I. Structure and Approach
The introduction is the broad beginning of the paper that answers three important questions for the reader:
- What is this?
- Why should I read it?
- What do you want me to think about / consider doing / react to?
Think of the structure of the introduction as an inverted triangle of information that lays a foundation for understanding the research problem. Organize the information so as to present the more general aspects of the topic early in the introduction, then narrow your analysis to more specific topical information that provides context, finally arriving at your research problem and the rationale for studying it [often written as a series of key questions] and, whenever possible, a description of the potential outcomes your study can reveal.
These are general phases associated with writing an introduction:
1. Establish an area to research by:
- Highlighting the importance of the topic, and/or
- Making general statements about the topic, and/or
- Presenting an overview on current research on the subject.
2. Identify a research niche by:
- Opposing an existing assumption, and/or
- Revealing a gap in existing research, and/or
- Formulating a research question or problem, and/or
- Continuing a disciplinary tradition.
3. Place your research within the research niche by:
- Stating the intent of your study,
- Outlining the key characteristics of your study,
- Describing important results, and
- Giving a brief overview of the structure of the paper.
NOTE: Even though the introduction is the first main section of a research paper, it is often useful to finish the introduction late in the writing process because the structure of the paper, the reporting and analysis of results, and the conclusion will have been completed. Reviewing and, if necessary, rewriting the introduction ensures that it correctly matches the overall structure of your final paper.
II. Delimitations of the Study
Delimitations refer to those characteristics that limit the scope and define the conceptual boundaries of your research. This is determined by the conscious exclusionary and inclusionary decisions you make about how to investigate the research problem. In other words, not only should you tell the reader what it is you are studying and why, but you must also acknowledge why you rejected alternative approaches that could have been used to examine the topic.
Obviously, the first limiting step was the choice of research problem itself. However, implicit are other, related problems that could have been chosen but were rejected. These should be noted in the conclusion of your introduction. For example, a delimitating statement could read, "Although many factors can be understood to impact the likelihood young people will vote, this study will focus on socioeconomic factors related to the need to work full-time while in school." The point is not to document every possible delimiting factor, but to highlight why previously researched issues related to the topic were not addressed.
Examples of delimitating choices would be:
- The key aims and objectives of your study,
- The research questions that you address,
- The variables of interest [i.e., the various factors and features of the phenomenon being studied],
- The method(s) of investigation,
- The time period your study covers, and
- Any relevant alternative theoretical frameworks that could have been adopted.
Review each of these decisions. Not only do you clearly establish what you intend to accomplish in your research, but you should also include a declaration of what the study does not intend to cover. In the latter case, your exclusionary decisions should be based upon criteria understood as, "not interesting"; "not directly relevant"; “too problematic because..."; "not feasible," and the like. Make this reasoning explicit!
NOTE: Delimitations refer to the initial choices made about the broader, overall design of your study and should not be confused with documenting the limitiations of your study discovered after the research has been completed.
ANOTHER NOTE: Do not view delimitating statements as admitting to an inherent failing or shortcoming in your research. They are an accepted element of academic writing intended to keep the reader focused on the research problem by explicitly defining the conceptual boundaries and scope of your study. It addresses any critical questions in the reader's mind of, "Why the hell didn't the author examine this?"
III. The Narrative Flow
Issues to keep in mind that will help the narrative flow in your introduction:
- Your introduction should clearly identify the subject area of interest. A simple strategy to follow is to use key words from your title in the first few sentences of the introduction. This will help focus the introduction on the topic at the appropriate level and ensures that you get to the subject matter quickly without losing focus, or discussing information that is too general.
- Establish context by providing a brief and balanced review of the pertinent published literature that is available on the subject. The key is to summarize for the reader what is known about the specific research problem before you did your analysis. This part of your introduction should not represent a comprehensive literature review--that comes next. It consists of a general review of the important, foundational research literature [with citations] that establishes a foundation for understanding key elements of the research problem. See the drop-down menu under this tab for "Background Information" regarding types of contexts.
- Clearly state the hypothesis that you investigated. When you are first learning to write in this format it is okay, and actually preferable, to use a past statement like, "The purpose of this study was to...." or "We investigated three possible mechanisms to explain the...."
- Why did you choose this kind of research study or design? Provide a clear statement of the rationale for your approach to the problem studied. This will usually follow your statement of purpose in the last paragraph of the introduction.
IV. Engaging the Reader
The overarching goal of your introduction is to make your readers want to read your paper. The introduction should grab the reader's attention. Strategies for doing this can be to:
- Open with a compelling story,
- Include a strong quotation or a vivid, perhaps unexpected anecdote,
- Pose a provocative or thought-provoking question,
- Describe a puzzling scenario or incongruity, or
- Cite a stirring example or case study that illustrates why the research problem is important.
NOTE: Choose only one strategy for engaging your readers; avoid giving an impression that your paper is more flash than substance.
Freedman, Leora and Jerry Plotnick. Introductions and Conclusions. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Introduction. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Introductions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Introductions. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Introductions, Body Paragraphs, and Conclusions for an Argument Paper. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; “Writing Introductions.” In Good Essay Writing: A Social Sciences Guide. Peter Redman. 4th edition. (London: Sage, 2011), pp. 63-70; Resources for Writers: Introduction Strategies. Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sharpling, Gerald. Writing an Introduction. Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick; Samraj, B. “Introductions in Research Articles: Variations Across Disciplines.” English for Specific Purposes 21 (2002): 1–17; Swales, John and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Skills and Tasks. 2nd edition. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004; Writing Your Introduction. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University.
Research questions indicate what you will help answer through your research and provide structure for your dissertation.
They usually include both a main research question (which is the fundamental question you are exploring) and sub-questions (which assist you in answering the main question).
Types of research questions
Many different kinds of research questions exist. The kind you choose to use in your dissertation determines the type of research you will need to conduct and the research methods you will ultimately employ (e.g., interviews).
While it’s important to give some thought to the kinds of research question you will use, don’t get too hung up on the matter. The categories are often intertwined and it is possible to a question may actually be a combination of two or more.
What types of questions should you use?
You can use all of the above categories of questions in your dissertation. Your decision may be guided by the kind of research you want or are required to do. Nonetheless, bear in mind that not all research question types are suitable for a main research question . For example, a main question should not be evaluative.
It’s also important to remember that while some questions may fall clearly into one particular category, others may represent a combination of question types.
The research questions in a dissertation are divided into a main research question and a series of sub-questions:
- Main question
- Sub-question 1
- Sub-question 2
- Sub-question 3 etc.
Main research question
The main research question plays a leading role in your dissertation. It usually reflects a variety of research question categories.
Sub-questions are shorter, less complex questions. They generally fall squarely into one research question category.
These questions are useful for really getting to know the subject you are investigating. They are usually the starting point of research and will help you to get clear on the topic of your dissertation.
Descriptive questions are about the here and now. Their answers may describe a situation, concept or person based on your own observations or information you have collected.
Examples of descriptive questions
What is the world’s population?
What steps will the government take in the coming year to reduce the tax burden?
What measures are primary schools in the US taking for children with autism?
Comparative questions are useful if you want to explore the differences and similarities between two or more items.
Examples of comparative questions
What is the difference between sign language and body language?
What are the similarities of the political systems in the Netherlands and Russia?
Defining questions allow you to determine how your topic relates to the larger picture. They are useful for characterizing and classifying a phenomenon.
Examples of defining questions
How can the new subclass that is emerging in Germany be characterized?
How can socialists be classified within this emerging subclass?
Evaluative or normative questions are used when you want to determine the value of something (for example, how desirable, good, normal or usable it is), as they enable you to provide an opinion or judgment. They are also sometimes called ethical questions.
Examples of evaluative questions
It is desirable that workers be closely supervised?
What is the value of having a healthy work environment for employees?
Explanatory questions are designed to determine the cause of a problem. As a result, they are also called “why” questions (although they may instead use words such as “what” and “how”).
Examples of clarifying questions
What is cause of the high sickness rate at Apple headquarters?
Why is it that every substance melts at a certain temperature?
Why do leaves change color in the fall?
As the name implies, predictive questions are used to predict something that will occur in the future. You can use them to identify an expected consequence.
Examples of predictive questions
How many mortgages will fail if the economic crisis continues until 2020?
What is the new tax plan’s possible impact on elderly people living alone?
Will public transportation remain affordable in the future?
Framing questions are used when you want to identify new solutions to existing problems, with a focus on the near future. They are often phrased as “How can we…?”
In many cases, framing questions cannot be tackled until explanatory questions are answered. If your main question is framing, it’s therefore common to use some explanatory sub-questions.
Examples of framing/problem-solving/advisory questions
How can we ensure that the UK will have 50% fewer illiterates within the next three years?
How can we reduce youth unemployment?
One risk of using a framing question is that it may lead you to provide advice about how to solve a particular problem – which is not your job as a researcher. Your goal is instead to provide research that those involved in a problem can use to help solve it.
Advisory questions are helpful when your research is designed to make recommendations. This kind of research often involves preparing a separate advisory report for a particular client at the end of the dissertation process. In such cases, it can be useful to include at least one advisory sub-question.
Inferential questions can be used if you want to measure a certain effect and most often give rise to at least one hypothesis. They should be closed questions (e.g., with “yes” and “no” as possible answers).
Because inferential questions are designed to measure an effect, they are answered with the help of experiments. As such they are common in scientific research.
Examples of inferential questions
Do students obtain better exam scores if they take classes online instead of attending lectures in person?
What effect does conducting preventive alcohol checks have on the number of people who drive after drinking?
Types of questions to avoid using as your main question
Some research question categories do not lend themselves well for formulating a main research question.
- Evaluative questions, because they make it difficult to maintain your objectivity as a research.
- “Why” questions, as they are usually not specific enough.
- Inferential questions, given that they are too limited in scope.
If your main research question falls into one of these categories, revisit your problem statement and try to rephrase the question.