A Good Book, In Theory: Making Sense Through Inquiry

May 26, 2011

Authors: Alan Sears and James Cairns

Edition: Second revised

Publisher: University of Toronto Press

Pages: 206

Price: £16.00

ISBN 9781442601567

Hooray for a text that, rather than treating the teaching of theory as a version of swimming instruction without the aid of water wings (which generally leads to students spitting out the first mouthful of the pool and then reaching for a towel) starts instead from the premise that theory is really important, and that this vital piece of intellectual nutrition should be provided in a palatable form, rather than force-feeding it in the shape of the "old masters".

This text is born and imbibes of the spirit of the mashup and the remix, and draws on unexpected and refreshingly different sources and exemplars to describe the "cycle of inquiry". We are provided with a whirlwind tour of issues, theory, methods, everyday experience and theorising, as well as a carefully structured primer in the key dimensions of the sociologist's world. Sound like a dose of medicine? Far from it - this book is excellent.

A second cheer for two authors who understand that theory is something we need to rehabilitate if we are to have a chance of making any headway with other aspects of social science teaching. From personal experience, it seems almost impossible to disabuse the average neophyte social researcher of their existing ideas about theory, opinion and fact. If something gets "measured", this makes it a fact; anything that involves "interpreting" or "understanding" is simply an opinion dressed up and pretending to be important. This text makes a good attempt to remedy that notion.

The third cheer is for making this book such an accessible and enjoyable read. I zipped through it, refreshed by the lightness of touch that accompanied an excellent and diverse range of sources. The authors skip across time, disciplines and ideas to bring together overarching themes around issues of "order" and "conflict". These twin themes are used throughout most of the text as modes of orientation, linked into related theoretical approaches and ideas in order to analyse the issues confronting students today, from the economic crisis, globalisation, the environment and social inequality, to the nature of consciousness and perception.

The text is concerned also to build up a firmly grounded method of forming and applying theory, but begins by insisting on the centrality of everyday experience as the basis for theoretical ideas, rather than accepting the common assertion that this is different from, and inferior to, the bases for scholarly inquiry and learning.

As a readable and entertaining introduction to issues usually consigned to weightier and less effective modes of delivery, this is a valuable addition to resources. An excellent supplement to the reading of first-year students - and their teachers!

Who is it for? First-year social science students will get the most benefit from this, but it is a good text for the general reader too.

Presentation: Beautifully written in a clear and lucid manner. Key terms are highlighted, and there is a good glossary at the end. As a primer and source of "thinking exercises", this is excellent.

Would you recommend it? Unreservedly. I think most students would benefit from it. Personally, I'm already integrating some of the examples into my lectures.

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