Bring and buy for a feast of inspiration

The Uses of Sociology - Social Differences and Divisions - Social Change - Understanding Everyday Life
June 6, 2003

I am probably not the only sociologist who, over the years, has looked at some of the textbooks produced by the Open University with frank, green-eyed envy. It must be wonderful to command the resources that have enabled the course teams to come up with such marvellous books: full of life, often superbly illustrated and good to look at, and - even where I have disagreed utterly with their points of view - bursting with the vigour and virtues of education. I am sure that the committee gestation process is hard fought and peppered with uncomfortable compromise, but it must be an enormously rewarding experience.

The four books reviewed here, part of the OU's new basic sociology course Sociology and Society, are true to the high standards set by their predecessors. As a snapshot of the state of sociology at the OU - which is in some respects a good dipstick for the discipline in the UK - they mark a move away from the cultural-studies emphasis of the Stuart Hall era, towards something more broadly based and closer to a notional mainstream tradition. The determined commitment to theory remains, and the politics are largely the same, but the net is more widely cast and the empirical underpinnings look more secure.

Each book follows a common format. Following useful brief introductions - very useful in the case of Tony Bennett's discussion of the concept of "everyday life" - the reader is offered a menu of specially written thematic chapters, each well larded with illustrations and suggested activities for students and accompanied by a selection of side dishes of readings from original sources. For those who are still peckish, each book ends with a further set of extracts from relevant writers. While the menu is sufficiently structured to hang together as a whole, each chapter is potentially a main course in itself. Buffet or banquet, the choice is yours. While the styles in which the course-team contributors write vary - and none is immune from occasional lapses into what Peter Berger called "sociology's barbarous dialect" - these books have been written with accessibility in mind. All concerned are to be congratulated. The sources they anthologise are diverse, stimulating and not always obvious: from Bev Skeggs to T. H. Marshall to De Certeau to the Macpherson Report to Descartes. There is enough here to surprise anyone, and something for all of us to learn along the way.

The first volume, Bennett and Diane Watson's Understanding Everyday Life , is my favourite, if only because of its subject matter. Topics explored are home, love and romance, the street as a site of everyday life, economic activity, the pub, and community and space, with an end-piece by Sue Hemmings, Elizabeth Silva and Kenneth Thompson unpicking the notion of everyday life. This is stuff on which students love to cut their teeth. It dramatises the contribution that sociology has to offer to the democratisation of knowledge and the empowerment of the citizenry.

Peter Braham and Linda Janes' Social Differences and Divisions covers what some might consider more orthodox sociological terrain. All the usual suspects are rounded up: gender, class, ethnicity and race loom large, as do citizenship, education, housing and contemporary debates about social exclusion. While one might raise an eyebrow about the absence of disability, and the relative under-emphasis on health and the life course, this is a solid survey of the field. I would have liked to see a different balance being struck, with belonging and the nature of collectivity more prominently on the agenda - Bryan Turner's excellent chapter on citizenship is the major nod in this direction - but it is impossible to do everything, and the vision presented here is in accord with the wider collective wisdom and predispositions of sociology.

In Social Change , Tim Jordan and Steve Pile have assembled a collection that deals with one of the enduring themes of sociology. Substantive chapters look at city life, post-colonial histories, the shift from industrialism to an information society, new media and IT, intimacy, and the regulation and control of individuals as selves. Jordan's closing chapter discusses how change has been conceptualised by a range of sociologists and others. In taking this tack, an opportunity to tackle tricky questions about the nature of change - the relationship between movement and stasis, transition and stability, fluidity and fixity - has been declined, but perhaps one should not expect too much from an introductory text. In this volume the legacy of cultural studies is most apparent. This is not a problem per se, but political economy - an idea that is due for a sociological comeback - receives short shrift. This is a shame.

The final book in this series is the most challenging. Peter Hamilton and Thompson's The Uses of Sociology is to be congratulated - as is the course in general - for grasping this nettle. A range of issues is broached, from sociology's relationship to government and commerce, to its presence in the public sphere, to its complex implication in social movements such as feminism, socialism and anti-racism (although environmentalism merits barely a mention: an interesting blind spot). Although Karim Murji's chapter on the possibilities for an open-bordered post-colonial sociology is the least satisfying to this reviewer, it nonetheless has a place here.

The volume ends with Thompson's essay on sociologists as soothsayers, reminding us of a consistent disciplinary interest in futures that stretches from Comte to Anthony Giddens' writings on the third way. On the negative side, it may be churlish to say so but in this, the shortest of the four volumes, surely space could have been found for a chapter on the practicalities of method.

These books represent much that is vital and excellent about British sociology - a broad intellectual base, an openness to cognate disciplines and a tradition of commitment to innovation - but they also raise some questions. For example, tables and graphs aside, they exemplify the continuing dominance within British sociology of qualitative approaches. As an ethnographer, I can say this without being accused of special pleading, but we still have a long way to go in addressing this deficit. From another direction, there is a residual parochialism that finds its expression in the curiously low profile of globalisation throughout, and the absence of the truly worldwide sweep that one finds, for example, in John Macionis and Ken Plummer's wonderful Global Sociology .

Another important question is, how might one use these books outside the context of the OU course to which they relate? The answer is, probably not as a quartet, and probably not as core texts, either. They are so tightly tied in to a particular curricular vision and course outline that most of us would find them unduly prescriptive. They are streets ahead of most introductory omnibus textbooks, which stumble because of the uncomfortable compromises they attempt to strike between the A-level and first-year university markets, but are likely to be too specialised to have a mass market outside the OU.

In the considerable intellectual demands these books make - there is some difficult stuff here - they imply a level of tutorial support and attention that many conventional universities, even well-founded red-brick piles, are finding it difficult to maintain for introductory students. An OU degree is a relatively expensive qualification and this is reflected here. There is something of an irony in the thought that the OU may be preserving levels of student-centredness that are increasingly rare elsewhere. Is there food for thought here for the debate about fees?

Many of us will, however, find a host of uses for these books. It would be a crying shame not to. Introductory textbooks are the most difficult of books, and the most important, and these rate at least an eight out of ten.

While we may not opt for the whole banquet, as a cafeteria or buffet they will serve the hungry very well indeed. As supplementary resources for a range of courses, not least in the student exercises that they offer the harried lecturer needing something for tomorrow's tutorial, they offer a rich seam of ideas and inspiration. Students will love them. Multiple copies for the library, please!

Richard Jenkins is professor of sociology, University of Sheffield.

The Uses of Sociology: Peter Hamilton and Kenneth Thompson

ISBN - 0 631 23313 X and 23314 8
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £17.99
Pages - 355

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