Authors: Black Hawk Hancock and Roberta Garner
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
When I tell people that I wish to specialise in social theory, more often than not I am met with a polite nod (if the person is not a sociology student) or a deep-felt groan and unwitting exclamation of "Why?!" (if he or she is a sociology student).
I am pretty much used to this by now and, in part, I can understand it. If you are honest, social theory is that part of the sociology course that nobody really wants to do: it's heavy, it's obtuse and most of all, it's irrelevant to the real world.
This is where Black Hawk Hancock and Roberta Garner's important book comes in. Its fundamental aim is to bridge the gap between theory and reality, to "bring theory down from the clouds to the ground level of our everyday lives" and, surprisingly, it succeeds.
It is frustratingly rare for a textbook about theory to be able to cover theorists adequately and with depth, while retaining essential clarity. While this book aims to cover a whole lot of ground, beginning with an outline of the historical period 1968-2009 as a way to provide a context for the theory that follows, it manages to summarise the theories of "transitional giants" Erving Goffman, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Stuart Hall in an understandable and succinct manner.
Their analysis of Foucault is particularly insightful, providing a clear and concise overview of this giant's most complex concepts, including those of discipline and the self.
They take into account Foucault's method and politics, his impact and his relation to past theorists. Indeed, the book points out the continuity between the classics and today's theorists, tying together the historical and contemporary strands of social theory.
Likewise, although the book is separated into two parts, beginning with changes in world events (such as globalisation) and theory, before moving on to an analysis of current theorists, the book maintains a fluidity from one part to the other. The authors thereby manage effectively to paint the bigger picture for their readers, exploring the difficulties of theory and cementing it in the real world, and that's an achievement of which they should be proud.
Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology could be an indispensable tool for encouraging new students to engage with theory. More importantly, it could also go a long way to break misconceptions about the inaccessibility of theory, while providing an invaluable source of revision for finalists.
Who is it for? Students needing an introduction to social theory.
Would you recommend it? Yes. I would recommend this book both to newcomers to social theory, such as first-year undergraduates, and those with a more advanced understanding who need a comprehensive overview of particular theorists.