Writing the Background to the Study

The background and history section of your dissertation highlights the empirical foundations of the topic that you have chosen and this can comprise of five or six per cent of the total word limit. The ‘background’ section or chapter is often considered the ‘other half’ of the introduction section or chapter and it may be incorporated within it or as a separate chapter. While the introduction deals with the thematic structure of your work, the background deals with the academic ‘history’ of your work.

Purpose of the dissertation background

The purpose of a dissertation background/history section is to give the reader the relevant facts about your chosen dissertation topic so that they understand the material or case that you will write about later and how it links to your theoretical question. It aims to contextualise your study and to explain its relevance. The background chapter will explain how your work adds to and builds upon existing academic studies.

Choosing your information

In this chapter, it’s important to select information carefully. It is tempting to write all you know about a subject, but it’s more important to tell the reader what they need to know before they continue reading your dissertation. This section doesn’t just provide the general context, but it also directs the readers’ attention to the empirical details through which your research topic and questions are lived and made relevant. This will illustrate the need for and the importance of your research.

Requirements of the background chapter

It’s important your work is viewed as academically contextualised, and so the background chapter will show your grounding in academic theory, and how your research will take a fresh look at an issue. It first needs to explain the general background to the existing research in the area that you are studying, by mentioning previous studies that have been written on the subject. You may not find work that very specifically addresses your topic, but you will find literature that is comparable or is linked to it in some way.

Secondly, you need to explain how your study builds upon the existing studies by offering something new. The background chapter is a rationale for your study and, in the same way that the introduction introduces the ‘key themes’ of the chapters, the background acts as a precursor to the literature review and (depending upon the subject matter) the methodology.

Top 3 dissertation background writing tips

There are three, simple, overlapping concepts to keep in mind when writing your background or history section.

  1. Engage your readers with broader themes and topics that illustrate your concepts, questions, and theory and demonstrate your knowledge and passion.
    The history should be easy to read and compelling both for its relevance and for its fresh approach. Be sure to connect smaller details to larger concepts, rather than leaving them as additional information that seems irrelevant. For example, few people want to read the details of textile handicrafts in Zimbabwe simply to learn about weaving. If, on the other hand, you show how this craft is linked to a history of racial tensions, changing economic conditions, or gender relations, the details of handicraft cooperatives and techniques can be engrossing and make the reader want to know more.
  2. The dissertation background/history should illustrate your concepts, questions, and theory.
    Your background section should relate to your research topic in question; this requires you to make explicit links between the stories you tell and the questions and theoretical approaches you are using.
    To do this, try to ensure a tight fit between this and the proposal’s other sections. Your history should be the empirical embodiment of your theoretical section. If, for example, you are writing on indigenous land rights struggles in Zimbabwe, you should not just include a history of events, but a history that is tightly linked to your theoretical concerns and the research question you are asking. Trace the major actors, sources of change, and point to potential outcomes. If you do this, your history section offers a chance to expound on (for the benefit of others’ understanding) the broader topic through the details of your story
  3. The dissertation history/background should demonstrate your experience, knowledge, and passion.
    What you write about and how you write can reveal a great deal about your knowledge and interest in your subject. This is true in all parts of your proposal, but perhaps most so in this section.
    Use the background section as an occasion to show the depths of your knowledge of the topic by demonstrating your fluency in accepted understandings and literature as well as your fresh insights and approaches.
    You may also use this review to implicitly reveal what has drawn you to the topic in the first place. Doing this well will help convince the reader that your interest in the topic is justified and that you are likely to sustain that interest over the time required to complete the project.
    As with the theoretical review, the historical and background section must be precise and measured. A piece that is too passionate, too political, or too lengthy a historical review may cause some readers to lose focus or question your capacity to be detached and analytical. You must also be careful in choosing your citations as proposal readers from your field or region are likely to look carefully at your bibliography. If you are writing on Zimbabwean politics, for example, and the classic authors and works are not cited, it will likely appear to your reviewers that you have not done your homework.
    Similarly, you must show that you have read authors from across the theoretical or ideological spectrum. While simply putting the “right” people in your bibliography should not be the focus of your work, it is important to demonstrate that you have done your research and that you know your field.

How to structure the background

In this section, the author usually outlines the historical developments in the literature that led to the current topic of research concisely. If the study is interdisciplinary, it should describe how different disciplines are connected and what aspects of each discipline will be studied.

Additionally, authors should briefly highlight the main developments of their research topic and identify the main gaps that need to be addressed. In other words, this section should give an overview of your study. The section should be organized as:

  • What is known about the broad topic?
  • What are the gaps or missing links that need to be addressed?
  • What is the significance of addressing those gaps?
  • What are the rationale and hypothesis of your study?

The background section, therefore, should provide general information about the topic of your research and emphasize the main aims of the study. Please ensure that you only discuss the main and relevant aspects of the studies that have led to your aims. Do not elaborate on them as this should be done in the literature review section. The background section should discuss your findings in a chronological manner to accentuate the progress in the field and the missing points that need to be addressed. The background should be written as a summary of your interpretation of previous research and what your study proposes to accomplish.

How to make the background engaging

As the background includes a lot of information, it can become a long drag, causing the readers to lose interest. To ensure that your background is engaging, you should try to build a story around the central theme of your research.

Ensure that the story adheres to the core idea and does not digress into a broad literature review. Each idea should lead to the next so that readers are able to grasp the story and themselves identify the gaps that your study is going to address.

How to avoid common mistakes in writing the background

While writing an effective background, you ought to steer clear of some mistakes. The most common mistakes in writing the background include the following:

  • Don’t write a background that is too long or too short. Focus on including all the important details but write concisely.
  • Don’t be ambiguous. Writing in a way that does not convey the message to the readers defeats the purpose of the background, so express yourself keeping in mind that the reader does not know your research intimately.
  • Don’t discuss unrelated themes. Try and center your discussion around the pivotal aspects of your research topic i.e. highlight the gaps in the literature, state the novelty of the study, and the need to conduct the study.
  • Don’t be disorganized. Not discussing the themes in a chronological manner can confuse the reader about the progress in the field, so try and organize your writing carefully.

How is the background different from the literature review   

Many authors find it difficult to discern the difference between the literature review and the study background. The literature review section should follow the background section, as the second section of your manuscript/thesis. This section basically supports the background section by providing evidence for the proposed hypothesis. This section should be more comprehensive and thoroughly describe all the studies that you have mentioned in the background section. It should also elaborate on all studies that form evidence for the present study and discuss the current trends.

To write this section, you will need to do a thorough literature search on different studies that relate to the broad topic of your research. This will introduce the readers to the area of your research. Following this, you should present a more focused survey of the specific studies that are associated with the precise objective of your study. It would be ideal to organize them thematically and discuss them chronologically so that readers are aware of the evolution and progress in the field. In other words, separate themes should be discussed chronologically to highlight how research in those fields has progressed over time. This will highlight what has been done and what are the future directions that need to be worked upon.

What is a dissertation?

How to choose a dissertation topic

The role of a proposal in a research study

Dissertation Topics


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