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Research Paper for a Social Sciences Project

How to Define this Type of Essay

Multiple book review essays are assignments that involve evaluating two books or more covering the same subject matter (for example, the debt crisis in Europe) or books that relate to one another in a certain way (for example, how to apply grounded theory methodologies to education and students’ access to the same). These types of reviews, which look at the quality of the texts, are written as short academic papers (or essays) and not as descriptive reviews. The primary purpose is comparing and contrasting the books being reviewed, identifying important themes and crucial issues, and to assess the contributions that individual writer’s make towards helping readers understand the overall topics that each set of books have in common. A lot of professors give these assignments to students to help them get better at critically analyzing and evaluating how the various researchers investigate or look at and interpret a particular research question or problem and the issues associated or related to it.

Approaches to Writing This Type of Review

Develop a Strategy for Assessing the Books

One of the most important first steps in the approach you take to writing a review involving two books or more is the identification of the research question or problem that link the books, and to think about this in a critical manner. The biggest challenge, possibly, is developing a sound argument for each of the books being reviewed and then to compare and contrast them in a clear way before synthesizing your overall analysis into a successful essay that is adequately supported and properly organized.  

It can help to think of this type of review essay as a form of assignment that involves comparing and contrasting, a bit like the ones you might have been asked to write on a general topic for some writing class. While you are reading the books, make a note of anything you would like to know about each one. Answer these questions as you continue reading (do not forget to take a note of the different books’ page numbers where you have questions so that you can come back to these later). The questions you ask will generally depend on the book type and the manner in which each one relates to the other.  

The following are some questions to keep your thinking focused:

  1. Can you identify the primary argument – or thesis – in each of the books? If, for example, the book’s author had intended you to leave with one key idea, what do you think this would be? How do you think each book compares or contrasts to the wider world? What accomplishment would you attribute to each book?  
  2. Looking at each of the books, what do think its exact topic or subject is? Is the manner in which the author deals with the topic adequate? Are there any obvious biases that you can detect? What sort of approach has the author taken towards the topic i.e. is it a topical, descriptive, chronological, or analytical one?
  3. What means does each book’s author use to support their respective arguments? In trying to prove their various points, what examples or evidence does each of the authors use? Is the evidence they have chosen convincing? Why do you find it convincing or not convincing? Does the information in any of the books (or any of the conclusions) differ or conflict with the information in any other books that you have read, assumptions you have had regarding the research question or problem, or with any other courses, you have participated in?
  4. What method does each author use to structure their particular arguments? Is the whole made up of individual parts and, if so, what are these? Do you find the argument in each book makes good sense? Are you persuaded by it and, if so, why does it or does it not make sense?
  5. Is your understanding of the topic or subject improved by each of the books and how? Do you think you would recommend any or all of these books to other readers? Why would you recommend them or why would you not recommend them?

Aside from the content of each book, there is some author-related information you might want to consider along with the particular circumstances in which each text was produced:  

  • Looking at each book, who is its author? What is their personal background or history and their nationality, what are their academic interests, what are their political interests, and is there any historical information or context that could provide important information about how the book took shape? Is it, for instance, significant that a book’s author belongs to some organization or other? Would it make any or much difference if the author had taken part in the events or situations described in their book? Are there any other subjects any of the authors have written books about? Does the work in any or all of the books build on previous research or do you feel it deals with a completely new field or area?  
  • What is the genre of each book? Which field or discipline does it come from? Do the texts comply with or deviate from the usual norms and conventions of their genre? The answers to these and similar questions can be useful for providing a sound historical or background context or for providing some other standard you could use to base your review’s analysis and evaluations upon. If a book you are reading and reviewing is the first that has been written on a particular subject, it is important to tell readers this. However, you should remember that declarations about a book being the “very first,” “very best” or “only one” of its type can carry certain risk unless you are entirely certain. This is because your tutor or professor probably understands the available literature or research material on a topic or subject better than you do.

Structure and Style of Writing

I. Reference Information and/or Information for a Bibliography

In a bibliography and for reference purposes, it is necessary to provide key information about every text using whatever style of citation your tutor or professor asks for i.e. APA, Chicago, Harvard, MLA, and so on. While much depends on the method a professor or tutors requires you to use for organizing your book review, the bibliographic or reference information is likely to represent your paper’s heading. Generally speaking, entries are usually arranged in alphabetic order according to title as per the following fictional examples: 

Riding out the Storms: The Racial Consequences and Other Lessons that Can be Learned from Hurricane Disasters. Hank Porter, ed. (Boston, MA: Jenson Books, 2010. 240 pp)
The Important Sociology Implications  of a Hurricane: Thoughts on Modern-Day Catastrophes. Daphne A. Greene, Bryan Davidson, and B. Joshua Chantrelle, eds. (Boston, MA: Wyman and Oldfield, 2010. 304 pp.)
From the Eye of the Storm: The USA and Social Integrity. Justin B. Bateman and Racquel C. Hanson, eds. (Tampa, FL: Florida University Press, 2010. 394 pp.)

Reviewer: [Insert name here]

II. Developing a Thesis Sentence/Statement

In an essay where your task is to compare and contrast several books, the central thesis statement should encompass a claim or idea that brings the texts you are discussing together. This statement should also contain an argument that you will continue to advance to support your ideas and claims. Start by asking yourself this: "What main issue or subject is it that links all these books together?” Why is this issue or subject important?” In the majority of academic texts, the author or authors tend to say – in the book’s preface or introduction chapter – what the purpose of the work is. Your aim should be to look for any themes the books have in common and also for discrepancies or areas of disagreement.  

If it is the case you are unable to identify a suitable statement or quotation from the author – i.e. something in their own words – or where you think a book’s thesis statement is not sufficiently developed, you will need to write your own thesis to encompass or unite all the content you are reviewing. The length of these thesis statements may vary with much dependent on how many books you are reviewing and the complexity of these. Yet, irrespective of its length, your thesis statement should be clear, accurate, succinct, and without bias.

In the event you have difficulty working out the overriding aims and the objectives of each of the books (and you should draw attention to this in the review you are writing if you think it is a fault or deficiency), it should be possible for you to get some understanding of the overall purpose if you ask these next questions or complete the suggested actions:   

  • Look through the different books’ ToC (tables of content) because these will show you how the content is structured and organized and it will help you determine what the author’s primary idea is and the manner in which this is advanced and developed (for example, by topic, in chronological order, and so on).
  • Why do you think these authors wrote about this particular subject and not another subject?
  • What viewpoint is each of the works written from?
  • What was each author attempting to do i.e. were they attempting to provide information, explain some technical concept, or trying to persuade readers about the validity of a belief by showing it through an action or by somehow dramatizing it?
  • In general terms, what genre or field do the books belong to and how do they fit into this? Where necessary, you should review any related literature or materials from various other journal articles and books in order to become more familiar with the subject and/or field.
  • Who i.e. what audience do you think each of the books is intended for? Is the audience the same for each book or are they aimed at different groups of readers?
  • What writing style does each author use i.e. formal or perhaps informal? The style quality can be evaluated by making a note of certain standards such as accuracy in the way technical terminology is used, clarity, coherence, conciseness, fluidness, originality, level of development, and how forceful the language is. 
  • How were you affected by the different books? Did you have any assumptions about the subject before you started reading, what were these, were they reinforced upon reading any or all of the texts, or were your assumptions altered or changed once you had finished reading? Did any or all of the books relate in any way to your personal views, assumptions, or beliefs? Do any of your own experiences relate to or differ from the books’ subject matter?
  • Does each of the books achieve the aims or goals set out in the book’s preface, foreword, or introduction and, if so, how well do they do this?
  • Do you think you would recommend any of these books to other readers? Moreover, why would you recommend them or not recommend them?

Using a table is a good way of helping a writer to organize their thoughts and ideas. So, if you use this strategy, create columns within your table for each of the books and use rows for your questions. Put the answers to your questions under the name of each of the books. When this chart is complete, it will act as a useful guide showing you at a glance how each of the questions has been addressed by the respective author.  

Important note: The thesis statement you create will underpin the primary purpose of the book review you are writing and it will help readers to see and understand how all books are linked or related. Nevertheless while the aim of this type of essay is to evaluate a number of books on the same subject or topic (e.g. dealing with and recovering from hurricanes), it may be there is not one overall issue linking all of the texts together. So, for instance, in this eventuality you could center your thesis on the diversity and range of issues the authors have written about or the disconnected nature of available knowledge on the subject matter.

Additional note: Still dwelling on the your essay’s thesis statement, it is important to note that this should contain the rationale behind the main points you draw attention to or it should indicate – by means of comparing and contrasting – whether the likeness and differences among the different books were meaningful and intentional rather than randomly chosen. You need to explain how and why these are significant.  

III. Organizational Methods

In an essay where multiple books need to be compared and contrasted, the method of organization is crucial, not least because it is very likely the writer will be discussing a range of evidence. Therefore, they need to be sure that the way the narrative of their essay flows and its logic is easy for the reader to understand. Below are a few general rules worth considering:

  1. If a professor says you may choose books for your review, you should try to identify ones that somehow relate closely to one another. This will make it easier for you to compare and contrast them.  
  2. When comparing, do so on the basis of some single organizational principle or idea i.e. an evaluation of how the different authors assess the efficiency of post-hurricane recovery.
  3. Decide on a developmental method that is complementary to the organizing principle you have chosen.
  4. Choose relevant and specific examples for supporting the analysis work you do.
  5. Use transitions (suitable words and phrases) to help readers understand the likenesses and differences that apply to the subject.
  6. End your review essay with a restatement of your central thesis, a summary of the key points, and a last “what does it matter” for readers in respect of the main likenesses and differences discussed in earlier parts of your paper. In what way are these important and why?

Generally speaking, a review essay of this type can be organized in one of two ways. If it is the case you think one particular work expands or elaborates on another, it is possible you will use a method called the “block.” And should you discover that two books or more examine or debate a particular topic from various perspectives, you may want to use a method called the “point-by-point” to help you highlight any possible conflict(s). This latter method can, however, seem like a rhetorical game of Ping-Pong. This effect can be avoided if you group some points together, thus reducing how often you have to go back and forth from one text to others.  

Regardless of whichever method you opt for, it will not be necessary to devote the same amount of time to the likenesses and the differences. In truth, your essay will be of greater interest if the primary argument or arguments are set out as early as is possible. Take, for instance, an essay that evaluates three different research projects that look at the various interpretations of how best to resolve conflict among Middle Eastern nations. The introductory section of such an essay might not have more than two or perhaps three sentences dwelling on likenesses and just one or two paragraphs setting up the contrasts in the positions taken by the different authors. You will use the remainder of this essay, regardless of whether it uses the block or point-by-point method, for analyzing the primary differences as these appear in your chosen books.

The Method Known as “Block”

With this method, you should set out all information from Book One, followed in parallel fashion with information from Book Two. Very often, this method is more effective for book review essays that are shorter and ones with not many sub-topics. This is how this method should look:

  1. The Introductory Section
  1.  Introduce in brief terms the overall topic or subject matter and why this is important.
  2. Your thesis sentence/statement
  • Your first point (in support of your argument)
  • Your second point
  • Your third point
  1. Book One
  1. Summarize this book
  • How book relates to 1st  supporting point
  • How book relates to 2nd supporting point
  • How book relates to 3rd supporting point
  1. Book Two

     

    1. Summarize this book
  • How book relates to 1st supporting point
  • How book relates to 2nd supporting point
  • How book relates to 3rd supporting point
  1. Book Three
  1. Summarize this book
  • How book relates to 1st supporting point
  • How book relates to 2nd supporting point
  • How book relates to 3rd supporting point
  1. The Concluding Paragraph
  1. Restatement of thesis
  2. Brief summary showing how argument has been proved.

The Method Known as “Point-by-Point”
Set out a point about Book One, followed in parallel fashion with a point about Book Two. Often, this method is more effective in book reviews that are longer and ones with a lot of sub-topics. This is how this method should look:

  1. The Introductory Paragraph

     

    1. Introduce the topic or subject matter in brief terms and say why this is important.
    2. Your thesis sentence/statement
  2. Explain Book One in Brief Terms
  3. Explain Book Two in Brief Terms
  4. First Point of Comparison
  1. Say how this point relates to book one
  2. Say how this point relates to book two

V. Second Point of Comparison
    A. Say how this point relates to book one
    B. Say how this point relates to book two

VI. Third Point of Comparison
    A. Say how this point relates to book one
    B. Say how this point relates to book two

VII. The Concluding Paragraph
    A. Restatement of thesis
    B. Brief summary showing how argument has been proved

IV. Critical Evaluation of Contents

Irrespective of what method you choose – block or point-by-point, the largest portion of this type of essay should be comprised of critical evaluation. Say if you feel the way the author has treated the subject matter is suitable or not for the targeted audience. Ask these questions of yourself:

  • Do you think the authors have achieved the purpose they intended?
  • Do these books contribute to the discipline or field they belong to?
  • Have the authors treated the subject or topic in an objective manner?
  • Has any evidence or facts been left out in any or all of the books?
  • What types of data does each author use to support their thesis statements i.e. if indeed any data is used?
  • Would it be possible to interpret this data for any other ends or purposes?
  • How effective and clear is the style of writing?
  • Are any controversial or important topics or issues raised in any of the books that need to be discussed and researched further?
  • Has anything been left out and, if so, what?

Your evaluation of the different books should be supported with sound evidence from each of the books and, wherever possible, from other credible sources. Where appropriate and relevant, make a note about the format of each of the books e.g. its typography, binding, layout, and so on. Do any of the books contain any illustrations, maps, etc? Do these help our understanding of the research question or problem? This is of special importance in the case of books with lots of elements other than text i.e. where there are illustrations, charts, graphs, tables, and so forth.

NB:  Please remember to separate your own views from the views of the authors of the books you have read to avoid confusing readers.

V.  Examination of Each Book’s Front and Back Matter

A reference to a book’s front matter means any matter or information that appears before the book’s first section or chapter. A reference to a book’s back matter means any matter or information that appears past the books last chapter. Usually, front matter should be given separate numbering from the book’s main text in small-case Roman numbers e.g. i, ii, iii, etc. In most cases, it is necessary only to provide critical comments on front and back matter where you believe these contain some material that reduces or diminishes a book’s overall appearance or quality – for example, poor indexing or if something is especially helpful for comprehending the content of a book – for example, the foreword of the book places it in a unique context.

A book may contain the front matter described below and this may be taken into account for evaluation purposes while reviewing a book’s overall appearance and quality:

  • Tables of content: Are these clear? Are they general or quite detailed? Do they accurately reflect the book’s contents?
  • Lists of the non-textual aspects of a book: These lists are used in books that have lots of images, maps, graphs, charts, and so on. They usually come after the ToC and in the same order as they are presented in the text. Are the lists in the books you are reviewing useful?
  • Biographical information about the author: This can also appear as part of a book’s back matter. This is useful for determining the author’s authority and for establishing whether or not the book adds to previous research or is based on fresh research. Making reference to an author’s credentials or affiliations can help readers reach a decision about the book’s validity e.g. is the author affiliated to a research body or organization that is dedicated to studying the research question or problem covered in the book.   
  • The book’s foreword: The foreword section in a book serves the important purpose of introducing the author and their book to the reader and it can help establish trust and credibility in both respects. Forewords do not usually contribute any extra information about the subject matter of the book, but they can be used to validate the existence of the work. Sometimes, forewords are prepended in new editions – i.e. they are placed before the earlier edition’s foreword – and their purpose may be to explain the differences between the new edition and earlier versions.
  • The Acknowledgements Section: It is often the case that academic research and studies in the different social sciences fields can take several years to complete. Therefore, it is commonplace for authors to acknowledge the support and assistance they received from others in completing their work and getting it published. Sometimes, acknowledgements can be quite innocuous – nothing more than a recognition of a publisher or family members. However, authors of such works may also acknowledge important scholars, subject matter experts, the staff in research labs or study centers, curators of critical archives and collections, librarians, and so on. In cases like these, you may want to note these support sources in your book review essay.
  • A Book’s Preface: This usually describes the purpose, scope, limitations, and genesis of a book and it may acknowledge the author’s indebtedness to various people who have assisted with the completion of a particular study or project. Did the preface help you better understand this body of work? How good a framework does it offer in terms of understanding what is to come?
  • The book’s chronology: In some cases, this also appears as a book’s back matter. Essentially, authors use chronologies (where appropriate) to draw attention to important events concerning the book’s subject matter. Do you think the entries you have reviewed make any valuable contribution to the work? Is the chronology in the books you are reviewing quite general or quite detailed?

Below is a list of some of the back matter you might find in a book and this may be taken into account for evaluation purposes while reviewing a book’s overall appearance and quality

  • The Afterword: These are relatively short pieces that the author writes as a type of reflective conclusion, closing commentary, or final statement. They are worth noting in a book review if they contribute valuable information about the book’s purpose, call readers to action, or invite readers to give careful consideration to the book’s main points.    
  • Appendices: These are sections at the back of a book, which an author uses to include supplementary or additional materials. Are the appendices you have reviewed well-presented and clearly-organized? Are they relevant to the book’s content or do they seem superfluous? Do they provide any vital information that would be more appropriate if it were included in the book’s main text?
  • Indices: Are these accurate and thorough? What elements are used to identify or highlight specific aspects of the text e.g. italics, underlining, or bold fonts?
  • Glossaries (Definition of Terms): Are terms defined in a clear manner? How comprehensive is each book’s glossary or have any important terms been omitted? Have any concepts or terms mentioned within the main text been excluded?  
  • Endnotes and Footnotes: Look for any endnotes and footnotes while reading each chapter. Do these contain any important information? Do the notes extend or clarify the points within the main text that they are linked to?
  • References, Bibliographies, and Additional Reading Materials: –You should include any reference lists (i.e. lists of sources), bibliographies, and or lists of additional reading materials that the author has included – if there are any – in your review. What types of sources have been included (i.e. are they primary sources, secondary sources, old sources, new sources, well-known sources, etc.)? How has the author used these? Make sure you note any important sources that have been omitted where you think these should have been included. 

NB: In typical terms where a review essay involves multiple books, there is no need to compare and/or contrast the nature and quality of front and back matter expect in cases where all books have some deficiency in common (for example, if the indexing is inadequate) or unless the front and/or back matter provides an important addition to the book’s main content. 

VI. Comments and Summarization

You should use the concluding section of your essay to synthesize the main likenesses and differences in all of the books and the overall contributions these make towards understanding the particular research question or problem. You should not repeat your previous assessment in the exact same words. Your aim should be to provide readers with a feeling of closure and to leave them with a final thought and/or perspective about the subject matter you have been reviewing. You should also say whether or not you think each one of the books has contributed in any significant way to the existing literature that is available on this subject matter. You should not bring in any fresh information in this closing section. If your review has made use of other source materials or it has compared these books with other research efforts, make sure you cite these in an end-of-essay reference list.