The old adage “first impressions count” really holds true when it comes to thesis introductions. After the title and the abstract, the introduction is the first thing the examiner sees. They/we do form an opinion – sometimes quite a strong one – on what the rest of the text will be like, based on what comes at the start.
But before worrying about how to get the perfect opening sentence, paragraph and section, I find it helpful to think about the WORK that the thesis introduction has to do.
The introduction has to clearly set the WARRANT for the thesis – the mandate, the rationale for doing the research. That is, you need to establish that we don’t know something about a particular topic, and that we need, or it would be interesting and worthwhile, to know it. However, it is not sufficient to simply say that there is a ‘gap’ because there are always gaps in what we know; the issue is about why you are addressing this specific knowledge niche here and now. This argument has to clearly set up the answer to the ‘so what’ question that you come back to in the conclusion.
The research warrant can be of different kinds, depending on the discipline and the topic – for example:
(1) we need to understand a particular social phenomenon, process or practice better (because…)
(2) we don’t know enough about a natural phenomenon or manufactured process or practice (and if we do…)
(3) we could benefit from knowing more about a particular policy or professional practice (because…)
(4) we could do with knowing more about the history of a particular topic (maybe for its own sake)
(5) there is a scholarly debate about a particular topic which might benefit from being looked at in a different way (because…)
(6) it would be helpful to develop a new method to examine this particular site, topic, population (because… but we don’t know yet whether it will do what we hope)
Note: This is a non-exhaustive list – these are just some ways to set up a warrant!
An argument such as this – we need to know about, it would be good to know more about – always needs to be backed up. So a warrant for research is actually a claim backed up by ‘evidence’.
The ‘evidence’ that you use to justify the claim for the research can come from any number of sources – in the social sciences and humanities it may be from current events, media or professional experience, with the scholarly literatures largely left until later in the thesis. However, if appropriate to the topic, there might be some literatures at the outset – there’s no rule here. What ‘evidence ‘ you use, to back up your claim that the research is needed/warranted, depends on the topic and the kind of argument you are making about its worthiness as research. In making the decision about what to use to back up your claim about the purpose/point of the research, it’s important to understand that the material used to justify the warrant – the ‘evidence’ that the inquiry is justified – is more than just a background to the study, it is to persuade the examiner of the intrinsic or extrinsic necessity and/or benefits of your project.
The introduction usually also sets out the SPECIFIC FOCUS for the research in the form of a thesis statement, aims and objectives, hypothesis or a question. Examiners generally get frustrated if they have to wait too long for this. Most examiners in most disciplines want to know early on what your specific research project is about, and they also want to know something about the kind of research that was undertaken. So a short statement which names THE APPROACH taken to the research is also generally included alongside the focus.
The introduction also usually includes an OUTLINE of the thesis itself. The examiner expects to see some kind of road map to the way that the rest of their reading will unfold. The outline will also show them how you have put the research results into a narrative or argument, so thinking about chapter headings and how they might help show the flow of your reasoning is an important and separate task.
There are other things that can appear in introductions too:
• Material which locates THE RESEARCHER. Some disciplines in some countries have a convention of always beginning the thesis with a personal narrative which shows the examiner how they are implicated in the research. This is particularly the case in professional doctorates which arise from practice, and with research warrants that are located in a professional practice. However, some supervisors and examiners hold that the researcher always needs to state up front how you are in the research, something you take up later when you talk about reflexivity as part of your methodology.
• A clarification of any key DEFINITIONS that can be sorted relatively quickly, but which are important for the reader to know before they read any further. The examiner now knows your take on the terminology. Some theses provide a glossary separate from the introduction.
• Establishing BOUNDARIES around the research to make it quite clear at the start what aspects of a topic you have covered and those you haven’t. This ensures that the examiner doesn’t later say, “ Well why isn’t this here?” because you’ve already told them it’s not going to be.
Inclusion of these materials in the introduction means that the examiner starts off reading your thesis knowing what you’ve done, why you’ve done what you’ve done, and how. They can then read on and find out more, and in much more detail.
Once you know the material that you have to include in the introduction, then you can think about how you are going to present it. In the case of the thesis introduction I think it is helpful to use the FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION maxim. This goes for both the order of the material, and also the way in which it is written. (However, always check with your supervisor to see if there is a prescribed set of headings you need to write to before launching into something less formulaic.)
It is crucial to think about form, because having a well crafted, lively and perhaps, dare I suggest, creative introduction will set the reader-examiner up well. If what you present at the start is dull and plodding then they will, rightly or wrongly, assume that the rest of the thesis will be the same. No matter how solid the warrant, focus, approach and outline are, the WRITING itself also does important WORK in predisposing the examiner to read on past the introduction either with anticipation or dread.
This all suggests, of course, that the time you spend on the introduction is time well spent!
More about introductions and warrants: CARS