Background

Many studies are informed by facts that the reader cannot be expected to know. Your readers are your peers, and therefore understand your theories and your methodologies, but they will often not be familiar with the organization, country or region that your data is drawn from. 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.

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 readers 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. It may be a world in which in 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 context for your study. You might say you are going to lay out the everyday materials out of which your object has been constructed. You are going to describe, on its own terms, the practice you will later theorize. You might take a historical approach or journalistic one. Or you might write in the voice of an informed participant, a citizen of Copenhagen concerned about how to get from one place to another. The important thing is to provide a background against which your analysis will make more sense, in front of which your object can better come into view.

To this end, 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 but 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. A reader who happens to know about the local conditions you are describing might decide to skip this section, or they might decide to read it to find out if you have a basic understanding of the facts, i.e., to test you. So it’s important to get this part right. This is where your role as an “expert” on the subject you have studied is either established or maintained. You want to come off as a knowledgeable person.