Studying IR #2: A guide to reading

Ah, reading. According to some of my students, once they get hold of a book, they start feeling queasy. As they read, they develop lightheadedness. Some start convulsing in pain. Ten minutes in, they have to be escorted to the ER. No seriously, this is exactly how one of my students described the experience of reading an introductory text in International Political Economy.

Hyperbole aside, reading, especially academic texts, is not the most exciting activity there is, but it is the most important part of studying IR. After all, a large part of IR is about understanding the thoughts of other scholars through their written work.

On the downside, academic texts are notoriously difficult to follow if you’re just a beginner. Academic texts are not designed for the layperson in mind; instead, they are designed to impress fellow scholars. Academics are also trained to think about complex thoughts; their writing is a mirror of the complicated theorizing going on in their heads. Or it could just be terrible thought expression (see New Yorker and Chronicle). Despite pleas for academics to write more clearly, academic writing is not going to change anytime soon.

So, if you’re a beginner at this, don’t give up yet. When I started out, I also developed minor headaches every time I read through Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations and Waltz’s Theory of International Politics. You’ll pick up the skills along the way. So here is a generic guide on how to read academic texts.

Know thy enemy

As the great Chinese general Sun Tzu said, you should know your enemy. Academic readings are objectively different from other types of texts. However, they often follow a similar format, especially when it comes to journals and books. Some things that you need to remember:

  1. There will always be an introduction, body, and conclusion. The most important parts you need to read are the introduction and the conclusion if you’re skimming. Read the body to see how the author develops their argument.
  2. Judge a book by its cover. Pay attention to the title and subtitle. These are important hints to what the book covers. If your research project is about Nazi concentration camps during World War 2, you sure as hell would be on the lookout for books with the words “World War 2”, “Holocaust”, or “Auschwitz” in their titles/subtitles.
  3. Judge a journal article by their abstract and title. The abstract (that 200-word paragraph that appears before the article begins) is what you want to be reading before you decide to invest at least 30 minutes in reading a 10-page journal article. In the abstract, the author summarizes their entire paper in 200 words, which takes about 2 minutes to read. From there, you can decide whether the paper will be relevant to your needs.

Be surgical

Contrary to popular belief, if a lecturer assigns you a book to read, they never expect you to read it from start to end. You, however, have to be smart in understanding which parts you need to read. This is why it’s important for you to use the Table of Contents and the Index (if available). Or, if you’re using electronic literature, the use of the Ctrl+F function and journal search engine. Here’s how it works, illustrated using three examples.

Example #1

Imagine the following week, the lecturer will discuss violations of international humanitarian law. Previously, they have given you a couple of books or articles. Your job now is to find which books or articles will best help you understand violations of international humanitarian law. To do this, you need to read the Table of Contents and seek out chapters that are most relevant to next week’s discussion.

Example #2

After a lecture, you still find yourself confused about several terms or phrases, such as the concept of complex interdependence by Keohane and Nye. Since your lecturer is going to be missing for a week because of academic reasons and doesn’t want to deal with your BS, you have to clear the confusion yourself. So, you pick up a book, go straight the Index (usually at the back of the book) and look up the term.

Example #3

You want to research about U.S. economic sanctions on North Korea. Go to a journal website (like T&F or JSTOR) and search for keywords like “economic sanctions”. Download as much as you can. While reading, use Ctrl+F to find specific terms. I can’t believe I have to explain this.

(For legal reasons, I shall refrain from mentioning alternative ways of acquiring journal articles.)

I like to call these reading techniques as surgical strikes, since you cut directly to the chase.

Read actively, not passively

Passive reading, or reading with minimal engagement of the text, is not the best way to read academic texts. In fact, you’ll only waste time. Leave passive reading for self-help books or novels. For academic texts, you need to actively engage the text. How do you do that?

Ask yourself, “Why am I reading this?” and “What do I want to know?” These two questions help to explain your objective. If you pick a specific book/article on U.S. military technology during the Iraq War, are you reading for the sake of understanding the political and strategic context, or to know what weapons the U.S. used in Iraq? It also doesn’t help to be vague, especially if you’re reading a book for research purposes. Establishing vague objectives, like “I want to know more about Neorealism” will likely get you lost. Unless, of course, this is your first time reading the book. If that’s the case, it helps to have vague objectives which you can later modify. Instead, specify your objective, like “I want to know how relative power distribution affects state behavior”.

Once you have established your objective, you need to know where several important “keys” are located.

The first key is the thesis statement, or the main line of argument that the author proposes. This will definitely be found in the Introduction. The second key is the structure of the book, which usually appears at the end of the Introduction. This shows you the general direction of the book. The third key lies in the Conclusion, where the author summarizes their findings.

Keep notes!

It doesn’t matter where you write the notes, be it on the computer, paper, or in the book itself (known as “marginalia”); the point is, you have to keep notes. Here’s why:

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake— not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Adler and van Doren, How to Read a Book, p. 65, emphasis added

In other words, notes help keep you on track, records your agreements/disagreements/questions about the text, and generally keeps you from dozing off. You can also note the difficult words or terms (such as “mystification of the feminine” or “para-diplomacy”) and ask them in class during the next meeting. You may also want to highlight important quotes and save them somewhere… or post them on social media to show you’re deep.

Be prepared to read more than once

If anyone tells you they understood an academic text the first time around, chances are (a) they have photographic memory, (b) they are geniuses, or (c) they are lying.

Don’t let big words slow you down. The first time I was reading Waltz’s Neorealist theory of international politics, I was stumped by his explanation of “reductionist” theories. However, I continued to read, noting down the terms I didn’t understand, and eventually (like, 2 years later) it all made sense.

It is recommended that the first time you read anything, you should skim it. Once you understand the general outline, then the second time, you can read it more in-depth. Why does this work? Well…

The dynamics in time and focus fueled by the reconsumed object allow emotional efficiency, as consumers optimize the search for and attainment of the emotional outcomes sought in volitional reconsumption, and facilitate existential understanding, as the linkages across past, present, and future experiences enable an active synthesis of time and promote self-reflexivity.

Russell and Levy, 2012 [paywall]

If you cringed, you’re not alone. I had to read that twice to understand what it meant. That is an example of academic writing at peak opacity. To put it simply, reading the second time around helps you link the text to your current experiences and knowledge, which you may not have had the first time around.

Organize and review your reading notes

(In a later post, I’ll address good note-keeping procedures)

Once you’re done writing down notes and actively questioning whatever it is you’re reading, organize the notes you took. There some interesting systems out there, but for me, what works is my take on the Feynman method. The idea is, if you can’t explain a concept/idea in simple language, you haven’t understood it yet. The Feynman method basically forces you to organize your notes so you could use them to explain the things you read to someone else who hasn’t studied it yet. For me, this comes in the form of my Le’ Notes series, in which I summarize lecture and reading notes.

There are also many apps out there to organize notes, but so far, I’ve found that Google Docs is the most reliable simply because it syncs across all platforms. And most importantly, it’s convenient. Once you’ve organized them, you can use them to review materials before a test or for writing a research paper.


So there you have it, a general guide on how to read an academic text. To summarize, you need to first know what you want to achieve. Then, you need to be surgical and active. After that, you need to reflect and review the notes you took while reading. Rinse and repeat until you graduate. Reading academic texts is not easy, but it shouldn’t be a cause for developing migraines. It’s doable and you kinda need to do it if you want to survive in IR.

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