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Lesson A-2

Assessing the Background of the Study

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Scholarly research usually draws on prior studies, a conceptual framework or theory, and/or identified problems.  These provide a rationale and focus for the study.  When the background work is done well, the focus can put the study on the cutting edge of knowledge; when done poorly the study may repeat well-settled questions or pursue an inquiry that has proved fruitless.  While focus allows for intensification of the investigation, it also inevitably delimits the generalizations that can be made from the study. 

Most research is based partly on a review of prior research.  The review may be used to test a speculation before devoting great time and expense to researching it, or the review may have provoked the research by identifying a problem that could benefit from research.  The review can also be used to scout conceptual frameworks, theories, and methodologies that might be used in the research.  If the research article or detailed report does not reference prior research on the topic, there is reason to worry that the investigator was an amateur or did a “quickie” study. 

The terms “theory” and “conceptual framework” are used in various way by researchers.  Usually a conceptual framework refers to a set concepts applicable to a given phenomena that provide an special perspective of it.  Theory usually refers to a conceptual framework that specifies causal relationships and which has been inferred from prior research and then verified with further research.  New areas of research and much survey research directed at characterizing socio-demographic characteristics and opinions about current events will have no associated conceptual framework or theory.

The most productive research is usually in response to a problem rather than mere curiosity.  The problem makes the research of importance.  The problem may be a gap in established knowledge, an apparent inconsistency or contradiction in present knowledge, the lack of a conceptual framework, or inadequacies in a theory.  In qualitative research, the problem may be foreshadowed-that is suggested but not clearly evident.  The problem is not always stated explicitly or clearly in research reports, but sometimes it is implicit.

The background work for research provides the focus and lens for the research.  This allows the investigator to see more acutely.  But it also limits peripheral vision and thus bounds or “delimits” the study.  Those delimitations are important for interpreting the results.  It is not uncommon for the conclusions and recommendations of research reports to exceed the delimitations of the study.

Assessment QuestionsKey Assessment Questions
    1. What is the problem that the study is addressing?
    2. What conceptual frameworks or theories informed the study? 
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