Old stars, postmodern turns

Core Sociological Dichotomies. First Edition - Sociology. First Edition - Introduction to Sociology. Fourth Edition - Introductory Sociology. Third Edition
February 26, 1999

What a pleasure it has been to read these first-rate introductory texts in sociology. If you know anyone who doubts that the discipline has much to offer, then feel free to pass them a copy of any one of these four. In each they will encounter broad and deep coverage of the field, eloquent and engaged writing, and a real buzz about the subject. Sociology has recaptured some of its popularity in recent years (indicatively one of Tony Blair's favourite thinkers, Anthony Giddens, the uncrowned king of sociology, is a major influence, especially in the text by Tony Bilton and colleagues). These textbooks give plenty of reason for sociologists to feel confident about exciting students and even a much wider public.

Core Sociological Dichotomies sits apart from the other three books under review in that it is more narrowly focused, more appropriate for advanced rather than introductory students, and markedly less comprehensive in approach. Really it is a showcase for Goldsmiths College sociology, offering 25 chapters that are all written from within that department. It is organised around chapters that take a dichotomy such as "theory/practice" and "local/global" and in a few thousand words explores current and past concerns.

The editor justifies the approach as a useful pedagogic tool in so far as it encourages debate among students, hence helping to clarify thought. It is certainly an arresting and innovative approach to teaching that will give course designers much to think about. I appreciate the sophisticated and scholarly discussions offered here, but I am not convinced by the framework adopted, since dichotomies can blind us to the murkiness of reality as much as they may illuminate. I think too that this text will be beyond the reach of most first-year sociology students, in part because it is often rather abstract, but more importantly because it is unlikely to appeal when set against its formidable competitors.

These include the other three books in this review. They are exceptional in their attractive composition: with big pages, lots of illustrations, helpful reviews, effective use of light and shade, explanatory boxes and more. They cover a huge amount of ground, meaning that students and teachers can tailor the text for their own purposes.

Sociology , by James Fulcher and John Scott, is a first edition, though it will surely be around for years to come. Its authors have learned from their predecessors. Since Scott is one of Britain's foremost contemporary sociologists, it is scarcely surprising that this book is the most academically reliable of them all: impressive and authoritative scholarship complements the excellent use of summary points in each section, interesting illustrations and stimulating exercises. Sociology is thorough, reliable, and judicious - just the ticket for A-level and first-year (and beyond) undergraduates, who must inevitably invest a lot of trust in a textbook's authors. It is also rather orthodox in approach, with an opening discussion of theory and methods, supplemented by a great deal of substantive material presented in the remaining 15 chapters. But it remains sensitive to the need for active learning, something that explains the candid advice to skim-read the theoretical sections and get stuck into chapters on topics that are more immediately comprehensible.

Sociology does not offer a lot to the more fashion conscious in the field. Thus it acknowledges postmodernism, race and gender, but refuses to prioritise these in chapters of their own. Instead, in a text that focuses mostly - but not exclusively - on the UK, such subjects are incorporated into chapters, for example, on work, family and inequality.

Introductory Sociology , by Tony Bilton and colleagues at Anglia Polytechnic University, and Mike O'Donnell's Introduction to Sociology have been around in earlier editions for years. But do not imagine these are simply updates of what went before. Both are radical rewrites, so much so that they are best regarded as entirely new books. Above all, they take the "postmodern turn" in sociological thought and analysis so seriously that it occupies a central position in both books.

Bilton's team of authors has grown to six since the second edition, and the book has also expanded in length, but the work has lost none of its topicality, sound scholarship and breadth of coverage. In addition, it comes this time with an instructor's pack, which ought to be purchased by anyone interested in using it on courses, since the exercises and overheads will make class preparation much easier.

The Anglia group was the first to introduce postmodernism to the textbook, but this time the concern is promoted to a much higher position. The book is divided into four parts, moving from theory and methods through structures of inequality before returning to theoretical matters. Postmodernism merits a place in each chapter. This is done, on the whole, sympathetically, but throughout the text there is unease expressed about the relativist tendency ("everything is a matter of discourse, hence nothing is real") in postmodern thought. By the close of the book, this is charged with threatening the bases of any serious sociological work.

Introducing Sociology can be warmly recommended for A-level and university students, though they should be advised that it reflects very strongly Giddens's conceptual approach to the discipline, especially sharing his orientation towards reflexivity.

The most radically revised book, however, is Introduction to Sociology by O'Donnell. It might be the least scholarly of all the books under review, with a few howlers and rather sloppy referencing, but it is a compelling read, pulsating with relevance, passion and engagement. I bet this will be a bestseller among A-level teachers and far beyond. The book is bumper sized, on good-quality paper, with excellent typography, cartoons and pictures. Of course, we have come to expect this nowadays, but O'Donnell offers much more than improved form. His text is organised around a division between traditional, early modern and late or postmodern society. Some of us might gag at this, but it certainly grabs the imagination - and does this in ways that will excite young (and not-so-young) readers.

Introducing Sociology prioritises matters such as "race" and ethnicity, the breakdown of class analysis, gender and sexuality, culture and identity, and consumption. Emphasising the need for a non-essentialist sociology that is attuned to global developments and newly emergent phenomena, O'Donnell's text maps the terrain contemporary sociology occupies. All I can do is admire the enormous amount of energy that O'Donnell must have expended to get so far, salute the achievement of his distillation of this material into such an impressively coherent and user-friendly book, and wish enviously that I had written it.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

Core Sociological Dichotomies. First Edition

Editor - Chris Jenks
ISBN - 0 8039 7978 9 and 7979 7
Publisher - Sage
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
Pages - 433

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