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Writing the Background Section of a Dissertation

Most dissertations have a section setting out the history or background to the topic, and these sections draw attention to the topic’s empirical basis. In fact, this section is very straightforward – deceptively so. However, there is always the temptation to jot down everything you know about the subject area while, in truth, you should carefully select only the information readers to need to know in order to be better able to follow and appreciate your subsequent argument(s).

The primary purpose of the history or background section of a dissertation is to provide readers with relevant and important information about the topic you have chosen. This allows them to better understand the case or materials you will address later and how these link back to the theoretical question(s) posed by your dissertation project. However, this early section should not just point to the general or broader context. Rather, it should draw the attention of readers to the empirical data by which the topic of your research is made real and relevant. Therefore, you should not simply provide details about your topic but explicitly show how and why your research is important and necessary.

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As previously indicated the background or history section is the second “half” of an introductory chapter and you can combine the two or keep them separate. Since a dissertation’s introduction usually focuses on the structure of a piece of research work – in the thematic sense – the background section focuses on the historical side from an academic viewpoint. The main purpose of this section or chapter is to put a study into context and explain or describe how it is relevant. Hence, you should not describe any personal purpose or reason you have for undertaking a particular study (as you would in an introductory section). Instead, your task is to explain how the work you have chosen to do contributes to, builds on, and adds to any work or studies that have already been done in the field your study relates to.

The truth is that very little of the material in at undergraduate level or Master’s level dissertation is really new, original, or groundbreaking. In most cases, it is a fresh perspective on an existing issue or problem. Therefore, you need to ground your work in scholarly theory. Possibly, you have undertaken to apply Porter’s Five Forces to a business that has not had this model applied to it before for analysis purposes. However, there is nothing “new” about this. It is simply the process of applying theories that already exist to a different or new entity. Furthermore, if your dissertation is for undergraduate level, it is likely it will be around 8,000 to 12,000 words long with many dependents on your course and/or the character or reputation of your university. Undoubtedly, the paper you produce will represent a great personal achievement on your part and possibly it will be the longest piece of writing you have done up to this point in your education. However, to put it bluntly, the paper you are working on is not all that long, at least not compared to many of the textbooks and the various sources you will use for gathering secondary research material for the project you are doing. This being the case, it is essential your work is viewed in its academic context. There are two methods in which a background section achieves this.

In the first place, as the title suggests, this section should explain the background – in general terms – to any research that has already been done in a particular area or field. Consequently, if your paper is about alcohol use in Greece, you should mention any studies that have previously been undertaken on this subject. While you might not be able to find any works that specifically address this topic, it is very likely you will be able to locate a certain amount of comparable or partially-related materials.

In the second place, it will be necessary to describe or explain how the study you are doing adds to or builds on any existing research in its field. This is done by offering readers something that is fresh or new. Therefore, using the example above, you could say, “this paper seeks to provide a fresh perspective on this topic by examining the attitudes of young people towards alcohol and to explore how education might change existing attitudes.” Thus, a background section sets out the rationale for undertaking a particular study or piece of research and, just as an introduction sets out a paper’s main themes, the history or background chapter serves as a forerunner to your literature review and methodology chapters (if these are required – the topic usually determines what chapters are needed). As is the case with an introduction, the history or background chapter is usually a very important addition to a work of this type. However, it is less important than those sections where a writer analyzes and presents facts. Consequently, it should make up around 5 to 6% of your paper’s overall word count.

Useful Tips for Writing a Background Section for a Dissertation

When you are ready to write the history or background chapter for your dissertation, there are three key concepts to keep in mind. While these overlap, they are also quite simple:

  1. Use broader topics and themes to get readers engaged, but make sure the ones you choose are effective at illustrating your paper’s questions, concepts and theories while demonstrating your passion and knowledge.

This technique involves linking details to a number of different concepts. Any history aspects you present need to be compelling and easy to follow and/or read both, in terms of relevance and innovative approach. Not many people enjoy reading intricate details about textile types in some far-flung country when weaving is the only thing they want to learn or know about. Nevertheless, if you show how textiles and weaving have a historical link to economic climate, race relations, gender issues, and so on, details can become compelling and make readers eager to learn more.

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  1. The history or background section of your dissertation should fully illustrate any questions, concepts and theories presented in your paper.

This can be achieved by ensuring this section fits closely with the other chapters/sections of your dissertation. The history section should comprise the empirical foundation of the theoretical element of your paper. This means making clear connections between your paper’s story and your research questions and your proposed theoretical approach. For instance, if your paper is about the struggle of indigenous populations to obtain rights to lands in some particular country, not only should you include the historical background to the situation, but also the historical events that are closely linked to your own theoretical interests and the research question(s) your paper poses. This is achievable by tracing the main change factors and the players. You should also indicate the possible outcomes. By using intricate story details, the history section of your paper will give you the chance to elaborate on (in order to help others to better understand) the wider topic.

  1. You should use the history or background section of your paper to demonstrate your knowledge, experience and passion for your subject.

What and how you go about writing your paper has the potential to disclose a considerable amount of your interest in and what you know about your topic. This applies to every part of your proposal and final dissertation but possibly more so in this chapter than anywhere else. Use this section to demonstrate your in-depth topic knowledge by showcasing how fluent you are in existing literature and accepted the opinion, and through your own new approaches and insights. It is also permissible to use this section to reveal in very clear terms why you were first drawn to this topic. This approach should go a long way in convincing readers that you have a justified interest in your topic and that it is likely you will maintain this same level of interest until your project is complete. As is the case when you are reviewing the theoretical elements, you should write the history or background chapter in a measured and accurate fashion. Readers may lose interest or think you are incapable of being sufficiently analytical or detached if this section is too long or you come across as being too politically minded or too impassioned. You also need to exercise caution when choosing materials to cite since it is likely that readers who come from your own region or field of study will examine your bibliography carefully. If for instance, your paper is about rainforest policies in Brazil, and you neglect to cite notable works and authors in this field, it may seem to those reviewing your paper that you have neglected to do enough research. Likewise, it is important you demonstrate you really have studied the works of authors spanning the entire ideological and theoretical spheres. Your primary focus should not just be to name the “right” authors in your paper’s bibliography. It is also essential to show you have thoroughly researched your topic and that you genuinely do know your chosen field.

October 13, 2017
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