Dead White Men and Other Important People: Sociology's Big Ideas

May 27, 2010

Authors: Ralph Fevre and Angus Bancroft

Edition: First

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Pages: 296

Price: £14.99

ISBN 9780230232464

The authors fancy this book as the sociological equivalent of Sophie's World (1991), the best-selling fantasy novel about a girl who is lured into a mysterious correspondence that ends up recapitulating the entire history of Western philosophy. As a matter of fact, Dead White Men more closely resembles Steven Lukes' strangely underrated The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat (1996), in which the Gulliver-like protagonist must survey various distant lands to learn how to heal his own society.

However, Fevre and Bancroft have made the Gulliver story more down-to-earth and personal. The female protagonist is starting a course in sociology at university under an alias to avoid association with her father, who was recently convicted of selling dodgy stocks. The novel then recounts her encounters with various campus figures and relatives back home as she comes to grips both with who she is and what she is studying.

This project of self-discovery in alien worlds enables an artful review of topics that over the past two decades have become paramount in sociology: identity, the emotions, the body, gender and genes, class, status and power, as well as the status of sociology itself as a discipline.

The text's academic scaffolding, which includes the insertion of quotes from key theorists, is revealed in appendices.

Dead White Men is written very much against the idea that the goal of sociology teaching is to produce sociology researchers. The fictional author of this tale supposedly wrote it instead of a PhD. The point is also underscored in the theorists represented in these pages: imaginative figures such as Georg Simmel and Erving Goffman are very evident, while more scholastic ones such as Jurgen Habermas and Anthony Giddens are conspicuously absent.

It is easier to recommend this book as a way to increase the sociological awareness of professional writers than as a tool to teach sociology students how to please instructors who see them as nothing but apprentices.

Of course, the authors may believe that an important goal of sociology instruction is the improvement of literature - in a sense, repaying the compliment that the "realistic" novels of the 19th and 20th centuries originally paid to the emerging discipline.

After all, shorn of appendices, Dead White Men could be a commercially viable novel that aims at the Sophie's World market.

At least, that interpretation is more hopeful than simply having to admit that teaching and research in sociology have become completely separate activities, such that nowadays one can write nice blurbs for a book such as this without expecting that it will leave much of a trace on the discipline.

Who is it for? Anyone interested in sociology.

Presentation: A modernist novel of ideas.

Would you recommend it? Yes, as a taster to the discipline.


Cool Capitalism

Author: Jim McGuigan

Edition: First

Publisher: Pluto

Pages: 288

Price: £50.00 and £15.99

ISBN 9780745326405 and 6788

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