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Organizing Academic Research Papers: Background Information

Definition

Background information identifies and describes the history and nature of a well-defined research problem with reference to the existing literature. Background information in your Introduction should indicate the root of the problem being studied, 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.  Introductory background information differs from a literature review in that it places the research problem in proper context rather than thoroughly examining pertinent literature.

Importance of Having Enough Background Information

Background information expands upon the key points stated in your introduction but is not 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.

Background information provides the reader with the essential context needed to understand the research problem. Depending on the topic being studied, forms of contextualization may include:

  • Cultural -- the issue 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.
  • Historical -- the time in which something takes place or was created and how that influences how you interpret it.
  • 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. The key is to summarize for the reader what is known about the specific research problem before you conducted your analysis. This is accomplished with a general review of the foundational research literature (with citations) that report findings that inform 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 in order to understand the research problem 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 topic. Keep this in mind because providing succinct background information can be an effective way to show that you have a clear grasp of key issues and concepts underpinning your overall study. Don't try to show off, though!

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:

  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 add 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. Is the research study unusual in some way that requires additional explanation, such as, a) your study uses a method never applied before to the research problem you are investigating; b) your study investigates a very esoteric or complex research problem; or, c) 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.

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, 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.