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Succeeding in postgraduate study
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4.2 Use context and examples

Your writing needs to involve a certain amount of contextualisation, which means that you define the background of the subject for your reader. You are likely to do this, in a general way, within your introduction, but you may also need to set the context at various points throughout your assignment. How you set the context will depend on your assignment. It may involve giving descriptions of theories and concepts, a historical account of attitudes, or a description of a problem. Another way is to move between descriptions of particular phenomena to a more general and overarching perspective of your topic. This will help your reader recognise how your point is positioned within the subject as a whole. You might also change the focus as your argument unfolds. This can be a useful way of introducing perspective and contextualising your argument.

The quote in the box below is from a book chapter on a Social Sciences course at the OU. Here, the authors use a real-life example to explore the connection between people’s private health and more public aspects of life. This sharp focus on an individual experience helps the authors to contextualise their argument that our biological make-up interacts with social circumstance. Moving from a broad argument to a particular example helps them to support their overarching argument.

Box 1 From the general to the particular

The following is an extract from Smith and Goldblatt’s chapter ‘Whose health is it anyway?’ in Hinchliffe and Woodward’s book, The Natural and the Social: Uncertainty, Risk, Change.

In Chapter 1 of this book Wendy Hollway discussed the way in which our natural biological make-up interacts with the kind of social circumstances in which we live in different areas of human experience and at different times. As an asthma sufferer, I am only too aware of how my biology interacts with my social and physical environment despite taking care, I sometimes get a full-blown attack and this affects my ability to take part in my normal everyday activities. Controlling my asthma requires constant medication, so my ‘illness’ has a cost on the health service. Therefore, dealing with my asthma is of interest not just to me, but also to the government and indeed to everyone who pays for and utilizes the health service. So, looking at the causes of health and illness and possible interventions offers another way in which we can explore how the natural interacts with the social conditions in which we live.

(Source: Smith and Goldblatt, 2004, p. 42)