Out with the old, in with the new

Sociology
February 25, 2000

Another introductory text - but one born of a perceived need for difference. Steve Taylor conceived this collection of essays by established experts to counter the tendency of introductions to sociology towards "too many tired old ideas recirculated and too many new ones omitted". The challenge was to produce "a general sociology text that makes use of specialist knowledge by having each chapter written by authors with established records of writing and research in the area". Ambitious, certainly, but the result is successful. In 14 substantive chapters, Taylor and his co-authors offer a coherent and accessible account of the "massive and diverse" enterprise that is contemporary sociology.

Beginning with accounts of methodology by Ray Pawson and theory by Alan Swingewood, the remaining chapters address sociological practices in terms of a thoughtful mix of primarily conceptual topics (power, class and stratification, gender, racism and ethnicity, globalisation) and institutional activities (families, households and domestic life, education, work and organisations, crime and deviance; health, illness and medicine, religion, mass media). The expertise in all chapters is evident in the authoritative account of how sociological thought and research in each area has reached its current state as a basis for discussing the implications and prospects for further work.

This is demonstrated particularly well, for example, in Grace Davies''s discussion of religion and Leslie Sklair''s approach to the ubiquitous phenomenon of globalisation. Davies considers the problematic isolation and insulation from the concerns of mainstream sociology in relation to the significance of religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world and the irony that "its rise has both astonished and bewildered its observers", enabling her to suggest both reasons and a demanding agenda for the reintegration of religion into sociological theory and research. Sklair identifies the principal models of global systems and simplifies the complexities of the process by differentiating its trans-national character from internationalisation on western models, noting that the next decade should produce a quite different approach from the perspective of non-western societies.

The clear sense of method characteristic of the chapters on social institutions resonates well with Pawson''s discussion of methodology - something of a tour de force , both for its inclusiveness and its accessibility. He argues from the outset for a clear sense of research methodology comprised of the relations between methods, their epistemological character and ontological implications. This enables him to steer clear of the simplistic traps of reductive interpretivism. One consequence is that postmodernism, while addressed effectively in relation to this and other topics (theory, education and mass media) is given justifiably short shrift for its rejection of historicity and its ungrounded relativism, in favour of clearly articulated senses and replicable methods of sociological inquiry. The point is made with particular effectiveness by Natalie Fenton''s criticism of media cultural studies research strategies, which "focuses on texts, form and images alone" and dismisses the role of mass media audiences. By ignoring "the structural constraints of class, income, culture and history" they risk "reductionism whereby we all become either enslaved by ideology or free-floating discourses". This is refreshing and could not easily be dismissed by postmodernists, since it is not speculative theorising but an argument developed from empirically grounded and theoretically engaged research. Similarly, post-structuralism is introduced in an effectively grounded way, through the application of discourse analysis by Christine Helliwell and Barry Hindess to the reconceptualisation of power as resource.

The coverage of central topics provides a coherent sense of the range of contemporary work, its conceptual grounds and theoretical parameters - on social differentiation and division, for example, in chapters on class and stratification (Rosemary Crompton), gender relations (Mary Maynard) and racism and ethnicity (Robert Miles and Stephen Small). Stevi Jackson''s thoughtful chapter on families, households and domestic life relates sociology of the family to the study of social stratification and gender relations by reviewing it meta-sociologically, rather than in more traditional, macro-societal functionalist and social system terms. All are concluded by useful discussions of current directions and developments, while other chapters end with rather more conventional conclusions summarising the principal features of their explications of their fields.

In this respect, the collection is exemplary. While accessible to lay readers as well as undergraduates, it does not compromise the scale or complexity of the topics addressed. This is especially appropriate, given the relative sophistication of so many sociology students in tertiary education, who have benefited from the high quality of A-level teaching now widely available.

Access to the contents of each chapter is provided by a brief statement of what it aims to communicate and a list of the principal concepts to be introduced, and most chapters contain appropriate diagrams, tables and graphs. The contents also include discussions of work and organisations by Glenn Morgan, crime and deviance by David Downes and education by Robert G. Burgess and Andrew Parker - which concludes topically with a critical discussion of the 1988 educational reforms, the consequent culture of accountability and its effects on teachers'' lives.

It is not so much a criticism as an inquiry about an introduction as thoroughly well constructed and arranged as this to note that it contains nothing on the sociology of art or culture - not even more than passing reference to issues of aestheticisation in relation to its critical perspectives on postmodernism, to which an essay on sociological approaches to cultural analysis might have been a corrective. There is no development of phenomenological sociological perspectives, although these are located effectively by Swingewood, and no introduction to conversation analysis or socio-linguistics, for example. But a further virtue of this introduction is its manageability and it may be that omissions are instructive about shifts in the agenda of contemporary sociology. The authority of these contributors makes that a reasonable, if chastening inference for those engaged in such work.

Paul Filmer is senior lecturer in sociology, Goldsmiths College, London.

Sociology: Issues and Debates. First Edition

Editor - Steve Taylor
ISBN - 0 333 67619 X and 67620 3
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 398

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