Guide to Reading Non-Textbook Texts
University of Hawai‘i, M¯anoa
The articles, book chapters, and primary sources assigned in this class are not text books and should not be read like textbooks. A textbook is concentrated knowledge con densed into a short amount of text for maximum absorption. It often takes away complexity
and the messy details of how this knowledge was collected, or the broader literature in which
this knowledge is situated and the debates surrounding our understanding of reality. A text book also takes away some of the difficult work of reading comprehension because everything
you read is important: The words are in bold and there are bullet points to help identify the
key facts/terms/points. There is also little repetition in a textbook, other than the chapter
summaries or the glossary. Finally, there is rarely an argument that you have to identify.
Consequently, taking notes on a textbook chapter is very different than taking notes
for a general academic book or scholarly article. Textbook notes might be almost as long as
the reading itself. Each paragraph in a textbook usually has something important to say, so
you might have a sentence for each paragraph. By contrast, articles and book chapters are
unevenly important: the introduction and conclusion might be the most important parts,
while discussions of data and methods might be less useful. They tend to be somewhat
repetitive to make sure you get the main point they make. They sometimes present quanti tative data analyses or they use examples to support their main argument. Ultimately, you
can summarize an article or book chapter in 1-2 paragraphs if you just want to focus on the
key points. This can be liberating—it’s not an excuse to zone out while you are reading (if
that happens, you need to reread what you were mindlessly reading), but it does mean that
not everything you read is equally important. It’s up to you to identify the important parts.
This guide is intended to help you through that process, since it is a good skill to have and
one you will likely need to develop for this course.
1 Background Elements to Identify Before or As You Read
These factors help you to understand what you are reading and how to approach it, but you
need not take detailed notes on these. In fact, you can summarize each of these with just a
few words each: e.g., Date: 1988, Kind of Text: research article, Tone: neutral/academic.
1.1 Date of Publication
When was the text written? This is important because some material may be outdated or it
may be considered a “classic” because it was an early statement and spawned a literature.
(People also wrote differently in the 1940s through the 1970s than they did/do in the 1980s
through the 2010s. It could be denser back then. Sometimes they also used (insulting)
language we wouldn’t use today.) Alternatively, it may be a relatively new piece of research
detailing something no one has discussed, in which case, the author and their intended readers
are very excited about whatever is new or different about this piece and its contribution to
the texts that came before. There are also pieces in the middle that make interesting points,
but are not pathbreaking research. The status of what you are reading gives you a hint
about why you are reading it and what to take away. The publication date will also give
you a sense of what the author means by “contemporary.” It is also important to consider
what period the work was written in as standards of research and the amount of available
research change over time (there is so much more now), while theories that are considered
vogue also change.
1.2 Kind of Text
We will read a variety of texts (e.g., primary source v. secondary source; scholarly journal ar ticle, book, newspaper, governmental report) in this course and it’s important to keep in mind
what you are reading. Most often, we will read scholarly texts. Scholarly journal articles
and books written by academics are read for their theoretical or empirical contribution—
they either have an interesting way of understanding some phenomenon and/or they offer
evidence of some phenomenon, often using jargon.
First, you need to determine if it is an article or a book chapter. If it’s a chapter in
a book, it is part of a larger argument the author is making. Introduction chapters tend
to lay out the overall argument and some background materials, and later chapters tend
to offer evidence in support of that argument. Look at the chapter number to get a sense
about whether this is an overview or a specific sub-argument. Research articles or journal
articles are published by academics—professors at universities (most often)—writing for
other academics and trying to answer a specific question. In both cases, the author is trying
to contribute something meaningful to an on-going discussion or debate “in the literature”
(between scholars/academics) to help us better understand some part of our world.
Often, the author will address the state of literature, discussing what other scholars
have found in previous studies or what their main theories have suggested. This is often
stated in the introduction and later more in depth in a section helpfully labeled “Literature
Review” or “Theoretical Framework” (or sometimes they use the name of the theory or
sub-literature to label the section, so you might see something like “The Neo-Institutional
Framework”). This information tells you what the author knew when they started their
research and why they chose the particular approach they did—usually they try to follow
what others have done before them, but they also try to do this somewhat differently so they
can push our state of knowledge forward, such as testing a theory on a different dataset or a
different place/time/population, or think about how a theory applies to a phenomena people
haven’t studied before using that framework. Scholarly journal articles and book chapters
often have a lot of jargon in them and they also tend to use big vocabulary words. It can
sometimes be difficult to distinguish between these because often the jargon terms are made
up of the big vocabulary words, but have a somewhat different, more specific definition than
you’ll find in the dictionary. In general, you’ll want to look any words you don’t know.
However, words that the author tends to repeat a lot or actively defines in the text are
typically pretty important and you want to keep track of these.
Less often, we will read primary sources. Primary sources (e.g., newspapers, govern 2
ment reports, books or articles written in a historical period) give you a first-hand account
of something by a participant in the process (frequently used in history). These might be
more detailed than scholarly articles; they also might assume a different set of knowledge,
especially if they are historical. Their purpose will be more varied than scholarly articles
written for an academic audience—is it someone’s diary, a letter, an official report, is it trying
to change someone’s mind, is it just describing something that happened in a semi-neutral
Material is written and read for different reasons. We will not always read a text
for the reason it was written (we will read historical documents to understand what was
going on at the time or to better understand some aspect of society at that time), but it’s
important to remember why the author is writing and for whom they are writing.
1.3 Author’s Tone
This affects how much you should trust the author and their work. Are they an academic,
an activist, a novice, a journalist? (One’s status as any of these things does not immediately
grant or remove credibility, but it’s something you need to identify.) Are they writing to a
particular audience (other than other academics)? Do they have an agenda or other bias?
This can be a bit tricky to identify, particular if the person has a different world view than
you have or is saying something you don’t like.
When evaluating an author’s tone, students often have difficulty with this point:
what is the scholar’s “opinion” and what is their “argument” (or thesis). For the most part,
scholars don’t write opinions. Opinions can be informed or uninformed, but generally they
are about what one believes. Social science scholarship is not about what one believes but
what one can learn from data or evidence. For example, whether or not I think the death
penalty is morally right (and it’s pretty hard to offer evidence about what’s right and wrong),
I can evaluate whether or not the death penalty deters—that is, prevents crime by scaring
people. I may or may not think it is morally right to execute people in order to deter others
(maybe I think retribution is the only moral justification or maybe I think we should not use
people in this utilitarian way or maybe I think deterrence is a good idea), but I can evaluate
whether or not deterrence works. If I can show executing people prevents crime, this is not
my opinion—it’s what I’m conveying based on evidence. If I think deterrence is a morally
bankrupt reason for executing people, that’s my opinion—I can’t really give evidence for
While scholars do seek to present an argument about a specific topic, this argument
is usually based on an analysis of the data rather than their personal opinion. Most scholars
try to write in a way that shows they don’t really care which way the data come out (whether
their theory is confirmed or denied). Of course, we do hope that our expectations are correct
and that we aren’t too far off, and we often do have policy preferences, but most social
scientists aspire to not let their personal preferences affect their writing (though they might
affect scholars’ topics of interest).
Some scholars, however, will set out to “prove” something—this in itself is kind of
mistaken because you cannot prove something, but you can disprove it. Usually, this hap pens where a scholar is making a normative rather than an empirical point: again, normative
points are morality claims or value judgments, sometimes phrased as should statements (we
should do it this way). Empirical statements are based on evidence rather than opinion.
(Policy recommendations are usually empirical claims that do have a “should” component:
they are normative in the sense that there is something they morally support or assume is
good: efficiency, cost-effectiveness, humane treatment, crime prevention, etc. That is, they
have some moral/normative goal, but they empirically (systematically, with evidence) deter mine how to achieve that goal. In some fields (e.g., law, philosophy), normative statements
are encouraged; in our field and our related fields (criminology, sociology, political science,
socio-legal studies, economics, history), be wary of scholars who determine their conclusions
before fully analyzing the data or selectively choose their evidence to advantage their argu ment. (In your own writing, you of course want to deploy examples that support your thesis,
but do address counter-examples or pieces of evidence that might hurt your argument and
talk about why it doesn’t fit. This is what good scholars do.)
There is an important caveat: sometimes scholars (especially) think they are writing
in a neutral manner, but they are not. In fact, a growing number of scholars recognize
that it is impossible to be neutral and that what we count as neutral is itself a reflection
of power dynamics and privilege (usually the dominant group in society gets to say what
is neutral and whatever they don’t like is biased). Essentially, to some extent our world
view is always present. When you really understand this statement, it’s a bit like seeing the
Matrix for the first time, and it can take some time to wrap your head around. But there is a
difference between this relatively subtle point and a more transparent version where someone
really clearly has an ax to grind. That doesn’t mean they aren’t making an important and
valuable point, but it should give us pause to evaluate their work (some people would argue
that people who are very open about their politics when writing are actually more honest
than people who pretend to be neutral and thus hide their politics that still might influence
their writing). I’m also trying to highlight the difference between biased and neutral in a
relatively simple way because sometimes people read all academic work as biased, especially
if they don’t like the findings. But usually they are using biased in a different way than this
more subtle Matrix-like point. Basically, there is a difference between trying to be neutral
and thinking you can 100% succeed, trying to be neutral but recognizing your own biases
(that everyone has) and therefore being honest about them, and giving up on any effort to
2 Key Elements to Take Notes On
Ultimately, you should take as many notes as necessary to help you understand the reading.
If that means fully outlining the article or chapter, summarizing the key points of each
section and excerpting key quotations, then do that. However, for the purposes of this class,
we will focus on the article or chapter’s key elements. If you have a difficult time taking notes
on these elements, and you do not understand the article, then a more comprehensive note taking strategy is necessary, but the end goal should be to understand these key elements.
So in reality, you probably need fewer notes than you think you do—too often, students take
a lot of notes when really you only need to be able to answer a few questions about the
2.1 Research Question
What question is the author attempting to answer? Why are they doing this project (what
do they seek to learn)? Is there an overall puzzle they are trying to solve? Some examples
include: Why did executions decline throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
in England? Why did prisons emerge in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries?
Why did supermax prisons spread so rapidly across the United States? Where did supermax
prisons come from? Why did rehabilitation become less popular in the 1970s? What was
the effect of California’s Three Strikes Law on the crime rate? Why did voters support the
Three Strikes Law? What do people understand as procedural fairness? How do people
make sense of harms done to them? What is the role of race in court proceedings? These
questions won’t always be stated explicitly—nor will they always be written as a question,
with a question mark. Sometimes you have to infer the question.
There are some articles that don’t really have a research question but instead are
trying to make a larger point—these are usually critical in some way. For an example,
see my article criticizing how some scholars describe some prisoner behaviors as resistance
without knowing the prisoners’ motivations (here)—reading the first section is sufficient to
illustrate the point.
2.2 Thesis and Key Findings
What does the author argue? What is their main point? What should you take away
from this text? Or, what does the author expect to be the case? Here we are talking
about a major argument, not subsidiary points. What is the overarching explanation for a
phenomenon? The thesis often answers the research question or at least some part of it. The
thesis is typically stated at the beginning, in the Introduction, and restated at the end, in
the Conclusion or Discussion sections. However, the thesis is often based on their analyses
of the data—as noted above, the thesis is not usually something someone determines before
they examine the evidence. Much of the text will support this overall thesis—there are often
sub-arguments or different analyses that lead to this general conclusion.
In some cases, there will not be a clear thesis or it will be a very general, broad
statement. Almost all journal articles will have a central thesis, even if they don’t have a
clearly stated research question.
Theses can also be fairly abstract or otherwise written in a way that doesn’t really
sink in unless you have some examples to go with it. In addition to identifying the author’s
main argument, keep track of some key points the author makes about their data. Authors
will usually have a lot to say, so focus on (1) the overall picture or main argument (thesis)
and (2) several examples that illustrate the thesis. You will want to have 1-2 sentences
describing the author’s main thesis as well as 1-2 sentences for two to three main points
(each) the author uses to illustrate or support their thesis (or which they base the thesis on).
These will sometimes overlap with your key terms section.
2.3 Key Terms
Usually, scholars will create jargon words, or use the jargon words that have become standard
in their field. They usually define these and offer examples of them—sometimes the whole
paper is intended to offer a key example to illustrate a key concept. These key terms are
important. You can distinguish key terms by background concepts because they will use
these key terms repeatedly throughout the text. You should also keep track of key people,
key events, key places/things. Importantly, these key terms (people, events, places, things)
are not important for the sake of memorizing who or what they are. Instead, authors are
very selective about what key things they discuss and use them for a larger purpose. Ask
yourself: Are they an example of something? Were they the first in a line of developments,
and they started that development? Does it illustrate a concept? If so, how? Basically,
why is the author discussing this thing? Why is it important for the author? In a standard
scholarly journal article, you will see 1-3 key terms. In any text that is describing a period
of time, you will see a lot of examples; while not all of them will be key terms, there will
be more key terms, but you should still distinguish between the main key term (usually a
concept) and supporting key terms like events, people, places, and things that illustrate a
key concept or a key argument.
2.4 Data and Methodology
It is important to understand how the author comes to their conclusions. We will rarely read
a text in which someone simply marks an argument that they support with logic. Instead,
authors often deploy some sort of evidence (data) that they have systematically gathered
(through a method).
Ask yourself what kind of data the author is relying on (e.g., ethnographic notes,
quantitative dataset or numbers, historical/archival texts). How did they collect this data?
Were they systematic in how they collected their data—did they leave something important
out? Are they performing a random sample of people, did they focus on important people,
did they talk to people they could find? If they perform a case study—examining one entity
(one prison, one state, one police department, one city) in depth—why did they select that
case? Is it a trend setter? (California, New York, and Pennsylvania are often chosen for
these reasons.) Is it an outlier? (Texas, Arizona, and Florida are sometimes chosen for these
reasons.) Is it a typical/representative case?
Next, what was the author’s method? How did they analyze the data at hand? Usu ally, the type of data informs the method. Qualitative data (texts, interviews) tend to
require qualitative methods (content analysis, interpretative analyses). Quantitative data
(datasets, large surveys that produce them, interviews when they are numerous enough)
are often analyzed quantitatively—through regression analyses and other sorts of analyses
that require a computer program to solve high-level equations. Sometimes, scholars use
both types of data and both methods, and sometimes they use typically quantitative meth ods on qualitative data when they have enough of it. Other scholars are less clear about
their methods—they tend to look at a lot of qualitative data—newspaper articles, big court
cases, major laws—and quantitative data—like prison rates and execution rates—and try to
explain it without using a common method like content analysis, ethnography, participant
observation, or regression/quantitative analysis. In some cases, this is a sign of a lack of
rigor (bad research); in other cases, as long as they are systematic about how they collected
and analyzed their data, they are being more like an historian (historians don’t like to talk
about their methods).
Understanding the author’s data and method helps us understand how the author
came to the conclusion they did. Data and method are like the tools the author used to
create their product. This can be summarized very briefly in your reading notes.
Sometimes, the author offers hypotheses that they use to test a larger theory. Usually these
are discussed before the data/methods section, but after the theory/theoretical framework
section in an article, and they are typically stated quite clearly. We will not read many
articles that do this (they are more common in texts that use quantitative analyses), but it
is worth keeping in mind.
2.6 Your Critique or Concerns
Is there anything wrong with the logic of the argument? Do the data (or findings) support
the conclusion or argument? Are there counterexamples you can think of? Overall, do you
believe what the author is saying? Why or why not? This can be a brief sentence (“I find
this work compelling.”) or several paragraphs if you are so inclined.
3 Other Notes
Section 2 described really important take-aways from a given text. For a given article, you
should be able to summarize the main point(s) using notes on these Key Elements. However,
these are the most important to remember and to keep in mind, but they are not the only
important items to take notes on. Indeed, the Key Elements/summary items are things that
you should review for the exams. However, for a given text, you will likely benefit from
taking additional notes of some kind, which will help you to understand a text, be more
prepared for lecture, or better recall the article if you need to go back to it later.
Different people have different styles of taking notes, and people may even change
how they take notes over time or across types of text. Some texts are relatively easy to
summarize briefly, others are more abstract and require a lot of highlighting and additional
note-taking. Generally speaking, highlighting a text is a good idea—underlining, using a
highlighter, making notations in the margins. These can be made digitally or on the printed
out text—but remember that you need not print out the texts for this class. If you have
an iPad, the app iAnnotate works well for highlighting and note taking. On your computer,
certain versions of Adobe (Mac or PC) or Preview (Mac) let you highlight the text.
My personal strategy: Regardless of the text, I always highlight and/or make notations
in the margins. If something is particularly interesting, I put a star next to it. If the author
makes a particularly important point, I write a check mark next to it. If the author defines
an important concept, I write, “defn” in the margin. In addition to these, I usually underline
or highlight (when I’m reading something on my computer) or put a vertical line along the
margin next to important text and underline really important sentences. Depending on
the text, I also take notes separately—sometimes in the margins, sometimes on a separate
piece of paper (or an index card or a composition book). Sometimes, my notes are just
the summary and I can go back and read through the highlighted sections if I want more
information. Other times, I take more detailed notes—the more interesting or dense a text,
the more notes I make. Sometimes I find it useful to record the subject headings the author
uses and then take my notes within those subject headings. As much as possible, I try to
rephrase authors’ points in my own words—usually I can summarize better this way and save
myself from too much writing/typing—but I will also record really important statements in
the author’s own words if it’s a very complex or extremely well-written statement.
4 What if you are completely lost?
Remember: It’s okay if you do not understand 100% of the assigned text. It is often dense
and abstract material. Additionally, you will not be asked about or quizzed or tested on
everything; instead, we’ll mostly focus on Big Picture material. A lot of the readings will
make more sense during or after lecture, and if they don’t, come in to office hours. The
important part of all of this is that you get better at reading these materials over time
(which will happen as long as you stick with it and practice).
In the mean time, what do you do when you come across sentences, paragraphs, or
whole sections of an article or book chapter that don’t make sense? Put a question mark
next to the sentence, paragraph, or section, and keep going. Sometimes an author will
write something in a convoluted fashion, but when you see the concrete example or hear
the convoluted thing described in slightly different language elsewhere in the reading, it will
make more sense. So don’t stop and stare at the words on the page trying to decipher their
meaning; rather, keep going, and then come back and look at it once you’ve read the rest
of the article. Hopefully then it will make sense. But even then, it’s okay if it doesn’t: you
still have lecture and office hours to figure it out.
What if you find yourself struggling with the whole article or chapter? Step back and
focus on identifying the most general aspects of the article: What was the article about? (a)
What thing was the focus? Substantively speaking, was it an article about prisons, crime
trends, a weather station, a bunch of mixed organizations? (b) What were these things
doing—why are we focusing on them? Were the prisons emerging as a new development,
were they responding to some change? Were the crime trends affected by some factor? Were
the employees in the weather station affecting predictions? Were organizations responding
in various or related ways to some new law? Try to focus on the most concrete parts of
the article and figure out why they matter. From there, you should be able to identify
the research question and thesis—it should have something to do with the main things the
article is about and what they are doing. After that, think about smaller concrete details as
examples of larger arguments. When you start to get lost, ask yourself how this relates to
the main point of the text.
Reading Notes Template
Last Name of Author(s)
Date/Year of Publication
*Note: This is not the name of the journal that an article is published in.
Kind of Text – Check All that Apply
Scholarly Journal Article
Law Review Article
Other Type of Article
Academic Book Chapter
Other Book Chapter
Data and Method – Check All that Apply
Regression or Other High-Level Statistical,
Trends, Averages, Counts, or Basic De scriptive Statistics
When/Where does the study take place? That is, when/where did the data
Decade or century:
Research Question (1-2 Sentences)
Thesis (1-2 Sentences + 2-3 Supporting Arguments/Examples)
Critique (1 or More Sentences)