How to read sociology monographs

How to read sociology monographs
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Karen Sternheimer

I read a lot of books in high school, both for school and for fun. Most of the books I read for school were for English lessons and were works of fiction. I read both fiction and non-fiction myself, but I don’t remember writing a paper or taking a test based on a non-fiction book until I was in college.

I had no idea how to read a non-fiction book just for fun, so after reading the monograph I didn’t know how to prepare for tests or write papers. (A monograph is a scholarly book that focuses on a single subject; in sociology it is usually based on a specific research study).

Sure, I’ve written papers based on information from textbooks and such, but reading a monograph is a different skill, and I didn’t really learn to do it well until I was in graduate school. I would get caught up in the details and write down some of the details that I found interesting. But in the end, I realized that the most important thing in reading a monograph is to find out the general conclusions, not the obscure details.

Here are some tips to help you if you’re new to reading full-length sociological works.

  1. Recognize the difference between a textbook and a monograph

Often, when students start looking for sociological sources, their search leads to textbooks. If you are looking for research-based sources, textbooks are usually not helpful; they are intended to provide an overview of the field or subfield of sociology rather than to share detailed research findings.

The textbook is likely to have a very general title, such as “Sociology of the Family” or “Youth in America.” An online search may appear to match one of these titles in your area of ​​interest, but this is likely to provide only very general information and should be avoided when researching a research-based paper. The content is also likely to be very generic.

On the contrary, the title and content of the monograph will be more specific. Second shifta classic monograph on the division of household labor, is one example of a more specific title focusing on the study of families. Uneven childhoodis another more specific title that focuses on how a family’s socioeconomic status shapes family life and parenting strategies.

In addition to the title, look at the book description to see if a specific research method is used (both examples above are based on ethnography). The method will almost always be described on the book jacket or on the publisher’s website.

  1. Read the attachment

Not all books have appendices, a section at the back of the book with additional information, but monographs often discuss their research methods in detail in this section.

Knowing the research method used will give you a lot of insight into what to expect from the monograph. If the author(s) conducted in-depth interviews or ethnography, you will get many detailed descriptions of the individuals who participated in the study. A book based on survey research or a secondary data source (such as census data) will provide a more macro-level discussion of the topic. The methods section – often in an appendix – will tell you whether the method will produce the type of data you might be looking for.

  1. Read the introduction

If there is no appendix with information about the method, you will most likely find it in the introduction. Note how the researchers conducted the study. The introduction will also probably explain why the researcher(s) decided to do the study, what their main research question is, and they will probably discuss their main conclusion. Unlike a novel, where the story unfolds throughout the book, a monograph immediately tells the reader what they have found.

  1. Read the conclusion

Skip the contents of the book for now and read the conclusion. The author(s) will reiterate their findings, discuss why their findings are important, and provide suggestions for future research. (Perhaps their suggestions will inspire you to do your own research!) You’ll understand the general ideas, but you won’t be very familiar with the specific data they used to make these conclusions.

If you’re writing a research paper and just need to know the general findings of the study—perhaps if you’re writing a literature review—these three sections can provide enough information for your project. Write down these main ideas; they will be invaluable in making sense of your findings in the next step.

  1. Read the supporting sections

Now that you know the research method, key research questions, and general conclusions, you are ready to get the details. The rest of the book will elaborate on the data used to draw the conclusions, and are critical to a deeper understanding of the question the author(s) are researching. You can use the notes you made about the main findings of the book and add detailed examples from the middle chapters. These examples form the basis for the researcher’s conclusions. Also look at any chapter subheadings: they will help you understand the main points of the chapters.

As an undergraduate student, I became so engrossed in the complexity of secondary data that I lost sight of the purpose and overall focus of the research. After reading and noting the big picture research method, research question, and conclusions, you can now put the details of the data described in the middle sections into context.

  1. Tip: Don’t call a monograph a novel

For years, some students have called the monographs we read in class novels. This is an unintended insult: the novel is a work of fiction, and to call it a work of social fiction is to say that researchers are unethical liars. (Now I begin to tell the students about the difference, assuming they may have a long history of reading novels, like I do, and have just started reading nonfiction.)

Just as reading a journal article is a skill that takes practice, reading monographs becomes easier over time. And if you’re like me, you might enjoy reading them for both content and pleasure.

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