December 12, 2022

Nonfiction for Beginners: How to Read Sociology Monographs

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I read lots of books in high school, both for school and for pleasure. Most of the books I read for school were for English class and were works of fiction. I read both fiction and nonfiction on my own, but I can’t recall writing a paper or taking a test based on a nonfiction book until I went to college.

I had no idea how to read a nonfiction book for anything but my own interest, so I didn’t know how to prepare for tests or write papers after reading a monograph. (A monograph is a scholarly book that focuses on a single subject; in sociology it is typically based on a specific research study).

Sure, I had written papers based on information from textbooks and the like, but reading a monograph is a different skill, and I didn’t really learn to do it well until I was finishing graduate school. I’d get caught up in the minutiae and take notes on some minor detail I though was interesting. But eventually learned that the most important part of reading a monograph is to find out the big picture findings, not the obscure details.

Here are some tips to help you if you are just starting to read full-length sociological works.

  1. Recognize the difference between a textbook and a monograph

Often when students begin looking for sociological sources, their search yields textbooks. If you are looking for research-based sources, textbooks generally don’t help; they are meant to provide an overview of the field or a sub-area within sociology, not to share detailed research results.

A textbook is likely to have a very general title, like “Sociology of the Family” or “Youth in America.” It may seem like a bullseye when doing an online search if one of these titles matches your area of interest, but it will probably only give you very general information and should be avoided for a research-based paper. The table of contents will likely be very general too.

By contrast, a monograph’s title and table of contents will be more specific. The Second Shift, a classic monograph about the division of household labor, is one example of a more specific title that focuses on a study of families. Unequal Childhoods, is another more specific title which focuses on how a family’s socioeconomic status shapes family life and parenting strategies.

Beyond the title, look at the description of the book and see if there is a specific research method used (both examples above are based on ethnographies). The method will almost always be part of the description on a book jacket or publisher’s website.

  1. Peruse the appendix

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

Knowing what method the study used will tell you a lot about what to expect from a monograph. If the author(s) conducted in-depth interviews or ethnography you will get a lot of rich description about individuals who participated in the study. A book based on survey research or a secondary data source (like census data, for instance) will yield a more macro-level discussion about the topic. The methods section—often in the appendix—will let you know whether the method will yield the type of data you might be looking for.

  1. Read the introduction

If there isn’t an appendix with information about the method, you will 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 conduct the study, what their central research question is, and they will probably discuss their main finding. Unlike a novel, where the story unfolds throughout the book, a monograph tells the reader right away what they found.

  1. Read the conclusion

For now, skip the body of the book and read the conclusion. The author(s) will reiterate their findings, talk about why their findings matter, and make suggestions for future research. (Maybe their suggestions will inspire you to conduct your own research!) You will understand the general ideas but will not be very familiar with the specific data that they used to support these conclusions.

If you are writing a research paper and just need to know the overall findings from the study—perhaps if you are writing a literature review—these three sections might give you enough information for your project. Take notes on these main ideas; they will be invaluable for making sense of their findings during the next step.

  1. Read the supporting chapters

Now that you know what the research method, central research questions, and overall findings, you are ready to get the details. The rest of the book will elaborate on the data used to draw their conclusions and is crucial to developing a deeper understanding of the issue the author(s) researched. You can use the notes you took on the book’s main findings and add detailed examples from the middle chapters. These examples form the support for the researcher’s findings. Take a look at any subheadings within chapters too: they will give you a sense of the chapters’ main points.

As an undergraduate student, I would get so caught up in the intricacies of the data in the middle chapters that I would lose sight of the purpose of the study and its overall focus. Having read and taken notes on the big picture research method, research question, and findings, you can now put the details of the data described in the middle chapters in context.

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

For years, some students would refer to the monographs we read in class as novels. This is an unintended insult: a novel is a work of fiction and called a work of social science fiction is tantamount to saying the researchers are unethical liars. (I now start by telling students the difference, figuring they might have a long history of reading novels in school like I did, and only just started reading book-length nonfiction.)

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

Comments

Thanks for sharing about Nonfiction for Beginners: How to Read Sociology Monographs. It's really useful!

I appreciate everyone's contributions to this excellent.

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