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Gender & Language

What's a background source? Why would I use one?

A background source provides context information concisely and thoroughly to help you "get the gist" before looking at more specific information types, like journal articles.  Context information includes:

  • overviews of concepts or theories (how/when/why a concept developed & why it matters)
  • overviews of research orientations and prominent theories/theorists 
  • brief or extended definitions
  • lists of key information sources to consult on your topic
  • historical timelines and explanations of events
  • biographical information
  • statistics, trends
  • maps, charts, graphs

Consult background sources:

  • to start developing a thorough and critical understanding of a topic or concept
  • to find keywords to use for searching online library databases and library catalogs for articles and books on your topic
  • to refine your research topic into a research question
  • to learn about the key points of your topic in order to write a paper or develop a presentation
  • to find another angle on a topic, idea, or argument when you get stuck
  • to find authoritative information you can quote
  • to find information on the historical background of a social or political issue
  • to understand current events and issues so that you can develop an argument or take a specific position

Two categories of background sources are:

  • general sources that have very basic information about a wide range of subjects, such as

The new encyclopaedia Britannica

Oxford English dictionary (Online ed.)

Hammond world atlas

  • subject-specific sources that have in-depth information about a single subject, such as

An encyclopedia of swearing: the social history of oaths, profanity, foul language, and ethnic slurs in the English-speaking world

Routledge encyclopedia of language teaching and learning

Concise encyclopedia of language pathology


In the context of higher education, subject-specific sources provide useful background information: critical, thorough, and specific.

Selected subject-specific background sources