I was assuming these two were the same. What is the difference between them? How does one relate to another? The context here is an MA (Master of Arts) level social science dissertation in UK education system.

Should background talk about relevant research done? If so why does literature review exist? Or should the background chose only a few literature and discuss them throughly?

  • 1
    What did your supervisor say?
    – 410 gone
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 15:48
  • I have not received reply yet. I wonder diverse opinions.
    – co co
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 16:01
  • I initially thought them to be similar, if not the same. But then I had a feeling literature review is "what everyone has done on this (or similar topic)", while background is "how we pave the way to this work". This means that a dissimilar method doing the same might not appear in the background review. But it should appear in the related work / literature review. However, my feeling is that one should always do a literature review in a scientific paper / dissertation. It just might be called differently, due to different customs of various fields. Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 16:52

4 Answers 4


I am working in a technical field where very often "solutions" to certain important / interesting "problems" are investigated. Roughly, the background explains what the reader needs to understand the problem, and the related work explains (and critiques) what others have done to (partially) solve or discuss this problem or related problems.

  • This was how it went for me. Background: "Here's the setup for this problem". Lit Review: "Here's pretty much everything anyone has tried to address it."
    – Fomite
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 19:39

Context: I'm in a US PhD program and thus my answer may not be fully appropriate for Masters in UK.

In the US, a Masters thesis is required rather than dissertation, which is required only in PhD programs. In Social Sciences, a Masters thesis shows that you understand the relevant research in some depth and that you can also apply this research to some specific problems or questions. In contrast, a PhD dissertation needs to contribute to research in some important way (even if the contribution is narrow or small).

There are no widely accepted rules for what is appropriate for Background or Literature Review chapters, or whether your thesis should include either or both.

What follows are my views, based on reading various theses and dissertations.

A Background chapter is best used to present contextual or prerequisite information that is important or essential to understand the main body of your thesis. Perhaps there were some historical developments that set the stage for your research questions or thesis. Perhaps there was some debate over key terms or scope of your subfield. Perhaps you are bringing together several disciplines, and you need to explain which aspects of each discipline you are including and not including.

A Literature Review chapter builds a conceptual structure that ties together all the key ideas from all the relevant literature. By "conceptual structure" I mean an organized way of linking individual ideas together so that their relative importance and interrelations are clear and obvious to the reader. What are the main ideas? What ideas support these main ideas? What are the contradictory ideas? On what basis to people decide what ideas or positions to support or oppose?

Viewed this way, what becomes clear is that a Literature Review chapter is less about "literature" and instead is mostly about "review".

For what it's worth, in my dissertation I will not have either chapter. Instead, I've decided to have a chapter called "Foundations" to cover both of these needs.

  • "a Masters thesis is required rather than dissertation" - in your understanding, does that mean any difference in meaning, or are "thesis" and "dissertation" synonymous, with the single difference that it is a convention to call a doctoral thesis "dissertation"? Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 7:19
  • @O.R.Mapper While I have heard them used interchangeably, I think there is a distinction between the Masters requirement and the PhD requirement, along the lines I described above. Again, this may be different outside the US. Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 16:30
  • In the UK, common practice seems to be the opposite: One writes an undergraduate dissertation and a PhD thesis. But otherwise I imagine they're pretty similar to the equivalent level in the US. Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 13:12

I agree that there is no absolute way to write the research background and literature review chapter. however, there is a general rule of research background which is "write from general to specific". Meaning that, write your research topic general then go specific to your topic.

I take one example of finance research topic which is education loan, and it is a quantitative study (has dependent variable (DV) and independent variables(IV)). Let say I would like to study about default payment (DV) and attitude towards loan repayment (IV).

In the background of study, paragraph 1-3 i will discuss in general about education loan including the countries that offers the edu loan, the design of loan scheme etc. in the first three of the paragraphs, i didn't touch on my specific topic which is default and its predictors.

in para 4, i will discuss briefly what is wrong with the edu loan nowadays - default (refers to when someone refuses to pay loan). and briefly discussed among the major factors that may contribute to the default.

in the next 4 paragraphs, i will focus on the major factor of default which is is attitude. i explain in detail the research trend about attitude (e.g. attitudes correlated with ignorance, dissatisfaction and misconception about the consequences of not pay loan), why attitude important. why attitude towards loan repayment becomes my major focus of the study. i will cite a few recent research who said that study between attitude and intention to pay loan still limited.

the last four para, i will discuss about the evidence about default rate in my context of research (e.g. the country that you gonna do the research, e.g. UK), put some statistic, or statement from prime minister or anything else as the evidence that default is really a problem in the UK.

While, in the literature review, I will be more specific about the relationship between attitude and intention to pay loan. read as much as you can and better to put in a literature review and synthesis matrix to summarize the past research.



I see this as relevant question which many junior researches ponder.

Literature review is usually longer and it can be a whole work/article or a part of a thesis. Background section is usually short and the first part of research article.

For literature review you should thoroughly go through all available studies, assess the important findings in them, discuss them and find some relevance for them. Poor reviews usually list the available studies and their findings. You can hypothesize with some findings especially if controversy exists. For example do the methodological differences explain the possible controversy in the findings. You should not make lengthy or intense speculations since you must stick strictly to the literature available. In the end of literature review you can give some open questions and warrant further research if your review have given examples of controversies or examples of lack of information in the literature.

The background section of a journal article should briefly describe what is reported in the literature so far. Usually you should be able to present some kind absence or need of certain information or a controversy which you will address in your research. You could also describe shortly why this lack of information or controversy should be solved. You should not hypothesize in any way or make assumptions in the background section. All that should come in the discussion section. Finally, you should only scratch the surface of the literature and not try establish reasons for different or controversial findings seen in the previous studies.

  • Agreed. Your background section can tell us why you are taking up the specific topic you chose -- it will be the bridge between the literature review and the beginning of your actual study. Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 22:15

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