Heavyweight titles return to guaranteed acclaim while novices try out their material on demanding audiences. Les Gofton reviews the promising line-up for this year’s study-fest

May 23, 2013

Much like the bands playing Glastonbury this summer, there are superstars and eager hopefuls among the titles elbowing their way on to the shelves this year. Main-stage headliners revisiting their glory days include George “McDonaldization” Ritzer and our own Anthony Giddens, a multi-hitmaker who could open for the Rolling Stones but for his academic touring commitments. For the neophyte looking to fill the top shelf, both volumes offer a handsome footprint, while aiming for different targets, in spite of the authors’ expertise in globalised markets.

Giddens and Sutton’s Sociology has an enviable track record in the UK and abroad; Giddens is the monarch of the introductory-text glen, and this handsomely updated seventh edition is a worthy successor. Ritzer’s Introduction to Sociology is as American as, well, McDonald’s, and clearly aimed at that discrete market. But there are too many examples and issues here that do not travel well, and one really ought to avoid too much fast food, and also references to US domestic issues and celebrities, on these shores at least. The same applies to the Cengage/Wadsworth titles on this list (Babbie’s The Basics of Social Research, Brinker­hoff et al’s Essentials of Sociology, Tischler’s Introduction to Sociology and Ferrante’s Seeing Sociology: An Introduction). All set out to introduce sociology via the “essentials”, but although this approach would suit courses tailored to students with no acquaintance whatsoever with the subject, these titles seem more likely to be useful as a source of heat rather than enlightenment once the first few months of study have been negotiated by UK undergraduates suckled on A levels. Online material is good in places, but less of an attraction than it would be if your course were actually formed around the text.

Pearson’s Sociology: Making Sense of Society (Punch et al) certainly looked like a lot for the money, and may entice the vertically challenged seeking a dual-purpose artefact: in the fumble for that tin of beans on the top shelf, 800-plus pages of A4 could be handy. It is essentially a ready-made introductory course, with preformed lectures, well sourced and accompanied by activities and assignments. It may attract lecturers unable to escape from level-one teaching by way of research funding, but the choice of topics reminds me of courses where every­one did a lecture per week, and students quickly realised they had to cope with variable levels of enthusiasm, ability and audibility as well as the diversity of material.

Pearson’s approach – feel the width and range – is also seen in Best’s Understanding and Doing Successful Research, which aims to introduce research to (count them) 10 (and rising) fields within social science, all with their own research issues and traditions. That may be raising a lot of hopes, and perhaps hackles at the same time. Princeton’s absorbing, well-focused Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Boellstorff et al) will satisfy a smaller, more specialised audience, but watch this one. This is a growing area of interest and broaches new possibilities for research funding in the deepening financial drought.

All the Sage titles I looked at are useful and likely to earn their shelf space. I have a soft spot for reference books; a ­fellow postgraduate developed a successful career on the principle of always looking for bite-sized accounts of main issues, reinforced for me by the admission by an admired tutor that he had never actually read Émile Durkheim. Perhaps this was because Durk­­heim’s landmark Suicide had no illustrations, but I doubt it. A refusal to adorn pages with photo­graphs in an attempt to get down with the kids still seems like a good call. One picture may substitute for a thousand words, but words are more useful here. These titles are clear, cogent and professional in form and content, including Shilling’s The Body and Social Theory and Dorling’s The Population of the UK. For photos or videos, you can always turn to YouTube.

Interesting treatments of more specialised topics abound, from Koch’s A Theory of Grocery Shopping: Food, Choice and Conflict to Cashmore’s excellent Beyond Black: Celebrity and Race in ­Obama’s ­America. Overall, this year’s crop has a hearteningly wide range of both methodological approaches and the degree of lease-lend applied to the introduction of data from other disciplines and discourses. I was particularly intrigued by ­Policy Press’ superb three-volume study of the under-researched area of childhood (Childhoods in Context, Children and Young People’s Cultural Worlds and Understanding Childhood: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach), with first-class material beautifully integrated and presented. These books are keepers.

Ageing Selves and Everyday Life in the North of England: Years in the Making (Degnen) intrigued me after I came across the author’s work on gardening in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. As a northern, ageing self, I was naturally curious to explore this area courtesy of a Newcastle anthropologist (an endangered species since before I worked there). Very nice fieldwork, sensitively used; my only disappointment lay in the discovery that the Jon Hendricks in the bibliography was not the jazz singer. Social ­Theory in Popular Culture (Barron), whose author is just over the road from Degnen at Northumbria University, is provocative and adventurous stuff, overreaching in places with the topic and issues stretching back to the founding greybeards.

Finally, an eerily prescient stone classic. The 35th anniversary edition of Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (Hall et al) is an enduring testament to the relevance and value of Stuart Hall and the field of cultural studies. Respect, and recognise!

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