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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Background Information


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.

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. 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.

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. Given this, 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 therefore require 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.