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Sociology : Library Research Workflow

This guide presents resources useful for students in sociology classes. Examples of topics include: class and social stratification, communities and families, demography, race and ethnicity. There is also basic information about places to find statistics.

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Thomas Durkin
Social Work / Social Sciences
Social Work Library
Room 236
School of Social Work Building
1350 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706
(608) 263-3283

Initial Background Research

This step helps to direct your library research, especially in cases where you are generally unfamiliar with the project topic.

Make an initial word list to get started on your library research. This is literally just a list of words related to your paper topic. Organize your "word list" into a few concepts. Using the concepts and words, begin to scan helpful resources, such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, or public websites, to learn some general information about your topic. As you learn more about your topic, this step will help your future library research to be more directed and efficient. 

Some potential initial sources of information can include:

  • Brainstorming based on your existing knowledge
  • Class lecture notes, textbooks, and other class readings
  • Electronic “Reference Indexes“ like Reference Universe, Oxford Reference Online, or Credo Reference.
  • Individual electronic or paper "reference" works like encyclopedias or dictionaries
  • Google searching for general informational sites
  • Ask your professor or a librarian for tips and assistance

The outcome from this stage of the research should be an increased understanding of the topic and an expanded and revised "concept word list" to be used in the next stage of your literature searching. 

Creating an Outline

You should be able to create a basic outline for the paper you are writing. The outline for your paper can be a helpful guide for determining which concepts and topics are important to investigate as you do your library research. In this way, the outline will help to keep your library research focused. As you identify sources, also try to organize them according to your outline. By doing this, your outline will also be useful for gauging which parts of your library research are complete and which parts need more research to identify additional sources. Hopefully, using an outline to direct your library research will save you both time and energy.

Recordkeeping and Note-Taking

It is important to keep the notes from your search process organized. The notes for your research are generally of several types:

  • Concepts and search words
  • Factual information
  • Exact quotes
  • Your own ideas, interpretations, and analyses
  • Citations for the sources you have read

Some ways to keep notes:

  • Paper note cards
  • MS Excel
  • MS OneNote
  • MS Word or a text file
  • Citation managers, including:
    • EndNote and EndNote Basic
    • Zotero
    • Mendeley

There are numerous ways to keep research notes, but your research process will work better if your recording process is systematic, logical, thorough, and organized.

It is important to organize your search words into concepts and to continuously build and revise your search word lists. As you build your word lists, be sure to also record the databases that you searched and the words you used. If you add important search words to your list, you may need to go back to search a database again that you searched previously. In this way your database searching will be thorough and complete, and you will be more likely to get all of the important sources for your research. Microsoft Excel is a good way to keep track of search words organized by concept.

It is better to record your notes in a way that they are easily “reorganizeable” later, when you are building your outline and writing your paper. In the classic paper note card recording process, small information “chunks” (see 1-5 above) are recorded on separate cards along with a reference (such as an author’s name) back to the original source of the information. As you build your outline later, you can sort the cards into groups based on the sections of your outline. Very helpful digital tools such as Microsoft OneNote can be used successfully in place of paper cards.

It is critical to carefully and accurately record your sources (and the information taken from those sources) as you do your research. If you systematically keep track of your use of sources, the writing of your paper will be less confusing later on. You will be less likely to commit plagiarism or make factual mistakes that will reduce your grade. Using a “citation management” application, such as EndNote, is an excellent way to record and keep track of your sources. These applications also have many added benefits, such as searchablity and automatic works cited list creation.

Additional Background Research

Depending on the type of research project that you are working on, you may need to do more thorough and extensive background research on your topic. Some useful sources during this stage of the research may include:

  • Books on the topic: the Library Catalog and WorldCat are the primary tools that we have for identifying books on certain topics. Be sure to make use of the subject headings in the database records for identifying similar books. Google Books is also helpful at this stage and can be used for identifying words within the text of many books. However, most books in Google are not available in full text for reading. Various databases, such as Book Review Digest Plus and JSTOR, can be used for identifying book reviews, another good way for identifying good books on certain topics.
  • Review articles: These are articles written by major researchers with the objective to synthesize and summarize the cumulative research on important and timely research topics (as opposed to standard research articles that present new research findings). These articles frequently have very good bibliographies. They occur occasionally in many journals, but the major source of these handy articles is the Annual Reviews database.
  • Dissertations: The work of PhD students in the process of producing their dissertations is unusually thorough and extensive, and dissertations usually have excellent bibliographies. The Dissertations & Theses database is the primary source for full-text dissertations, but there are a variety of other options for locating dissertations, including Interlibrary Loan.

Article Literature Searching

An Iterative Process: Research articles generally form the majority of the sources that are used for research papers. Finding research articles is usually the critical stage of your library searching, and generally takes these forms:

  • Use your "concept word list" to search databases for research articles. The UW-Madison campus has access to hundreds of article databases in the Database Library, and many only cover a specific topic. The many databases listed in this Sociology Research Guide should help you identify databases useful for writing a paper for a sociology class.
  • After you have done some searching and identified some good articles, the authors, keywords, subject terms, abstracts, or text of the articles can give you more ideas for additional words to search on in the databases. Remember to continuously add new search words to your word lists so that you can go back to search the databases again that you may have searched previously. This iterative or repeating process will form the majority of your library research. Following this iterative process will help ensure that you have located the relevant and important articles on your topic.

Identifying Article Databases: Knowing which article database to use can be very confusing. UW-Madison has access to many topic-specific databases, and sometimes they are confusingly named.

  • Use the Database Library Sociology/Social Sciences topical list, or one of the other topical lists, as a way of identifying databases.
  • Try using this Sociology Research Guide to identify relevant sociology databases. Hopefully, this guide will bring together the resources that you need.
  • Try identifying important journals in your topic area. The Journal Citation Reports (JCR) database ranks journals by “impact factor” which may (or may not) indicate their overall importance. In the Library Catalog, you can use the subject headings to identify journals from similar subject areas. Also try the subject guides relevant to the Area Studies and world regions.

In-Depth Literature Searching:

  • Backward chaining or bibliography scanning: Be sure to scan the sources listed in your article's "works cited" list to find additional sources. This is a key step that is often skipped.
  • Forward chaining or “cited-by” searching: There are a few databases that will allow you to see a list of articles that have cited the article that you are looking at. Here is a short list of databases that may have sociology relevant citations and can do this function to varying degrees:
    • Web of Science
    • Google Scholar
    • Social Science Research Network
    • JSTOR (Uses Google Scholar)
    • Ingenta (Does an internal search and also a Google Scholar search)
    • The EBSCO platform (Sporadically)
    • PubMed

How do you get the articles you need?

  • E-journals and full-text databases: Many databases have full-text journal articles within the database. If so, you can get the article (usually as a PDF) directly out of the database, and your research is done! Use this guide, the Database Library, or the E-journals list to find databases or specific publications.
  • Find-It links: Sometimes the database may not have the full text, but it may have a link labeled “FindIt” or "Citation Search." Try this link. It may bring you from one of our databases to another database that has the full-text article.
  • Paper copies: Some journals are still only available in paper. We need to search the Library Catalog to find out which library has the journal. The Interlibrary Loan Request an Article service can be used to request scanned copies of paper articles.
  • Google: Some articles are available in full-text articles through Google Scholar.

Keeping Track of PDFs

Managing the many files that you download can be daunting. There are a number of ways that you can approach this problem. However, all of the methods require you to follow through with your recordkeeping consistently and regularly. Managing your files will take diligent time-consuming work.

  • Record the data about your files in Excel (author, title, file path) and then use hierarchical directories on your hard drive to store the file.
  • Use a citation manager like the EndNote desktop application or Zotero to assist you with automating file storage and citation management.

What can you do if UW-Madison doesn’t have what you want?

  • Ask a librarian for help.
  • WorldCat: This is a list of what libraries around the world own. After searching, click the title of an item, and then you can request items by clicking on “Get Through Interlibrary Loan.” You will have to log in and then click the “Submit request” button on the request form.
  • InterLibrary Loan Forms: To get to the ILL pages where you can request items based on citations that you have, click on the “Services” tab  on the Libraries Main Page, and then click the Interlibrary Loan link. You will have to log in and then choose one of the two request forms for either books or articles.


The research and writing process is individualized, difficult, and can be stressful. No single approach will work for everyone. It will take time to discover the process that works for you.

Uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum. // By no single path is so great a mystery approached. - Symmachus