A bible for all classes

Sociology - Sociology

June 7, 2002

Is Anthony Giddens part of sociology's problem or the solution? British sociology has entered the 21st century in the doldrums. The number of UK higher-education students opting for the social sciences has risen while the proportion reading sociology has fallen. Management and business are the current vogue subjects. Fairly or unfairly, sociologists are seen as failing to offer marketable, discipline-specific skills. Worse still, the press ignores most of us: our conferences are not covered; economists, political scientists and psychologists attract more attention. Yet we are writing more, and bigger, textbooks than ever, and Giddens is our market leader.

Sociology is the fourth edition of a textbook that first appeared in 1989. The latest version is larger, much revised, and is part of a more comprehensive package: there is a companion reader with sections that mirror the textbook's chapters, and a dedicated website that is updated regularly.

Giddens is fast becoming synonymous with UK sociology. He is one of the few living UK sociologists about whom other sociologists write books. It is remarkable that he remains very much a working sociologist while being director of the London School of Economics, and he is doing more than just keeping in touch. He is one of our few genuine public intellectuals. His reputation is as a theorist, but he also writes for students. In fact, students now can do sociology without straying far beyond him.

We sociology teachers of the old school have always been wary of textbooks, especially American-type texts, preferring students to read widely. When we entered the subject there was no other way in. We want to be our students' principal guides around the subject. Yet students demand that we recommend "the book", and we all have to admit that Giddens's Sociology is more student-friendly than most lecture courses.

None of Giddens's books is impenetrable. He is an excellent communicator of difficult ideas, which is why he is so widely read and why his ideas are well known. Giddens writes like he talks. His working life has been spent talking to undergraduates, so he is able to communicate on their level without speaking down. While Sociology is heavy to carry around, it is light to read. The text is broken into 21 chapters, each of which can be read independently. The heaviest chapters, on research methods and theory, are sensibly kept to the end of the book. Big ideas are introduced as they become relevant. There is a helpful glossary at the end to which students can turn if they are in difficulty.

Giddens writes succinctly, giving Marx's theory of class, for example, just a page. The companion reader is equally light going: the 73 contributions are short, with most heavily abridged. Giddens has not gone for heavyweight sociological classics, and nearly all the contributions are from the 1990s or later. They were originally written, and if not they have been abridged, for the benefit of beginning students. The Economist is the source of more contributions than any other journal.

Giddens has endeavoured to pitch his textbook at the "cutting edge" of sociology and he has succeeded, in his own terms. This means that there is plenty about globalisation, information technology and new risks such as ecological calamity. There are chapters on these topics, but they are also present throughout the others. Students are shown how they can find globalisation on the shelves of any supermarket and see it on their television screens. Everything is brought to the everyday level. Students can learn about the origins of reggae, who produces and markets their recorded music, and which countries generate the most international phone calls per capita (Switzerland heads this list). But sociology's standard topics are not omitted. There are chapters on the family, education, stratification, poverty, urbanism, the mass media, population and crime. Most of these chapters have a familiar, homely, sociology of modern Britain feel. This book is not really trying to be a global text so much as to set contemporary Britain in a global and historical context.

The chapters are all up-to-date not just in hard facts, but in the issues that are given space. So sexuality, the hetero and homo varieties, and prostitution, are in. Nothing in the book is "politically incorrect". White western males do not dominate the many photographs. The section on sociology's origins summarises Comte, Marx, Durkheim and Weber, and also Harriet Martineau (1812-76), who is said to have been the first woman sociologist.

Giddens clearly feels that sociology is a compelling, dazzling subject, and this comes across throughout. Likewise his enthusiasm (despite the new risks) about globalisation and information technology. He clearly likes the look of the 21st century: he believes that people have more choice, and that this is a good thing; governments are said to have less control over what citizens hear and see (another benefit of globalisation and IT).

Giddens's own "third way" thinking is not made explicit, but it is implicit in many parts of the book. The need for "welfare reform" (cutting the state's contribution) is taken to be generally agreed. So too the extent to which new risks, such as pollution, supersede or at least sideline older political agendas such as the quest for equality. Giddens will, of course, accept, indeed welcome, debate on all these topics, but his sociology is more excited by the medium and long-term implications of the internet than the strange death of egalitarianism.

All teachers are able to pick faults with every textbook offered in their subject. I personally think that the sources of the contributions in the Giddens reader should be given in order to assist students who want to read the entire pieces (and more). He could also pay more attention to sport and tourism. These are just personal quibbles. There are very few outright mistakes (one is the shading of Australia and New Zealand into the second, ex-communist world in a map). Let us also leave aside general objections to textbooks: students should be made to read the originals, read more widely and so on. This package, if successful, which is pretty certain, will be an onward step towards the "McDonaldisation" of higher education. Students everywhere will be able to do the same Giddens sociology, the whole package. There is simply no point in deploring this. These days it is students who make textbooks successful, and who are we, the teachers, to dispute their right?

My big query is whether the Giddens package will be good for sociology. In some senses, clearly it will. It will attract and engage students. It will give them a sound preparation for further study whether beyond A-level or beyond the first year of their degrees. But will Giddens's sociology widen sociology's appeal among potential students? Will it educate the students who will make sociology the cutting-edge social science?

Sociology was once described as history with the hard work left out. Nowadays, we teach students to talk and write about globalisation while, in most cases, they learn precious little about any countries other than their own; they learn about risks without becoming experts on any; they learn about IT, but acquire little more than lay skills. We really need techniques and fields of knowledge (nowadays with marketable value) in which we are the recognised experts, if sociology is to be a truly heavyweight subject in 21st-century higher education, and especially if we want the rest of the world to pay us attention. So I hope that students will use Giddens, then look beyond him. They need to become experts on some other parts of the globalised world. Meanwhile, we need to retain expertise on aspects of our own society, certainly those aspects on which, up to now, sociology has been the authoritative voice: the family, urban life, education, inequality, crime and so on. Debating globalisation cannot be an alternative to engaging with these issues. Giddens's sociology will be part of our problem if it nurtures hordes of Giddens clones, but this, I am sure, is not his intention.

Ken Roberts is professor of sociology, University of Liverpool.

Sociology: Introductory Readings

Editor - Anthony Giddens
ISBN - 0 7456 2439 1 and 2440 5
Publisher - Polity
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
Pages - 420

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