thus, require additional explanation?
  2. Are there historical elements that need to be explored in order to provide needed context, to highlight specific people, issues, or events, or to lay a foundation for understanding the emergence of a current issue or event?
  3. Are there theories, concepts, or ideas borrowed from other disciplines or academic traditions that may be unfamiliar to the reader and which need further explanation?
  4. Is the research study unusual in a way that requires additional explanation, such as, 1) your study uses a method of analysis never applied before; 2) your study investigates a very esoteric or complex research problem; or, 3) your study relies upon analyzing unique texts or documents, such as archival materials or primary documents like diaries or personal letters, that do not represent the established body of source literature on the topic.

Almost all introductions to a research problem require some contextualizing, but the scope and breadth of background information varies depending on your assumption about the reader's level of prior knowledge. Despite this assessment, however, background information should be brief and succinct; save any elaboration of critical points or in-depth discussion of key issues for the literature review section of your paper.


Background of the Problem Section: What do you Need to Consider? Anonymous. Harvard University; Hopkins, Will G. How to Write a Research Paper. SPORTSCIENCE, Perspectives/Research Resources. Department of Physiology and School of Physical Education, University of Otago, 1999; Green, L. H. How to Write the Background/Introduction Section. Physics 499 Powerpoint slides. University of Illinois; Woodall, W. Gill. Writing the Background and Significance Section. Senior Research Scientist and Professor of Communication. Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions. University of New Mexico.

Writing Tip

Background Information vs. the Literature Review

Incorporating background information into the introduction is intended to provide the reader with critical information about the topic being studied, such as, highlighting and expanding upon foundational studies conducted in the past, describing important historical events that inform why and in what ways the research problem exists, or defining key components of your study [concepts, people, places, things]. Although in  social sciences research introductory background information can often blend into the literature review portion of the paper, basic background information should not be considered a substitute for a comprehensive review and synthesis of relevant research literature.


Hart, Cris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998.