October 11, 2021

How to Read a Sociological Journal Article for Beginners

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Most people who aren’t sociologists don’t just stumble upon a scholarly journal article and think, “Hmm, this looks like a fun read!” (Truth be told, many sociologists don’t either.) But there are times when reading journal articles is necessary, like when you are learning from the literature in order to prepare to conduct your own research or are writing a scholarly paper for a class.

The first thing to know is how to decipher a citation. While a journal may publish an article, the authors are responsible for the content and should be cited. For instance, you would write “Sociologist P.T. Barnum argues…” rather than “The American Journal of Sociology argues….” Here is a sample citation:

Baumann, Shyon. 2001. “Intellectualization and Art World Development: Film in the United States.” American Sociological Review 66 (3): 404–26.

The author is listed first in the citation, followed by the year of publication. The name of the article and the name of the journal are next, with information about the number and issue in which the article appears. For instance, this article was published in the 66th year of the journal’s publication, and is the 3rd issue of that year (journals typically publish four issues a year). Next we can see the page numbers, 404-426. You might notice that the page numbers listed are very high; some journals start page 1 each year,  and continue with that number system for all four issues over the course of the year.

Journal articles can be overwhelming for students and new sociologists. They can contain lots of jargon that make them hard to follow, or they may contain a lot of sophisticated statistical models well beyond your mathematical training. But this doesn’t mean you can’t still get a lot out of a journal article. Below are my suggestions for getting started. Spoiler alert: it is easier and faster than you might think!

  1. Familiarize yourself with the journal

What journal published the article? When you know the answer to this question, you can figure out who the journal’s target audience is. Scholars who study gender? Race? All sociologists?

Knowing the target audience helps prepare you for any taken-for-granted information that an article may contain. For instance, in a subject-specific journal, an article might not explain something that scholars in that area would be expected to know, while an article in a more general sociology journal might.

It’s also useful to take a few minutes and peruse the table of contents of the journal online..

  1. Read the title and abstract

The title will tell you the specific focus of the article, and the abstract—the short paragraph on the first page of the article—will give you a summary of the author(s)’ research question, method(s), and findings. This summary, along with the first page of the article, will tell you exactly what the article is about and the concepts and theories that it builds upon. You can use this brief selection to help you decide if the article will be useful for your project.

If you’re not sure if the article will be relevant, keep reading following the steps below.

  1. Read the discussion and conclusions

Next, I recommend skipping to the end of the article where the author(s) will elaborate on the findings. How do they discuss the importance of what they found? Are these findings relevant for your work?

  1. Read the subheadings

The subheadings in the articles may give you more information about the article’s focus. While it might contain traditional markers of sections such as methods, data, results, analysis and/or discussion and conclusions, there might be unique sections that provide more detail that can be useful.

  1. Decide if you need to read more

At this point it is time to decide if you need more detailed information, and if so, what you need to know more about. You may choose to look at one or more of the sections below:

While some articles might have a subheading that says “introduction” or “literature review” or another indicator of a theoretical discussion—including a mention of a specific theoretical focus—there might not be any indication about the theoretical focus in other articles. Typically the author(s) will mention related works towards the beginning of the article. From here, you can not only learn about the scholarly work that they are building their study on, but you can find other potentially useful sources.

  • Methodological discussion

While some articles are reviews or theoretical discussions, most journal articles are based on research and will provide a thorough discussion of exactly how they arrived at their findings. The methods discussion should be detailed enough so that if someone wanted to replicate this study, they could use the methods section as an instruction manual. This might be very helpful to you as you plan your own research.

  • Data: tables, charts, graphs, quotes

Often the most intimidating aspect of a journal article is the quantitative results, especially the more complex statistical models that some authors may use. You don’t have to let this section deter you from using the article. Authors will explain in the text what their findings mean—typically most simply in the beginning and end of the article. It’s okay to skip this section if you aren’t comfortable interpreting all the complex tables and charts.

I do suggest giving some of the more basic descriptive statistics a try; even if you haven’t taken statistics, understanding the mean, median, and mode is easy enough, as is interpreting simple graphs.

Over time, reading journal articles gets easier, much like learning a new language. You’ll find that things that once made no sense to you begin to get clearer as you read more articles and learn more about sociology.

What other suggestions do you have for reading journal articles? Post them in the comments below.

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