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Two students took notes on Text 3 for the divorce essay topic. These are reproduced below. You will notice that their approaches have been quite different.

Which set of notes do you think would be the most useful?

Student 1

The divorce rate has gone up with each change in divorce laws. In Britain today, one third of marriages end in divorce (in the US it is one half). Some people think that divorce has increased because marriages are now more unstable. This is not the case. Other people think that new divorce laws are the cause of marital breakdown. This is also not the case. The best explanation is that new divorce laws have provided unhappily married couples with a legal solution to pre-existent marital problems. (Bilton et al. p.301)

Student 2

The authors of this text (Bilton et al. p.301 ) attempt to explain the relationship between changes in divorce laws and increases in rates of divorce. They begin by dismissing several explanations advanced by others - i) that increased divorce is the result of increased marital stability ii) that increased divorce is directly caused by changes in divorce laws. As an alternative, they suggest that there has probably always been a degree of marital instability, and that changes in the law have probably provided unhappily married couples with a way out, one that they would not otherwise have had. The authors therefore believe that more liberal divorce laws should be thought of not as a cause of marital breakdown but as a solution to it.

Whilst this explanation seems reasonable enough, it is based only on a consideration of changes in the legal system. It seems a bit narrow. An interesting question that the text does not consider, is why divorce laws themselves have changed. Could this be the result of certain fundamental changes in society? What might these be?

Who has produced the most useful notes?

Student 1

Student 2

Comments

The two sets of notes cover similar content. The language of the second set suggests, however, that Student 2 has been engaged in a good deal more thinking about this content than Student 1.

The notes taken by Student 2 are reproduced again below.

In addition to recording what the authors of the text are saying (content), Student 2 has managed to give a sense of what the authors are doing in saying this ( purpose). This is reflected in the expressions in bold.

You will notice also that Student 2 has sought to evaluate what has been read. (Recall that evaluating different expressions was a requirement of the essay topic.) This evaluating can be observed in the expressions highlighted in italics.

Student 2 also raises questions that she feels have not been adequately covered in the text. These questions are highlighted in bold italics.

Student 2

The authors of this text (Bilton et al. p.301) attempt to explain the relationship between changes in divorce laws and increases in rates of divorce. They begin by dismissing several explanations advanced by others - i) that increased divorce is the result of increased marital stability ii) that increased divorce is directly caused by changes in divorce laws. As an alternative, they suggest that there has probably always been a degree of marital instability, and that changes in the law have probably provided unhappily married couples with a way out, one that they would not otherwise have had. The authors therefore believe that more liberal divorce laws should be thought of as a cause of marital breakdown but as a solution to it.

Whilst this explanation seems reasonable enough, it is based only on a consideration of changes in the legal system. It seems a bit narrow. An interesting question that the text does not consider, is why divorce laws themselves have changed. Could this be the result of certain fundamental changes in society? What might these be?

In summary, the following are all important activities in the practice of critical reading:

  • thinking about an author's purpose
  • evaluating the ideas in a text
  • raising questions about the text

The more effective notes are those that attempt to represent this type of thinking and reflecting.

Essay Topic:

In the last 20 years, rates of divorce have risen significantly in Western countries. Critically analyse some of the different explanations given for this phenomenon. In your discussion you should consider what implications these explanations might have for social policy.

Text 3

As laws and procedures regulating divorce have altered, the divorce rate has tended to increase by leaps and bounds; with each new piece of legislation making divorce more readily available, the rate has risen rapidly for a time before levelling off.Today there is one divorce in Britain for every three marriages. (In the USA the rate is one in two.) Many people have suggested that the higher divorce rates reflect an underlying increase in marital instability; the problem with this argument is that we have no way of knowing how many 'unstable' or 'unhappy' marriages existed before legislation made it possible to dissolve them in a public (and recordable) form. Some commentators have gone further, and argued that more permissive divorce laws in themselves cause marital breakdown. But we can certainly be sceptical of such a view, suggesting as it does that happily married couples can suddenly be persuaded to abandon their relationship, propelled by the attraction of a new divorce law. A more plausible explanation for rises in the divorce rate after the passage of a law is that unhappily married couples were for the first time given access to a legal solution to pre-existent marital problems; in other words, changes in divorce laws are less likely to cause martial breakdown than to provide new types of solution where breakdown has already occurred.

Bilton, T.K. Bonnett and P. Jones (1987) Introductory Sociology, 2nd edition. London: Macmillan, p.301.

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