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:
- Are there concepts, terms, theories, or ideas that may be unfamiliar to the reader and, thus, require additional explanation?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- Determine the depth (level of detail) and breadth (number of topics discussed) of your paper by considering how much information you’ll be able to find and how much you need to support your claims.
In the brainstorming process, you’ll also want to consider the depth and breadth of your topic. Avoid topics that are extremely broad. For example, it would be difficult to write a paper that discusses the ‘Middle Ages.’ Why? Because The Middle Ages spanned a number of years and involved a variety of forces–cultural, religious, and political. Any attempt to cover such a broad topic as The Middle Ages would be futile. You’ll encounter too much research, and you won’t be able to cover everything in a paper-sized piece of writing.
Tip: You may have to go back and forth between determining the scope of your paper and doing preliminary research.
Also try to avoid topics that are too obscure. For instance, “belly dancing in North Dakota” would be a poor topic choice. It would be difficult to find enough information on such a niche.
Finding the perfect balance of depth (level of detail) and breath (number of topics discussed) can be tricky, but here are some helpful things to consider when determining the extent of your research:
- How long the paper is.
- Any precedents. Ask you teacher for a model essay. Reading such an example will give you an idea for how deeply you need to dive into your research.
- How much information you need to support claims in your paper.
When thinking about the scope of your paper, you’ll also want to do a little preliminary research.