Every sociology degree course must come to grips with its founders. There are various ways in which this can be tackled, from working through the names, taking a historical approach to the discipline, emphasising concepts and theoretical legacies, to concentration on contemporary issues in which the inheritance may be tested for its continued relevance. It is unanimously agreed that students should be obliged to engage with the original writings if they are fully to appreciate the masters, even if this means that they will encounter only brief extracts. But the troubles with this are legion. Not least is that the originals are obscured by the passage of time (if they are not abstruse in the first place). Moreover, it is all very well reading a few pages of Suicide, but it is quite impossible to appreciate what Emile Durkheim was about without knowledge of his Rules of Sociological Method and Division of Labour in Society . And how might one tackle Karl Marx without awareness of the reorientation of his thinking in the mid-19th century? There is so much to cover that the case for providing an intellectual framework is pressing.
Given these problems, it is inevitable that primers will appear. At their best they review the main principles of a thinker's outlook, identify resonant themes and summarise critical commentaries from specialist sources. They situate the authors in their times, alongside other theorists, and provide biographical information that can be vital for full appreciation of key thinkers.
Many publishers offer a range to meet this need. The commercial success of dictionaries of sociology are testament to this, among the best of which are Collins, but Penguin and Oxford offer good alternatives, and I would recommend any undergraduate to buy one at the outset of their course. Book length treatments are also common. The long-established Teach Yourself series from Hodder and Stoughton has built on its language courses and offers fine introductions to subject areas such as cultural studies and media studies. Then there are the funny and friendly Writers and Readers books, whose cartoons and headline style prove a saviour for many. More soberly, Fontana's Modern Masters have been consistently high-quality overviews of thinkers as diverse as Marshall McLuhan and Hannah Arendt.
Recently, Oxford University Press produced its inspired Very Short Introduction series: these are only 80 pages or so, cheap at about £7 (and small enough to slip into a pocket), beautifully printed and authoritatively written, while remaining punchy and stimulating. This series was conceived by the publisher rather than academics, demonstrating that an eye to the market, high professional standards and imagination can result in brilliant innovations.
Twenty years ago, Ellis Horwood and Tavistock publishers combined to introduce a Key Sociologists range. Well-known academics were commissioned to produce short overviews on the likes of Marx, Freud and Simmel.
Typically they were four chapters, reviewing biography, approach, major works and influence. All of high academic quality, they were variable in appeal and approach. For instance Frank Parkin's (1982) Max Weber was enormously entertaining and irreverent, while Ken Thompson's (1982) Emile Durkheim was more sober and sympathetic, but exceptionally clear and reliable. Robert Bocock's (1983) Sigmund Freud made an excellent case for the value of psychoanalysis to social theory, while David Frisby's (1984) scholarly Georg Simmel undoubtedly helped his subject gain promotion to canonical status. Tom Bottomore's (1984) The Frankfurt School and its Critics benefited from his unquestionable expertise, while being impatient about the failure of Adorno and his ilk to engage with real-world trends. Barry Smart's (1985) fluent and engaging Michel Foucault proved to be a bestseller, reprinted often as its subject gained in eminence and students looked for a reliable overview of this difficult thinker. Richard Jenkins' (1992) Pierre Bourdieu turned out to be the longest in the series, and combined appreciation with refreshingly direct criticism that aroused the ire of its subject.
Since these books first appeared, the publisher has been taken over by Routledge (which in turn was absorbed by Taylor and Francis). They are all now presented as revised editions and appealingly packaged with new covers and a standard price. The exception is The Frankfurt School and its Critics, which is simply reprinted, understandable since its author has been dead for a decade (though the author details claim Bottomore is professor of sociology at Sussex). I have no doubt that these books remain valuable to students of sociology, but I am sorry to say that the words "revised edition" should be taken with a pinch of salt. Each book does contain a new preface, which ranges from substantial (Frisby) to Parkin's feisty two pages, and further reading sections have been tinkered with. But the vast bulk of the texts is unchanged. In consequence, several are badly out of date, so references to living at the close of the 20th century remain, the feminist critique of Weber is ignored, and the assertion that Marxism is a "major paradigm" in sociology begs serious questions.
Egregious errors have also slipped through - the series editor and the author are even confused in one instance. No one can doubt the longevity of the Key Sociologists series, but no library need buy these books since they add little to the earlier editions. They are a disappointing marketing exercise.
Frank Webster is professor of sociology, City University, London.
- Max Weber. Revised edition
By Frank Parkin
ISBN 0 415 28528 3 and 28529 1
- Emile Durkheim. Revised edition
By Ken Thompson
ISBN 0 415 28530 5 and 28531 3
- Sigmund Freud. Revised edition
By Robert Bocock
ISBN 0 415 28816 9 and 28817 7
- Georg Simmel. Revised edition
By David Frisby
ISBN 0 415 28534 8 and 28535 6
- The Frankfurt School and its Critics. Revised edition
By Tom Bottomore
ISBN 0 415 28538 0 and 28539 9
- Michel Foucault. Revised edition
By Barry Smart
ISBN 0 415 28532 1 and 28533 X
- Pierre Bourdieu. Revised edition
By Richard Jenkins
ISBN 0 415 28526 7 and 285 5
Key Sociologists Series
Editor - Peter Hamilton
ISBN - -
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £8.99 (each volume)
Pages - -