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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Multiple Book Review Essay

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.

Definition

A multiple book review essay involves assessing the quality of two or more books that cover the same overall subject area [e.g., analysis of European debt crisis] or that are related to each other in a particular way [e.g., applying grounded theory methods to study student access to education]. The review is written in the form of a short scholarly paper [essay] rather than as a descriptive book review. The purpose is to compare and contrast the works under review, to identify key themes and critical issues, and to evaluate each writer's contributions to understanding the overarching topics common to each book. Professors assign reviews of multiple books to help students gain experience critically evaluating the ways in which different researchers examine and interpret issues related to a specific research problem.

How to Approach Writing Your Review

Developing an Assessment Strategy

An important first step in approaching how to write a review of two or more books is to identify and think critically about the research problem that ties each of the books together. The challenge is to develop an argument about each book you are reviewing and then clearly compare, contrast, and ultimately synthesize your analysis into an well organized and well supported essay.

Think of a multiple book review essay as a type of compare and contrast paper similar to what you may have written for a general issue-oriented composition class. As you read through each book, write down questions concerning what you want to know about each book and answer them as you read [remember to note the page numbers from the book you got the information from so you can refer back it later!]. Which questions to ask yourself will depend upon the type of books you are reviewing and how the books are related to each other.

Here are a series of questions to focus your thinking:

  1. What is the thesis—or main argument—of each book? If the author wanted you to get one idea from the book, what would it be? How does it compare or contrast to the world you know? What has the book accomplished?
  2. What exactly is the subject or topic of each book? Does the author cover the subject adequately? Does the author cover all aspects of the subject in a balanced fashion? Can you detect any biases? What is the approach to the subject [topical, analytical, chronological, descriptive]?
  3. How does the author of each book support his or her argument? What evidence does each author use to prove his or her point? Do you find that evidence convincing? Why or why not? Does any of the author's information [or conclusions] conflict with other books you've read, courses you've taken, or just previous assumptions you had about the research problem under study?
  4. How does the author structure his or her argument? What are the parts that make up the whole? Does the argument make sense to you? Does it persuade you? Why or why not?
  5. How has each book helped you understand the subject? Would you recommend the books to others? Why or why not?

Beyond the content of the book, you may also consider some information about the author and the circumstances of the text's production:

  • Who is the author? Nationality, political persuasion, education, intellectual interests, personal history, and historical context may provide crucial details about how a work takes shape. Does it matter, for example, that the author is affiliated with a particular organization? What difference would it make if the author participated in the events he or she writes about? What other topics has the author written about? Does this work build on prior research or does it seem to represent a new area of research?
  • What is each book's genre? Out of what discipline do they emerge? Do they conform to or depart from the conventions of its genre? These questions can provide a historical or other contextual standard upon which to base your evaluations. If you are reviewing the first book ever written on the subject, it will be important for your readers to know this. Keep in mind, though, that declarative statements about being the “first,” the "best," or the "only" book of its kind can be a risky unless you're absolutely certain because your professor [presumably] has a much better understanding of the overall research literature.

Bazerman, Charles. Comparing and Synthesizing Sources. The Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Comparing and Contrasting. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Comparison and Contrast Essays. Writing Support Centre. University of Western Ontario; Hartley, James. “Reading and Writing Book Reviews Across the Disciplines.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 57 (July 2006): 1194-1207; Walk, Kerry. How to Write a Compare-and-Contrast Paper. Writing Center. Princeton Writing Program; Rhetorical Strategies: Comparison and Contrast. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Visvis, Vikki and Jerry Plotnick; Writing a Compare/Contrast Essay. The Comparative Essay. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Compare/Contrast Essay. CLRC Writing Center. Santa Barbara City College.

Structure and Writing Style

I. Bibliographic Information

Provide the essential information about each book using the writing style asked for by your professor [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.]. Depending on how your professor wants you to organize your review, the bibliographic information represents the heading of your review. In general, they would be arranged alphabetically by title and look like this:

Racing the Storm: Racial Implications and Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina.  Hillary Potter, ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. 320 pp)
The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe. David L. Brunsma, David Overfelt, and J. Steven Picou, eds. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007. 288 pp.)
Through the Eye of Katrina: Social Justice in the United States. Kristin A. Bates and Richelle S. Swan, eds. (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2007. 440 pp.)

Reviewed by [your name]


II. Thesis Statement

The thesis statement of an essay that compares and contrasts multiple works should contain an idea or claim that unites a discussion of the texts under review. It should include the argument that will be advanced in support of the claims that are being made. To begin, ask yourself: "What is the overarching subject or issue that ties together all of the books?" Why is it important?" In most scholarly works, the author(s) will state the purpose of their book in the preface or in an introductory chapter. Look for common themes as well as points of divergence among the books.

If you cannot find an adequate statement in the author's own words or if you find that the thesis statement is not well-developed, then you will have to compose your own introductory thesis statement that does cover all the material. The comparative thesis statement will vary in length depending on the number and complexity of books under review. Regardless of length, it must be succinct, accurate, unbiased, and clear.

If you find it difficult to discern the overall aims and objectives of each book [and, be sure to point this out in your review if you believe it to be a deficiency], you may arrive at an understanding of the purpose by asking yourself a the following questions:

  • Scan the table of contents because it can help you understand how the book is organized and will aid in determining the author's main ideas and how they are developed [e.g., chronologically, topically, etc.].
  • Why did the authors write on this subject rather than on some other subject?
  • From what point of view is each work written?
  • Were the authors trying to give information, to explain something technical, or to convince the reader of a belief’s validity by dramatizing it in action?
  • What is the general field or genre, and how does each book fit into it? If necessary, review related literature from other books and journal articles to familiarize yourself with the field.
  • Who is the intended audience for each book? Is it the same or are the books intended for difference sets of readers?
  • What is each author's style? Is it formal or informal? You can evaluate the quality of the writing style by noting some of the following standards: coherence, clarity, originality, forcefulness, accurate use of technical words, conciseness, fullness of development, and fluidity.
  • How did the books affect you? Were any prior assumptions you had on the subject that were changed, abandoned, or reinforced after reading the books? How are the books related to your own personal beliefs or assumptions? What personal experiences have you had that relate to the subject?
  • How well has each book achieved the goal(s) set forth in the preface, introduction, and/or foreword?
  • Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?

A useful strategy to help organize your thoughts is to create a table with a column for each book and rows for each of the questions. Enter your answer to each book in the chart. When completed, you'll have an easy guide to how each author has addressed the questions.

NOTEBe sure that your thesis statement includes the rationale behind why your choice of what points to compare and contrast were deliberate and meaningful and not random!


III. Methods of Organization

Organization is critical to writing an essay that compares and contrasts multiple works because you will most likely be discussing a variety of evidence and you must be certain that the logic and narrative flow of your paper can be understood by the reader. Here are some general guidelines to consider:

  1. If your professor asks you to choose the books to review, identify works that are closely related in some way so they can be easily compared or contrasted.
  2. Compare according to a single organizing idea [e.g., analysis of how each author assessed the effectiveness of post-Katrina recovery].
  3. Choose a method of development [see below] that works well with your organizing idea.
  4. Use specific and relevant examples to support your analysis.
  5. Use transitional words or phrases to help the reader understand the similarities and differences in your subject.
  6. Conclude your paper by restating your thesis, summarizing the main points, and giving the reader the final "so what" of the major similarities and/or differences that you discussed. Why are they important?

There are two general methods of organizing your book review essay. If you believe one work extends another, you'll probably use the block method; if you find that two or more works are essentially engaged in a debate or examine a topic from different perspectives, the point-by-point method will help draw attention to the conflict. However, the point-by-point method can come off as a rhetorical ping-pong match. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from one work to another.

No matter which method you choose, you do not need to give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you state your main argument(s) as quickly as possible. For example, a book review essay evaluating three research studies that examine different interpretations of conflict resolution among nations in the Middle East might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction regarding similarities and only a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the author’s positions. The rest of the essay, whether organized by block method or point-by-point, will be your analysis of the key differences among the books.

The Block Method
Present all the information about A, and then present parallel information about B. This pattern tends to work better for shorter book review essays, and those with few sub-topics. The method looks like this:

I. Introduction
    A. Briefly introduce the significance of the overall subject matter
    B. Thesis Statement
        --First supporting point
        --Second supporting point
        --Third supporting point

II. First book
    A. Summary of book
        --Relationship of work to first point
        --Relationship of work to second point
        --Relationship of work to third point

III. Second book
    A. Summary of book
        --Relationship of work to first point
        --Relationship of work to second point
        --Relationship of work to third point

IV. Third book
    A. Summary of book
        --Relationship of work to first point
        --Relationship of work to second point
        --Relationship of work to third point

V. Conclusion
    A. Restate thesis
    B. Briefly summarize how you proved your argument

The Point-by-Point Method
Present one point about A, and then go to the parallel point about B. Move to the next point, and do the same thing. This pattern tends to work better for long book review essays and those with many sub-topics. The method looks like this:

I. Introduction
    A. Briefly introduce significance of overall subject matter
    B. Thesis statement

II. Brief explanation of first book

III. Brief explanation of second book

IV. First comparative point
    A. Relation of point to first book
    B. Relation of point to second book

V. Second comparative point
    A. Relation of point to first book
    B. Relation of point to second book

VI. Third comparative point
    A. Relation of point to first book
    B. Relation of point to second book

VII. Conclusion
    A. Restate thesis
    B. Briefly summarize how your proved your argument


IV.  Critically Evaluate the Contents

Regardless of whether you choose the block method or the point-by-point method, critical comments should form the bulk of your book review essay. State whether or not you feel the author's treatment of the subject matter is appropriate for the intended audience. Ask yourself:

  • Has the purpose of the books been achieved?
  • What contribution do the books make to the field of study or discipline?
  • Is the treatment of the subject matter objective?
  • Are there facts and evidence that have been omitted, either in one of the books or collectively?
  • What kinds of data, if any, are used to support each author's thesis statement?
  • Can the same data be interpreted to alternate ends?
  • Is the writing style clear and effective?
  • Do the books raise important or provocative issues or topics for discussion and further research?
  • What has been left out?

Support your evaluation with evidence from each text and, when possible, in relation to other sources. If relevant, make note of each book's format, such as, layout, binding, typography, etc. Are there maps, illustrations? Do they aid in understanding the research problem? This is particular important in books that contain a lot of non-textual elements, such as tables, charts, and illustrations.

NOTE:  It is important to carefully distinguish your views from those of the authors, so that you don’t confuse your reader.


V.  Examine the Front Matter and Back Matter

Front matter refers to anything before the first chapter of the book. Back matter refers to any information included after the final chapter of the book. Front matter is most often numbered separately from the rest of the text in lower case Roman numerals [i.e. i-xi]. Critical commentary about front or back matter is generally only necessary if you believe there is something that diminishes the overall quality of the work [e.g., the indexing is poor] or there is something that is particularly helpful in understanding the book's contents [e.g., foreword places the book in an important context].

The following front matter may be included in a book and may be considered for evaluation when reviewing its overall quality:

  • Table of contents -- is it clear? Is it detailed or general? Does it reflect the true contents of the book?
  • Author biography -- also found as back matter, the biography of author(s) can be useful in determining the authority of the writer and whether the book builds on prior research or represents new research. In scholarly reviews, noting the author's affiliation can be a factor in helping the reader determine the overall validity of the work [i.e., are they associated with a research center devoted to studying the research problem under investigation].
  • Foreword -- the purpose of a foreword is to introduce the reader to the author as well as the book itself, and to help establish credibility for both. A foreword may not contribute any additional information about the book's subject matter, but it serves as a means of validating the book's existence. Later editions of a book sometimes have a new foreword prepended [appearing before an older foreword, if there was one], which may be included to explain in how the latest edition differs from previous ones.
  • Preface -- generally describes the genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness to people who have helped the author complete the study. Is the preface helpful in understanding the study? Does it provide an effective framework for understanding what's to follow?
  • Chronology -- also may be found as back matter, a chronology is generally included to highlight key events related to the subject of the book. Do the entries contribute to the overall work? Is it detailed or very general?
  • List of non-textual elements -- a book that contains a lot of charts, photographs, maps, etc. will often list these items after the table of contents in order that they appear in the text. Is it useful?

The following back matter may be included in a book and may be considered for evaluation when reviewing the overall quality of the book:

  • Afterword -- this is a short, reflective piece written by the author that takes the form of a concluding section, final commentary, or closing statement. It is worth mentioning in a review if it contributes information about the purpose of the book, gives a call to action, or asks the reader to consider key points made in the book.
  • Appendix -- is the supplementary material in the appendix or appendices well organized? Do they relate to the contents or appear superfluous? Does it contain any essential information that would have been more appropriately integrated into the text?
  • Index -- is the index thorough and accurate? Are elements used, such as, bold or italic fonts to help identify specific places in the book?
  • Glossary of Terms -- are the definitions clearly written? Is the glossary comprehensive or are key terms missing? Are any terms or concepts mentioned in the text not included?
  • Footnotes/Endnotes -- examine any footnotes or endnotes as you read from chapter to chapter. Do they provide important additional information? Do they clarify or extend points made in the body of the text?
  • Bibliography/References/Further Readings -- review any bibliography, list of references to sources, and/or further readings the author may have included. What kinds of sources appear [e.g., primary or secondary, recent or old, scholarly or popular, etc.]? How does the author make use of them? Be sure to note important omissions of sources that you believe should have been utilized.

NOTE:  Typically, multiple book review essays do not compare and contrast the quality of the back and front matter unless the books share a common deficiency [e.g., poor indexing] or the front or back matter is particularly important in supplementing the primary content of the books.


VI.  Summarize and Comment

Your conclusion should synthesize the key similarities and differences among the books and their collective contributions to understanding of the research problem. Avoid re-stating your assessment word for word; your goal is to provide a sense of closure and to leave the reader with a final perspective about the overall subject under review and whether you believe each book has effectively contributed to the overall research literature on the subject. Do not introduce new information in the conclusion. If you've compared the books to any other studies or used other sources in writing the review, be sure to cite them at the end of your book review essay.


Bazerman, Charles. Comparing and Synthesizing Sources. The Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Comparing and Contrasting. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Comparison and Contrast Essays. Writing Support Centre. University of Western Ontario; Rhetorical Strategies: Comparison and Contrast. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Hartley, James. “Reading and Writing Book Reviews Across the Disciplines.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 57 (July 2006): 1194-1207; Hooker, Fran and Kate James. Apples to Oranges: Writing a Compare and Contrast Paper. The Writing Center. Webster University; Oinas, Päivi and Samuli Leppälä. “Views on Book Reviews.” Regional Studies 47 (2013): 1785-1789; Visvis, Vikki and Jerry Plotnick. The Comparative Essay. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Compare/Contrast Essay. CLRC Writing Center. Santa Barbara City College.