I 'm writing a Master thesis. I have some terms that should be defined. Where should I put this section? In the introduction or literature review chapter? Thank you

Additional Information

I think there are always exceptions to the general rule of writing theses. That's, some may not have a supervisor, guidelines, etc. This is another story. Concerning definitions of terms, they can be presented as a glossary or discussed in a separate section. Where this section should be put is my question. I have seen theses having it in the introduction while others in literature review chapter discussing each term in detail.

  1. Example of a thesis discussing definitions in the literature review chapter: Contesting the Culture of the Doctoral Degree: Candidates’ Experiences of Three Doctoral Degrees in the School of Education, RMIT University. Link.

  2. A handbook for writing Master thesis recommends discussing definitions in the introduction: Bui, Yvonne N. How to write a master's thesis. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, c2009. You can have access to a summary of the book here.

So, what is the difference between discussing definition of terms in the introduction and doing it in the literature review chapter? If the literature review chapter is about reviewing previous research on the topic, why should one allocate a whole section for example to defining a term or concept?

  • If you have seen theses having it in the introduction while others in literature review chapter - then lacking more specific information, clearly the answer to your question is "either." What do you think we can tell you that you don't already know? – ff524 Apr 13 '14 at 8:36
  • I thought it was obvious that I was trying to figure out what is the difference between discussing definition of terms in the introduction and doing it in the literature review. – EasternRiver Apr 13 '14 at 8:57
  • Perhaps you should say so in the question, then :) You could also say what you think the difference might be, and why you are unsure. – ff524 Apr 13 '14 at 9:00
  • You are right. I'm sorry. I will edit it. – EasternRiver Apr 13 '14 at 9:08
up vote 1 down vote accepted

I've often encountered this type of problem in my own academic writing (and not only in theses). The problem is that it's often difficult to talk about something before you've defined what it is. But at the same time, it's awkward to write so much expository material before being able to talk about your own stuff. It's up to you to work out, for your document in particular, the best way to present these necessary definitions.

Given that you want to say what your work is about as soon as possible, you can't avoid mentioning at least a few of these technical terms before introducing them formally. For one thing, you may well have to put them in the title! Often, you can present just enough in the abstract and introduction to allow readers to get an idea of the technicalities, but not overwhelm them with detail. The trick is to make sure your presentation is accurate and useful. If you make it too vague ("the Riemann Hypothesis is a very hard problem") then nobody is helped.

A literature review chapter is often a natural place to put definitions. It's hard to say anything meaningful about the literature if you haven't introduced the terms that the literature talks about. Also, exploring the past contributions to your subject certainly includes identifying who came up with particular definitions, who disagreed, how they adapted the definitions, and so on. This is the case for the dissertation in your first link, which defines "research" in the literature review, in the context of conflicting definitions of what research actually is (p19). The author still talks about research in the preceding pages - but that is the point where she sets the scene for her own work, using that definition in particular.

Material which is more basic or less contested could be introduced earlier, if you like. If it is general background, which readers need to know in order to understand anything you've done, but which the thesis is not particularly "about", then the introduction is a fine place for it.

Equally, definitions could be in their own section - either towards the beginning, or as an appendix. I often see this in documents where the definitions are basic reference material. Some readers will know them already, and skip the chapter; others can read in more detail. Again, this option separates the definitions from the literature review, on the basis that the definitions are simply fundamental to the field.

Ultimately, the choice is yours, unless your institution tells you what to do. I hope these thoughts will be helpful as you consider which option is best for presenting your work.

In the guidelines for my Masters thesis we were told to put our glossary after the contents page and before the abstract section, with its own entry in the contents page. Does your course/institution not have any such guidelines?

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