Writing a research introduction, business, social sciences, humanities
- The 'problem' or research justification
- The 'field' of the research
- What is known and what remains unclear
- The 'question', aim or objective
- Framing an 'argument'
- The methodology and method
- The chapter outline
- Example introductions
The introduction to an academic text typically contains the following elements:
- an outline of an unresolved issue or problem to be addressed;
- a description of what is known about the problem or question in the field or discipline;
- an unresolved question, or statements about an area of uncertainty within the field of literature on the topic area that the research will address;
- a research question, aim or objective, or an 'argument' that will be pursued in the thesis which addresses 3 above.
A funnel is sometimes used as a metaphor for the thesis introduction because you start broad (discussing a general problem and approaches to it) and narrow towards a specific focus (a 'gap', question or statement of argument). The thesis and exegesis introduction also includes:
- a summary of the research design;
- definitions of any key terms used throughout the thesis;
- a content outline, or description of the main points that will be argued within the middle chapters of the thesis or exegesis.
Transforming the research proposal into the thesis or exegesis introduction
You may notice that the steps and elements above also describe the content of the research proposal. The thesis and exegesis introduction, like the research proposal, aim to provide a justification for the research. For this reason, you can reformat the research proposal and use it as a base draft of the thesis or exegesis introduction. It will be necessary to delete the time line, table of contents and appendices, and perhaps to move much of the detail of the literature review and the research design/explanation of creative practice to separate chapters within the thesis or exegesis. But you can use your problem formulation, key definitions, important background information, and the summary of the 'gap' in the literature that your research will fill, and a summary of the research design/explanation of creative practice from your research proposal. You can also include the statement of the aims or objectives from your research proposal in your thesis or exegesis introduction. You can update and re-craft the introduction as the research and the research story line evolves or emerges more clearly for you. Each of the steps or elements in the introduction are given separate attention below to assist in writing the introduction.
Like the research proposal, thesis and exegesis writing opens with an unresolved problem or paradox, or an explanation of something important that we need to understand. Most commonly, theses, exegeses and journal articles open by outlining a worrying or negative situation, condition or event. More rarely a desirable, but not fully realised situation or outcome is described. This is done in order to grab the reader’s attention, establish the significance of the research, and signal the literature/s that the research will contribute to. In some theses and exegeses, this is accomplished in a few sentences or paragraphs. In others it may take several pages. Occasionally there is no recognisable problem statement as such, usually in theses or exegeses in humanities disciplines, in which the introduction opens with a review of literature and/or explication of argument.
Common introductory 'problem statement' strategies:
- provide relevant background information
- an interesting fact or statistic
- a quotation (appropriate and explained in text)
- a concession (recognise an opinion/approach different to your own)
- a paradox
- a short anecdote or narrative
- a question or several questions (that you will proceed to answer)
- an analogy
- an important definition (examine its complexities).
Whichever approach is adopted, the problem statement should be explained in a way that shows that it matters to people in everyday life, to the values or principles people care about, or to questions that are important in some way. Where possible the problem statement is supported by references to indicate that there is agreement that the conditions outlined exist.
A ‘field of literature’ or discipline refers to a body of work united around a shared set of questions, concerns, theoretical assumptions or debates. For example, 'environmental psychology’, ‘early childhood education’, ‘tourism studies’, 'visual arts' and the ‘sociology of aging’, are all fields of literature, disciplines or sub-disciplines. The field or discipline is not the same as the topic of the research.
It is often a good idea to clearly signal the field/s of literature or discipline area that the research aims to contribute to early in the thesis or exegesis. In doing so, it may be necessary, depending on your research framing, to make a distinction between the discipline you aim to contribute to, and those you will draw upon in the course of the discussion. In the introduction of the thesis or exegesis, you can choose to signal the field of research when you begin to discuss the literature. For example, 'Recent research in the field of ... has focused upon ...', 'The research aims to contribute to conversations within ... (the discipline, sub-discipline of ...) by determining whether ...'.
For a list of academic disciplines and a description of their main content and question areas you may find the following wikipedia site useful: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_academic_disciplines
When we talk about the literature review in this series of resources we are referring to that part of the thesis, exegesis or journal article whose task is to summarise approaches to date on a problem area and to outline a question that has not yet been answered, or perhaps a disagreement or application whose outcome remains uncertain, which the research will address.
Within the introduction, the statement of the problem or the research justification is followed by, or comprises, a summary of what is known in your discipline/s on the topic area to date, or to the kinds of approaches that have been adopted in relation to the problem area thus far. This is followed by a statement of the 'gap' in the literature that the research aims to address. More information about how to write the literature review can be found in the topic on the literature review in this series of resources, and the topic on writing the literature review in the research proposal series of resources.
The 'gap' could refer to an unresolved question, a paradox, a missing piece of information, a theoretical inconsistency or to some other weakness within existing understandings of the focus of the study.
The thesis or exegesis introduction includes either a full discussion of the literature and the contribution the research will make to the literature, or, if a longer literature review chapter or chapters are included in the thesis or exegesis, the introduction provides a summary of the main points of those chapters.
Where the introduction provides a summary of longer literature review chapters, include:
- reference to the discipline or sub-discipline to which the research will contribute;
- summary of major areas of interest within the field;
- major conclusions of the literature on the topic so far (what is known);
- a gap or unresolved issue within the literature (what remains unknown or contested);
- a statement of the research aims or objectives (linked directly to the gap).
The 'question' can be framed as a direct question, a hypothesis, or as an objective or aim. As a general rule, try to avoid producing many central questions or research objectives. Work towards clustering sub-aspects of a question (including hypotheses) under one overarching focus or 'motherhood statement' of the central aim with perhaps dot points signalling aspects of the aim beneath it (no more than three as a general rule). If you have many more than three or four aims, look for areas of overlap and for broader terms with which to articulate your overarching aim.
When writing about the research question/aim/objective, remember research ultimately aims to produce knowledge or to investigate or reflect on some aspect of reality or theory. The language used will reflect this, and will be different from language used to point to the expected outcomes or applications of the research. For example, 'The aim of the research is to investigate ...', or 'The aim of the research is to understand ...'. Not 'The aim of the research is to improve ... (aspect of reality)', or 'The research will address the issue of ... (aspect of reality)'. On its own research cannot aim to have an impact on the real world because this is beyond the scope of the research itself. It can however promise, or aim, to understand that reality or conceptualisation of reality better.
If you are using a specific theoretical or philosophical approach, the research aim will ideally signal what this is. To assist in clarifying your methodological aim, you might like to have a look at the series of resources and workshops on the 'Social philosophy of research'.
Below, some articulations of different philosophical approaches or methodological aims are provided.
Social researchers aim to observe or understand:
- real phenomena, relations between real phenomena or events (what we can see, hear, touch) (empiricism, realism);
- underlying structures or mechanisms of social phenomenon (realism),
- whether theory is supported, or can be disproved by observable phenomenon (logical positivism, empiricism, hypothetico-deductive),
- cultural/social interpretations of objective phenomenon as they are made meaningful within social action/negotiation in the social context (pragmatism, social constructionism),
- social structure, ideology, power relations, emancipatory or rational knowledge (Critical theory, Critical hermeneutics),
- the grammatical, phonemic and syntactic rules that underpin language and render social systems intelligible (structuralism),
- the system of signs that confer meaning or significance in a specific context or text (deconstruction),
- institutional and historical conditions within which objects of knowledge emerge and transform (Foucault).
Depending on the approach, the methodological rationale or aim might be to:
- explain and predict real phenomena, both observable and unobservable (realism);
- build theory about underlying structures without theoretical presumptions based on raw data (realism);
- test theory about the behaviour of phenomena defined against specific observable data (logical positivism, empiricism, hypothetico-deductive model);
- provide a rich description of a lived context, describe the experience and meaning of phenomena as lived and understood within the terms of social actors in the natural context (interpretivism),
- distinguish between socially prescribed attitudes and fresher or more authentic experience of a phenomena (phenomenology);
- reflect upon the meaning of contemporary or past social practices/texts within their social context in order to understand significant cultural influences/trends/differences in the terms within which they are or were lived (hermeneutics);
- study power relations within a given context to generalise beyond observed interactions and show how those relations are socially structured (Critical theory);
- show how film, television, fashion or advertising images, literary forms, or other cultural product attain and reproduce culturally significant meaning (semiotics);
- explore the historical development of institutional and discursive practices to show how specific metastatements have been attributed truth status (Foucault, genealogy);
- identify the semiotic relations and metaphoric devices that give phenomena significance in order to open possibilities for alternative ways of seeing (deconstruction, semiotics).
Another way to enhance the writing of your central aim or objective, is to frame it in a way that leads to the anticipation of an affirmative or negative answer to a question. This enables the reader to read the data in a directed manner. This is particularly pertinent for logical positivist or realist research which aims to understand causes, correlations or effects, although the same strategy might be used to set-up a sense of expectation or controversy within theses using other research methodologies.
Question/objective: This study aims to determine whether the inclusion of feminist theory in the curriculum in South Australian primary schools reduced sexist behaviour in the schoolyard.
Not: The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of feminist theory in the curriculum in South Australian primary schools (vague, expected answer unclear).
Answer/conclusion: Sexist behaviour is being reported and observed in rates which have no relation to the level of inclusion of feminist theories into the curriculum design. Formal education has a very tenuous influence on informal behaviour patterns of school children.
Descriptive academic writing often provides what is referred to as a 'statement of argument' in the introduction. The 'argument' is the central idea or conclusion of the thesis. The 'argument' is in fact the 'thesis', the one big idea that the entirety of the writing in the thesis, exegesis or journal article hangs on.
The central claim or ‘argument’ in a descriptive style thesis should have surprise value or be insightful or risky in some way (Metcalf, 2002:5). Surprise value is often achieved by preceding the statement of the argument with statements that ‘set the scene’. Such statements provide information that contrasts with or contradicts the argument in order to bring out its newness.
Not: ‘the sky is blue’.
Argument: ‘the sky was red in the early stages of the earth’s development’ (Metcalf, 2002:5).
Example: Setting the scene for the argument
Bacchi, C 1999, Women, policy and politics, SAGE Publications, London.
'Policy issues are often written about as though there were only one possible interpretation of the issue at stake. We are not encouraged to reflect upon the ways in which issues take shape (provides a common sense take on the subject to set the scene for the argument). In contrast, the approach developed in this book takes as its starting point that it makes no sense to consider the ‘objects’ or targets of policy as existing independently of the way they are spoken about or represented, either in political debate or in policy proposals. Any description of an issue or a "problem" is an interpretation, and interpretations involve judgment and choices' (statement of argument).
The sentence opener 'I argue ...' is often used to signal the central idea of a thesis or article. For this reason, using the phrase 'I argue ...' to introduce ideas that are not central to the thesis can mislead the reader. This can be avoided by using this phrase only when signalling the central thesis.
Information about the methodology and the method, or the research design/explanation of creative practice, follows the statement of the aim/objective or the argument. This section within the introduction includes information about:
- the theory or philosophy underpinning the research aims, where relevant,
- any research phases, and relationship between phases, where relevant,
- the methods adopted or creative process (including sample and selection processes),
- how data was analysed.
Introductions of theses, exegeses and journal articles also provide definitions for unclear or contested terms. In general, it is assumed that the meaning of words complies with their dictionary definitions. Sometimes however words are not in the dictionary, or their use within a particular context is different from the dictionary usage, or the word can be used in a number of different ways. When the meaning of a term is unclear or contested, it is defined the first time it is used. This often occurs in the introduction of the thesis or exegesis, though other terms can be defined in the other chapters as they arise in the flow of the writing. Technical, theoretical or other terms can be defined by referring to a previously published definition. Aim to provide a precise, unambiguous definition, and to use the term as it is defined throughout the whole text. Try to avoid unnecessarily long definitions that break the flow of the story line.
The chapter outline is often the last section of the thesis or exegesis introduction, and usually follows after the description of the research design. In journal articles, you will often notice that the outline of the paper is also the last element of the introductory paragraphs.
The chapter outline within a research thesis or exegesis aims to summarise the main content areas (question/answer style) or the sub-arguments (descriptive style) from each of the middle chapters which link with the main research objective or argument.
Introductory and concluding chapters do not need to be summarised in the chapter outline because they are themselves summary chapters.
It is also often unecessary to provide a summary of the literature review and methodology chapters in the chapter outline. This is because those chapters have already been effectively summarised within the preceding introduction. One useful strategy to introduce these chapters is to refer the reader to the chapter number in the part of the introduction where the key point from those chapters is provided. For example, following information about the literature review or the methodology you might choose to add a sentence to follow: 'This will be discussed in more detail in chapter two', 'A full discussion of multidisciplinary perspectives on trauma is provided in chapter two'. Or, add a bracket at the end of a sentence which summarises the content of a chapter ('for more detail see chapter two').
The chapter outline can be written by going back to each of your middle chapters and re-reading each one to summarise the main points or results covered in those chapters. Try to note down the key content areas, results or sub-arguments in a few sentences on a separate piece of paper. Then go back to the introduction and incorporate your summary in the chapter outline. Be sure to make a note of the main sub-headings or themes discussed in each chapter, and ensure that you have included all of the key points within your summary, but try to be as concise as possible. Each chapter should also be discussed in the order in which it appears in the thesis or exegesis.
Since the middle chapters need to be written before the chapter outline, it is usually the last section of the introduction to be completed. However, it is a good idea to write the chapter summaries and include them in the introduction as you go, even though they will probably change as the focus becomes clearer. Working in this way, allows you to use the introduction like a map of the thesis or exegesis. By travelling back and forward between the chapters and the summary of the chapters in the introduction, you can ensure that your 'map' accurately describes the territory or main body of the thesis or exegesis as you understand it at the current point in time. Having a summary of the middle chapters alongside summaries of the 'gap', the research objective, question or argument and the method/methodology prevents getting lost in the mass of writing in the main body, providing a means by which to ensure there are clear links between the steps in the story line.
The chapter summaries should flow naturally from the research justification, the literature review and the statement of the method in the thesis introduction. It is helpful to read your draft introduction through as you periodically include the chapter summaries to ensure that the ideas in the thesis flow. Weak links in the chain of ideas will be easier to detect after writing the middle thesis or exegesis chapters when you will come to the introduction with a fresh eye.
Introduction descriptive exegesis
Modified extract from D. Saffer, 2005, Metaphor in design, Masters thesis
The role of metaphor in interaction design is often maligned and misunderstood. Metaphor has been called ‘not only unhelpful, but harmful’ (Cooper, 1995) in design, and is typically thought of as leading to faulty thinking about how products work.
‘Problem statement’, also acts as argument set up
This exegesis will show that, when properly used, metaphor can be a powerful tool for designers, both in the design process and within products themselves. Metaphor can help redefine and solve design problems. It can be used as a research tool, to understand new subject areas, or as means to generate new ideas about familiar subjects. It can help sell a product, both to internal stakeholders and team mates as well as to consumers. Metaphors can provide cues to users about how to understand products: to orient and personify. In short, interaction designers can use metaphor to change behaviour.
Provides statement of argument that contrasts with the opening statements to produce sense of novelty
The thesis reports on interviews with ten designers which explored how they use metaphor in their work. The thesis reports on the use of metaphor in the process of interaction design (discussed in chapter three), and secondly, within interactive products (discussed in chapter four). I’ll begin by giving a brief overview of metaphor: some historical views and current thinking on metaphor, then examine some of the criticism leveled at metaphor in design within the design literature (chapter two).
Description of method and chapter outline
Introduction descriptive thesis
Modified extract from J. McCulloch, 1998, Blue army: Paramilitary policing in Victoria, PhD thesis
A close ideological and operational alliance between the police and military is usually associated with repressive governments (Kraska and Kappeler 1997:2; Hope 1979: 142; Wootten 1991:282-83; Bunyan 1977:276; Blackshield 1978). Since the late 1970s commentators and researchers in
'Problem statement', acts to introduce and establish interest in the topic by providing important background information.
I will research and analyse the impact of
Identifies the focus and nature of the research.
The research demonstrates that the SOG has been the harbinger of more military styles of policing involving high levels of confrontation, more lethal weapons and a greater range of weapons and more frequent recourse to deadly force. The establishment of groups like the SOG has also undermined
States the 'argument' or the main idea the thesis will evidence and develop.
Despite the significance of the distinctions between the police and military in
Highlights a gap in knowledge about the problem of the research.
Details existing research and the limitations of existing research.
In this thesis I explore the gap between the saying and the doing of counter terrorism and examine the practice of counter terrorism. In order to do this people’s experience with the counter terrorist squads and the paramilitary tactics introduced into everyday policing via the squads will be emphasised. In this way an attempt will be made to give space to those voices which are usually silenced. The focus on people’s experience runs counter to the tendency among academics not to ‘move beyond an analysis of criminal justice as a system of rules and procedures to one which places the individual at the centre of the process (Hillyard 1993:xi)
Provides methodological rationale.
The method will involve examining contemporary policing styles and practices, comparing them with earlier policing practices, and to a lesser extent, comparing them with past and present military practice. The detail of past and present police and military practice will be derived from diverse documentary sources (listed in detail in the original).
Provides a statement of the method.
Chapters two to four provide a context for the research. Chapter two looks at the similarities and differences between the police and military in western democracies like
Chapter five focuses on
The following three chapters concentrate on armed policing, the involvement of the SOG in fatal shootings and the group’s influence on firearm tactics and training throughout the force. Chapter six analyses the controversial history of fatal police shootings in
Chapter nine critiques the trend towards the use of less-than-lethal weapons in law enforcement and describes how these weapons, particularly capsicum gas, are in the process of being introduced into mainstream policing via counter terrorist squads like the SOG.
Chapter ten examines the overlap and connections between the SOG and crowd control groups and what impact the group has had and is likely to have on the policing of political protests and industrial conflict.
Provides information about the topics covered in each chapter, how data was obtained, and how the chapter supports the thesis argument.
A note on 'background' chapters
Background chapters provide information the reader needs in order to follow the story line—information that does not sensibly fit within any of the other chapters. Background chapters should be avoided where possible as a general rule because they side track the main story line of the thesis or exegesis. Try to aim to explain information in the thesis or exegesis as it becomes relevant to the main research story line, or to the development of the argument, and avoid writing chapters whose purpose in relation to the story line is unclear.
After reading an introduction, the reader should know:
- what problem, issue or controversy the thesis, exegesis or article relates to;
- what bodies of literature and fields of practice it relates to and aims to contribute to;
- an overview of what we know on the problem area;
- a summary of an area that remains unclear or contested;
- the central question, hypothesis or research objective;
- for descriptive theses, the central argument;
- definitions of any key terms that will be used throughout (provided in the flow of the discussion);
- the rationale underpinning the method (methodology) or creative practice;
- how evidence was attained, or how the creative work was produced (research methods/methodology, creative practice);
- overview of chapter contents, (how each of the middle thesis or exegesis chapters support the main objective or argument).
Crasswell, G 2005, Writing for academic success: A postgraduate guide, Sage, London. p201
Metcalf, M 2002, How to critique articles.
Partridge, B ‘Thesis and dissertation writing: An examination of published articles and actual practice’, in English for Specific Purposes.
Taylor, G 1989 The student’s writing guide for the arts and social sciences, Cambridge University Press. Writing Lab, Purdue University:
Zeigler, M 2000, Essentials of writing biomedical research papers, Second edition, McGraw Hill, New York.
This web resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich.