Coffee with a dash of class

- Sociology. Fifth Edition
- Sociology
- Perspectives in Sociology. Fifth Edition

February 23, 2007

The amount of sociological knowledge we have accumulated over the past 20 years or so is remarkable. Whether it is about gender divisions, media, stratification or sexuality, a dip into Anthony Giddens or Ian Marsh and Mike Keating will provide an easy digest of authoritative knowledge. Nor are older studies outdated: they provide evidence towards explaining social change, so analyses of class in the 1960s can be revealing testimony to how much service occupations, new technology and feminisation have transformed how we live now.

These texts have got bigger. Giddens's Sociology was first published in 1989. It went up to 625 pages in 1997, but the fifth edition weighs in at 1,094 pages. Its rival, Marsh and Keating's Making Sense of Society , is a third edition, having expanded from 643 pages in 1996 to a hefty 804 today. The extra space is not wasted; it is needed to include the enormous amount of available knowledge in these wide-ranging and pretty comprehensive volumes. The books contain lots of illustrations, boxed items, glossaries, summary points and even website addresses. All these student-friendly features are common today. But 20 years ago it was virtually impossible to find appealing guides for students, who were forced to tackle tomes with arid structures of "institutions", "regulation" and "problems", and never a hint of student prompts or questions for discussion.

Giddens's book has been a success around the world. It is composed with verve and panache, yet it is extraordinarily learned and reliable. It really is fun to read, providing enticing introductions to each chapter by using everyday instances that will grab readers from age 16 upwards. Thus it opens with a discussion of drinking a cup of coffee that highlights the sociological dimensions of this experience, ones that extend from rituals of meeting to connections with colonialism.

Sociology is confident enough to ignore obsessive citation, yet it retains its grip on the full range of scholarship. It is distinctively Giddens's review of the field. So the book promotes globalisation, there is concern for historical and comparative analysis, and the personal experience is routinely connected to the bigger picture. Perhaps its finest quality is its blending of theory and empirical materials. Giddens is too often pigeonholed as a theorist. Here, the likes of Jurgen Habermas, Manuel Castells and Ulrich Beck are given attention, but the theory is lightly dealt with and discussed in relation to substantive evidence, whether in terms of the politics of Tony Blair or questions of opportunities to enter higher education.

Sociology is also impressively current. This extends far beyond an ability to include materials on new Labour or the fortunes of David Beckham. Thus a new chapter on "Organisations and networks" offers a tour de force discussion that reaches to Max Weber and runs through the usual suspects such as Peter Blau, Robert K. Merton and Alvin Gouldner. But it continues to take in Georges Ritzer's concern about McDonaldisation, Robert Reich on horizontal organisations, Robert Putnam's interest in social capital and Castells's views on the network enterprise, all the while citing evidence and examples of important changes.

There are a few errors of spelling and omission ("soiology" in a chapter heading will make the author wince, while my boss, John Solomos, will not take kindly to being named John Solomon); I was also surprised that there was no sustained discussion of sport and leisure. But in the end we need to applaud Giddens for a superb text as well as his singular contribution to the standing of sociology today.

Marsh and Keating's work is a more formally academic text, so there is more diligent citation of sources and authorities are more reverentially described. This makes the book less appealing to A-level students, but it remains a fine achievement that will suit first-year undergraduates admirably. It is the product of 16 contributors from Liverpool Hope University, and its contents and concerns overlap with Giddens's, notably in the prioritisation of global sociology. It has helpfully annotated further reading in each chapter and provocative "Stop and think" sections as well as "Case studies" and "Activities". There are many judiciously selected extracts from key studies that help the digestion of theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. It covers fewer subjects than Giddens's text, but it explores them in more depth. I found the chapter on "Politics" more concerned with government arrangements than with issues most germane to sociology. The absence of consideration of environmental questions, as well as of urbanism, is unfortunate, as is the need for a password to access the book's website.

Perspectives in Sociology is now in its fifth edition. It would be more accurately titled perspectives in social theory because the absence of empirical evidence is marked. The book sticks to exposition of theories in its five parts that run from Marx, Weber and Durkheim to Derrida, Foucault and Barthes. It is well written and accurate, and will be of great value to second-year university students. It too contains helpful glossaries and is beautifully printed.

But I am not convinced that teaching sociology as theory is what we ought to be doing. Sociology is an empirical discipline, and theory should develop in close engagement with the substantive, as Giddens's book emphasises. It would be a pity if sociology students were led to believe that the subject is merely a matter of contesting theoretical perspectives.

This is a danger with adoption of Perspectives in Sociology as a teaching text.

Sociology. Fifth Edition

Author - Anthony Giddens
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 1,094
Price - £22.99
ISBN - 0 7456 3379 X

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