Tips for Reading Social Theory

David A. Sonnenfeld, Ph.D.
Washington State University, Tri-Cities
Fall 2002

Reading social theory can be slow, grueling, and frustrating. However, if you are patient, take the time, and make the effort, doing so will reward you with powerful insights into fundamental social institutions and processes. Some suggestions to facilitate the process:

  1. Your first time through the assigned text, skim lightly, before you get "lost in the forest of details."  Get an overview of the structure of the section you are reading. Read the introductory and concluding paragraphs. Take note of section structure & headings.
  2. Once you have an overview of the assigned text, return to the beginning and read more closely.  Focus on the author's main points and/or what you want to get out of it.
  3. Take notes. In text margins, keep a running dialog with yourself and/or the author. In a notebook, record the author's main ideas, as well as your reactions and responses.
  4. Ask yourself: What is the author's main point? Try summarizing those main points -- in writing, orally with a fellow student, etc.
  5. If necessary, outline the author's argument.
  6. Read as many times as you have to -- 2, 3, or more -- until you at least get the gist of the author's main points and have a feeling for the structure & components of the author's argument.
  7. Make full use of other students in the class. Study together. Compare notes.
  8. If you don't understand a term, look it up in one or more dictionaries. Start with a comprehensive collegiate dictionary. Also, look in a good, disciplinary-specific dictionary.
  9. If you're still stumped, or feel you are not grasping basic concepts, consult an introductory text, or ask your instructor during office hours. 
  10. Construct your own course dictionary using the above.

last updated August 26, 2002