Guidance for Conceptual Introduction (CI)
The empirical paper of your thesis will describe a study that addresses some research questions and/or tests hypotheses. The purpose of the CI is to provide a justification for these research questions / hypotheses, based on a comprehensive and sophisticated synthesis of the relevant literature. Also, the CI must justify and explain the approach you will take to addressing these questions/hypotheses.
The tasks of the CI
In order to set up the empirical study, the CI should accomplish the following tasks:
1. Explain the rationale for the empirical study.
This involves critically analysing the relevant literature, identifying a gap in knowledge and explaining why it is important that this gap be filled. As part of this, students should consider the key theories in the field, identifying which is used for the rationale of the study and why.
2. Setting out and justifying the specific focus of the empirical study.
This task includes making a clear statement of the aim of the research, and how this will be achieved by addressing specific research questions, or testing specific hypotheses.
3. Setting the boundaries of the research.
This is related to the above point, and is about explaining to the reader which parts of a topic you have covered, and which you have not.
4. Defining key concepts.
There should be a rigorous definition, again grounded in a robust appraisal of existing literature.
5. Setting out and justifying the research approach taken.
This will involve consideration of the methodology used, and explaining why this can help address the study aim(s). The key is to provide a conceptually coherent and empirically grounded analysis of how such a research question has been done in the past and should most rigorously be done in the future (and hence for your study).
Structuring the CI
There is no one way to write this sort of introduction - ultimately you will need to create a structure that enables you to achieve the tasks of the CI in a way that is parsimonious and engaging. However there are some general principles that can guide you in this.
1. Even introductions need introductions.
It is a good idea to start off the CI with an opening paragraph that gives the reader a summary of the whole thesis project, so they can quickly be oriented to the aims and nature of the thesis. Such a paragraph could go as follows: (a) start with one sentence offering an overarching statement of what the project is; (b) then have 2 or 3 sentences on the problems / knowledge gap the project is seeking to address; (c) then state the aims of the project; (d) state very briefly how the research will address these aims; (e) make a brief comment on the potential benefits of the research. Then provide an overview of the structure and aims of the literature review.
2. Start general, and become more specific as you go on.
Once you have done the initial introduction to the CI, think of the CI as funnel-shaped: you start broad, and then build to a focused conclusion which sets out the research questions / hypotheses.
3. Identify relevant literature.
Unlike the SAP, the CI does not require a formal, systematic search. However, you will most likely still conduct searches of the usual databases, so it would be a good idea to attend the library training just as you would for a SAP – but there is no need to document this process. Indeed, if you do document it, there is a risk your readers will look at your work through the lens of a systematic review, and that is not the aim of this kind of chapter. External examiners have recommended excluding this information from CI chapters to avoid confusion, as they will be judged using different criteria to SAP type chapters.
Examples of how to structure a CI
One place to find good examples of this kind of writing is the Frontiers journal family. These journals take a type of article named Conceptual Analysis which are similar to our CI in that they “provide insights into concepts, issues, and problems that define the field, with the aim of presenting a novel argument, interpretation, model, or critique.” Another journal which publishes similar conceptual pieces is Social Science and Medicine. There are many good examples, here are three:
Talking Cure Models: A Framework of Analysis (https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01589)
Critical health literacy: a review and critical analysis. (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.04.004)
Applying the Theory of Constructed Emotion to Police Decision Making. (https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01946)
Examples of CI chapters from past theses:
There follows an example CI structure be for a thesis project that used a multiple-single case design to make an initial evaluation of the feasibility, acceptability and efficacy of a new treatment for anxiety in autistic children.
Section 1 - Opening paragraph could go like this:
This project is intended to increase knowledge of how to help autistic children with their anxiety, by using a multiple single-case design to make an initial evaluation of a new psychosocial intervention. Around half of children diagnosed with autism have a clinically severe anxiety problem that impacts upon their quality of life and development (Simonoff et al., 2009; Guillot et al., 2001). Despite this, there are currently no evidence-based treatments for anxiety in autistic children (Kendall et al., 2013). We aimed to take steps towards filling this gap in knowledge by making an initial evaluation of a new intervention, called ‘Safe Steps’, which uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and systemic principles to treat anxiety difficulties of autistic children. Specifically, we sought to investigate the feasibility, acceptability and efficacy of Safe Steps. This was done using a multiple single-case design, in which each participant acted as their own control: we compared the trajectory of baseline (pre-treatment) anxiety symptoms with anxiety trajectories during and after treatment. In addition, questionnaires and semi-structured interviews were used to assess the acceptability and feasibility of Safe Steps to children and their families. This work is intended to inform the further development of the intervention, and to lay the ground for a future randomised controlled trial. This conceptual review will consider the essential research and theoretical background motivating this study, including justification of the methodological choices made.
Section 2 - Introduce key concepts.
For example: (a) describe what autism is; (b) what anxiety is; (c) that there are very high rates of anxiety in autistic people; (d) and provide evidence that this anxiety has a negative effect on their lives and on the lives of their families.
There will need to be consideration of main theories about why there is such high anxiety on the autism spectrum, describing the most prominent theoretical models, and briefly reviewing key evidence for and against these.
You would also need to provide some general information on the treatment of anxiety, particularly in children. For example this could involve drawing on NICE guidelines or a few relevant review papers to describe the currently best-evidenced treatment approaches (e.g., CBT, behavioural) and (very briefly) whether they have proven efficacy in non-autistic children
Section 3 – Synthesise the relevant literature on interventions for anxiety of autistic people.
You will need to write comprehensively and authoritatively about the concepts in the field. You should therefore define the types of study you seek to review (i.e., evaluations of interventions for anxiety in autistic children) and conduct a search using an electronic database (PubMed or Psychinfo) to identify these. Then sort through the results of this search to identify all studies that evaluate an intervention for anxiety of autistic children. Hopefully there will also be review papers that you can draw upon. Once you are confident you have found the papers relevant to this study, you need to synthesise their findings. You should summarise what this body of literature shows. And you should draw attention to gaps in this literature, especially those that your study will be helping to fill. It is important that you integrate and summarise what all these studies tell you; do not just list studies and findings. This is probably the hardest part of the paper as you are expected to discuss the overarching concepts and constructs. The way you do this will be determined by the context, but you might, for example, draw on different models of intervention, of anxiety, and of the aetiology of autism, identifying ways in which they are compatible or otherwise, and making a case for your empirical chapter. Please use the articles linked above to get a feel for this. Don’t refer to past theses, as this type of chapter is still developing.
Section 4 - Consideration of methods used to evaluate treatments
This is where you can provide the reader with background on the accepted ways of evaluating psychological interventions, and explain where your work fits into this. In this sample, this would involve describing the MRC framework for complex interventions, and situating your work within this. There should also be some sophisticated and learned discussion of the merits and limitations of multiple-single case designs, why you chose this methodology, and the characteristics of good research within this paradigm.
Section 5 - Statement of the aim(s) of the empirical study, and the associated research questions / hypotheses that map onto the study aim(s).
A word about fitting the chapters together…
A common difficulty is how the CI meshes with the empirical Study. This is indeed tricky – you will inevitably cover in the CI some of the material you would like to use to introduce the practical work. It might help to remember that the CI is largely meant to explore the “big picture” and should not contain too much in the way of detailed descriptions of individual studies. On the other hand, when building a case for your aims and hypotheses in Chapter Two, you should drill down more into the specific studies that inform your study, their shortfalls and their strengths. You might spell out in Chapter Two where you aim to replicate and where you might contradict prior studies. You may well have a briefer introduction to Chapter Two than you might otherwise have done, but that’s OK, as long as it stands alone in the same way a journal article does. Perhaps the best way to think about this is not “The CI has eaten the introduction to Chapter Two” but rather “The CI is a great opportunity to really explore the concepts raised by the introduction to Chapter Two”!