Cultural Sociology: An Introduction

May 24, 2012

Authors: Les Back, Andy Bennett, Laura Desfor Edles, Margaret Gibson, David Inglis, Ronald Jacobs and Ian Woodward

Edition: First

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons

Pages: 250

Price: £55.00, £19.99 and £66.00

ISBN: 9781405189859, 9781405189842 and 9781444362237 (e-book)

David Chaney's magisterial opening provides an authoritative framework and background for these introductions to key subtopics within this important area of sociology. I was a postgraduate of the mid-1970s, so Chaney's account of the rise of this new approach instantly brought back the "history man" atmosphere of that period, with tag teams of Marxists and culturalists bouncing off the ropes in seminars to deliver forearm smashes to opposing ontological and epistemological vulnerabilities. The summers were warmer then too, of course.

The chapters following that introduction are, it must be said, of a variable standard. The textbook offers a good introduction to some topic areas, and each chapter includes ready-made learning objectives. A rather eccentric glossary of key terms is provided; for example, "Theology: an explanation for evil". It is very much the fruit of collaboration, and intended to support low-input, staff-time-saving teaching. If a set of downloadable slides had been provided with each chapter, this would constitute an instant module, and a fine tool for the neophyte module-provider covering for a fund-gathering research colleague; indeed, if this were a US textbook, such additional resources would be a sine qua non.

That said, this volume certainly recognises the predominantly British/European character of cultural sociology: the so-called "strong programme" of Yale University's Center for Cultural Sociology seems like an outpost in a parallel world outside the debates that still animate non-US cultural analysis. The difference in approach creates disjunctures, and the notion of this work as a "communally authored" text cannot be sustained. In essence, this is really a collection of different introductions to the discipline, and the faux-Maoist resonance is not convincing. Only Chaney's excellent chapter, and the collaboration of Les Back with John Solomos, identify specific authorship, but nevertheless different voices are discernible in each chapter. There is a marked and decidedly uncomfortable variation in tone, level and treatment - as though the audience for the work were assumed to be complete sociological "newbies" in some areas, requiring grounds and first principles, whereas in other areas the book pitches them into the middle of full-blown theoretical debates underpinned by thinly grounded ideologies.

For me, some sections stand out: the chapters on politics, fashion, popular music and the media are convincing and usefully readable. These will surely engage and encourage students to pursue those areas.

Having just taught a culture module to level-one sociology students, however, I think the authors have missed several tricks. In the age of Occupy Wall Street, economic meltdown and the reality of a capitalist crisis, where is the DIY movement here? Where are the communities and cultures created and mediated by the internet and social networks? Where is the sociology of "high" culture, of makers and doers, and the "art worlds" of Howard Becker? Indeed, whither consumer culture and its tourists and vagabonds? Good in parts, but can do better...See me...

Who is it for? Level one or two sociology students.

Presentation: Fairly reasonable, although illustrations would help. The glossary is a good idea.

Would you recommend it? Yes, a useful supplementary text for introductory courses.

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