A Guide to Reading Academic Articles: The Case Study and the Book Chapter

In my last post, I discussed the difficulty with reading academic articles–they can be dry, long, and full of jargon. In this second post in this series, I continue to offer suggestions that make academic article reading a bit simpler.

Remember, there are two key steps to approaching an academic article reading assignment:

(1) Identify the article type

(2) Identify the key takeaways

In this post, I’ll be covering the case study article and the book chapter.

The Case Study

Case study articles are, generally speaking, more likely to show up in a social sciences or humanities course than a physical science course. Similar to a research article, the goal of this kind of article is to test whether or not a theory (explanation of how the world works) holds up to evidence. In this kind of article, the scholar is exploring a particular case (country, event, person, etc.) in depth, and this may make the article appear to be more like a story. But ultimately–regardless of what discipline you’re working with, the focus of the case study will be “what causes what.”

In order to pull out the key information from this kind of article, you’ll want to ask yourself these questions as you read.

1. What is the case? What (event, process, person, etc.) is the author trying to explain?

2. What causes what? What is the main cause (could be people, particular decisions, outside events) that leads to the eventual outcome? (You might want to try and diagram this. For example, if you’re reading about the events that led up to WWII, your diagram might look something like this: Hitler gains popular support from German people –> Hitler is elected –> Hitler annexes Austria and the Sudetenland –> Hitler directs the German military to invade Poland–> World War II breaks out. The key is Hitler is a main driver of many of these incidents.)

3. What does the author conclude? What does the author tell the reader they have learned?

The Book Chapter

A book chapter is going to be fairly easy to identify–mostly because the title will include: “Chapter X…” or because it will very obviously be copied out of a book. But the key to approaching an assigned reading that is one (or perhaps two) chapters from a longer book, is to remember that you are only getting a piece of the story. Thus, the first question you’ll have to ask yourself is: “Is this an edited volume or is it written by a single author?” Generally speaking, if the book is an edited volume, you’ll be able to tell because the author name will be listed at the beginning of the chapter. If this is the case, you should be able to approach the chapter as if it were a research article. If the book is written by a single author, you’ll be dealing with a bit of a different situation. The questions below pertain to a book chapter assigned from a non-edited volume (and making the assumption that it is also not a textbook chapter).

To get the key Takeaways from this kind of assigned reading, you’ll want to ask yourself the following questions as you read.

1. What is the main question the author is attempting to answer in this chapter?

2. What is the author’s argument/answer to their question and what evidence do they present?

3. How does this connect to other themes or concepts from my class? (Why did my professor have me read this?)

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