How to Write the Background Section

[See also: How to write a research project. How to write the theory, methods, analysis and discussion sections. How to write the introduction and conclusion. How to review the literature and how to structure a research paper. How to finish on time and how to reference properly. Part of the Craft of Research series. Full program here.]

Video from March 15, 2023

Many studies are informed by facts that the reader cannot be expected to know. Since your reader is a peer, they will presumably have a good understanding of your theories and your methodologies, but they will often not be familiar with the organization, country or region that you have studied. Your reader may know what a disruptive innovation is, for example, but have little or no understanding of Uber’s attempt to enter the Danish transportation market. So part of your paper needs to tell your reader about these “local” conditions. Think of the background section as an attempt to inform the reader about facts you take for granted, but that you don’t expect your reader to already know.

Your point of departure should be the first paragraph of your introduction. Here you have presented a world of shared concern, a world that both you and your reader inhabit. It may be a world in which the Internet constitutes a standing challenge to established industries. Or you can start closer to your own research: a world in which Uber clashes with the taxi industry in major cities all over the world, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. It may even be a world in which this familiar scenario has played out in Copenhagen. Your readers will not be surprised to hear this. Even if they have never thought about it before, it’s already part of the world in which they live.

The purpose of your background section is to provide a more detailed context for your study than the everyday world your reader understands. You are going to describe (on its own terms) the practice you will later theorize (on your terms). You might take a historical approach or journalistic one; that is, you might tell us how we got here or where we are today. Or you might write in the voice of an informed participant, or a concerned citizen. But make sure you write what you know, not what you merely think. Present yourself as a knowledgeable person who is familiar with the facts on the ground. You are trying to provide a background against which your analysis will make more sense so your object can better come into view.

To this end, you should use only publicly available sources. One way to distinguish the paragraphs of a background section from the analysis is that the background section doesn’t draw on your data. Another way of saying this is that the reader should not have to trust you. You are not telling the reader something that only you know; you are telling them something that is well known, or easily knowable, to anyone living or working in the context you have studied. There may be books and essays on the subject to cite (even if they are written in a language other than English); there may be public figures to quote for their public statements. There will often official statistics and government reports to appeal to.

You will be writing in an informative style, presuming that the reader doesn’t know what you are telling them. The tone is helpful but not condescending, which is to say, the reader should not be made to feel stupid or ignorant for not already knowing what you’re telling them. You’re telling them things that only someone who is very well-informed would know. Someone like you, and someone like your reader after they have read your paper.

To get both the tone and the content right, it might be useful also to imagine what a reader who happens to know about the local conditions you are describing would do. They might decide to skip this section, of course, but they might also decide to read it just to test you, to find out if you have the same basic understanding of the facts that they have. If you’re saying anything that such a reader might disagree with you about, make sure to flag that controversy appropriately. (“Some policy makers take a different view of this,” or, “There is some disagreement in the industry on this point.”) Your expert reader will appreciate the gesture and your lay reader now knows that there are other perspectives. However you do it, it’s important to get this part right since it’s where your own role as an expert is established and maintained. You want to come off as a knowledgeable person, and you want to equip your reader to engage with other knowledgeable people in the future.


Here is what I say about it in the 2019 “How to Structure” lecture.