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. This section must not, however, simply provide the general context, but must direct the readers' attention to the empirical details through which your research topic and questions are lived and made relevant. As such, they must not just fill in details of the place or topic you are researching, but implicitly illustrate the need for and importance of your research.
Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders. (Walter Bagehot)
As suggested above, the ‘background’ section or chapter is the ‘other half’ of the introduction section or chapter and may be incorporated within it or separate. As the introduction deals with the thematic structure of your work, the background deals with the academic ‘history’ of your work. The principal purpose of the chapter or section is to contextualise your study and to explain its relevance. Thus, it does not explain your personal reasons for doing the study (as in the introduction) but rather how your work adds to, and builds upon, existing academic studies.
In reality, little that is written in any undergraduate or even Master’s dissertation is ‘original’, ‘ground breaking’, or ‘new’; it is more often that the perspective on a problem is fresh. Therefore, your work needs to be grounded in academic theory. It is possible that you may be applying Porter’s Five Forces to a firm that has never before been analysed using the model, but this is not ‘new’ – it is merely the application of existing theories to a new dynamic. Moreover, if you are writing an undergraduate dissertation you will be writing in the region of 8,000 – 12,000 words depending on the course and the reputation of the university you are attending. There is no doubt that the piece of work you write is a personal triumph for you and also a long piece of work (in your academic career at this stage) but in reality the piece of work you are writing is not very long – compared to the books and sources that you will be using to collect the secondary research for your work. As a consequence of these facts, it is very important that your work is seen as academically contextualised. The background chapter or section does this in two ways.
First, it needs to explain the general background to existing research in the area that you are studying. Therefore, if you are writing on alcohol awareness in Cyprus, you need to mention 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.
Secondly, you need to explain how your study builds upon the existing studies by offering something new. Thus, to use the same example you might write, ‘this dissertation offers a new perspective on this subject by analysing young people’s attitudes to drinking and how these can be changed through further education’. The background chapter is therefore 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. As with the introduction, the background is an important section of your work but it is not as important as the sections that deal with the presentation and analysis of facts and thus should comprise five or six per cent of the total word limit.
Top 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.
This will involve connecting details to concepts. The history should be easy to read and compelling both for its relevance and for its fresh approach. Few want to read the details of textile handicrafts in southern Mississippi 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.
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. This requires you to make explicit links between the story you tell and the questions and theoretical approach you are using. If, for example, you are writing on indigenous land rights struggles in Bolivia, 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. Too passionate, too political, or too lengthy a historical review may cause some readers to loose 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 New Mexico forest 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 you 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.
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