Reading Social Research

Before we can write social research, we need to read it. When we’re just starting out, reading the large volumes of material we need to become familiar enough with a topic can become really overwhelming sometimes. Here are a few tips I’ve offered to students to help them read more effectively for coursework or for their own research projects.

  1. This may not apply but in case it does, try not to waste time telling yourself there’s something wrong with you for why the readings are feeling hard. Know that reading original research *is* hard. Much of what you may have been assigned in many of your courses are textbooks where the authors have taken all the material in these sources and condensed it down into summaries that are easier for students to digest. So don’t waste time beating yourself up thinking that everyone else finds these readings easy and you’re just not getting it. I also have to read some of them very, very slowly to be sure I understand what they’re about.
  2. Don’t feel like you need to understand every last bit of them. I need to b/c I’m the prof (although even then sometimes I get questions I don’t have the answer to). Especially for articles that employ statistical methods, I do not at all expect you to be able to understand all the numbers and/or methods used to calculate them. Many of my colleagues wouldn’t even be able to. What you need to gain from the article is the big picture, see the forest, not every little tree. So how do you do that?
  3. Spend a lot of time reading the abstract, the introduction and the conclusion. I would spend the most time on the abstract (if there is one), read it, write it out in your own words, make sure you really get it. When reading an abstract, they almost always (almost!) use something close to the following formula:
    • First sentence: contextualize the issue
    • Second sentence: explain a gap in the literature/their research question
    • Third sentence: explain how they’re going to answer it, their methods
    • Fourth sentence: say what the basic summary of their analysis is
    • Fifth sentence: explain why this is important to know
  1. Once you have a really good sense of what the article is about based on the abstract, review all the headings of each section, this also will help orient you to what the main points of the article are about. Research writing involves a lot of repetition but sometimes different words are used to say basically the same thing.
  2. Good research writing also follows a formula within the sections, there will always be a summary at the start of a section, followed by the key points. Really good writing should also do this at the level of the paragraph, the first sentence should be the topic sentence, followed by supporting evidence for that sentence. This means that you can get the main ideas just by reading the abstract, introduction and the first sentences of each paragraph. Though I recommend reading the whole thing but pay more attention on making sure that you understand the topic sentence and don’t stress if the supporting sentences aren’t quite as clear.

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