Review of ‘Sociological Thinking – A New Introduction’
Dr Harshad Keval, Senior Lecturer, Sociology, Canterbury Christ Church University.
From the opening paragraphs of this second edition, it is clear that the text provides more than a standard introductory Sociology ‘cook-book’. Rather, in keeping with the ethos of the original edition published in 2008, it guides, introduces, and gradually facilitates an incremental but lively and engaged understanding of some core sociological themes. The contemporary introductory Sociology textbook market place is no safe haven for products which cannot make the subject lively, and most importantly relevant (one only has to regard the continued success of the excellent Haralambos and Holborn authored texts).
The author manages this difficult task substantially by not only covering a huge amount of material, but by sustaining a sociological narrative that asks the reader simply to look around their own social, cultural and political world. This in many ways is the defining strength of the text, its persistent but gentle development of a specific, intellectual curiosity, via the nurturing of critical sociological lenses. However similar to other texts in the field, before venturing into discrete topics, it builds an understanding of the deep, complex and sometimes forgotten philosophical foundations of the subject, but it does so in an interesting and lively manner. The author’s passion for the historical development of the subject is clear from this chapter, and the importance for the subject is not lost.
I am reminded of the seminal text “Modern Sociological Theory”, by the late Ian Craib, in which a comment made by Charcot to Freud is quoted: “Theory is good but it doesn't prevent things from existing.” In many ways this textbook brings that quote to life by allowing the new reader of sociology to understand that indeed, there is a deep and profound relationship between our personal situation in the world, and the complex relationship between the things we observe, and the theoretical explanations that may help us make sense of them. Oftentimes, for new students of the subject, there is little of practical import in the subject, and Pullinger’s text is a very welcome insurance policy against this. It maintains that as long as the appropriate kind of curiosity is developed - sociological questioning, then the appropriate analytical understand can develop.
The text itself includes the standard fare for introductory texts: Perspectives, Methodology, Families, Stratification, Education, Power and Politics, Religion and finally a chapter on Developments in Sociology. The range is broad and despite the author’s admission that the broad sweep comes at the cost of some depth, this does not compromise on the vital style of thinking being encouraged. As teachers and lecturers of Sociology will be familiar with, throwing mountains of detailed sociological information at new students is neither useful nor fun for either party. Enlisting the reader’s own biographical situation can on the other hand can often be effective. Therefore a welcome addition is that each chapter is prefaced by ‘The Sociological Challenge’ which is an explicit, brief discussion of the issues faced within that particular topic, and how Sociology might help. This sets the analytical tone for the reader, as the author gradually builds a conceptual, empirical and theoretical narrative for the reader to engage with. This functions to contextualise the relevance of sociological thinking for all social issues, and is important for newcomers to the subject. It pre-empts the popular (and often unspoken but easily perceived by experienced educators) question, “What does this have to do with me?” The resounding sociological answer is echoed in the text, and ultimately hopefully will spur the reader to make the myriad connections themselves, as they reveal their own embedded-ness within the heart of the sociological enterprise.
The author uses contemporary examples in the narrative, such as the education system, family, economic austerity, globalisation, unemployment and politics to carefully examine how using concepts, theories and data, readers can learn to view the world from a different perspective. Again this serves to situate Sociology in a contemporary milieu, and gives the reader some personal, social and intellectual purchase with which to start their own analyses. It also reminds the reader that the types of explanation for social phenomenon which are based on taken for granted knowledge can be tackled by undermining these assumptions and using alternative, potentially powerful thinking tools.
One of my few gripes regarding the content relates to the omission of colonial and post-colonial discourses. The text does indeed deal with some of the major relationships between race, the Atlantic slave trade, economic development, as well as the recent immigration histories of the UK and the related social stratification of minority populations. However, even at this level, I believe it is useful for newcomers to the subject to be exposed to the many ways in which European enlightenment philosophical foundations were intimately connected with an on-going and problematic relationship with particular constructions of countless other peoples across many continents. These inter-relationships can be difficult for new readers to absorb, but are not impossible – in fact John Pullinger’s style of writing shows the potential for integrating this subject area in future editions. This is not a huge omission for an introductory text, and there is plenty of substantial discussion here about race and difference for the reader to grasp the main ideas and then explore further.
In summary, a welcome textbook for all the audiences outlined by the book itself. More importantly, for all new introductory readers of the subject, it should establish in their minds a very ‘real’ and important sense of Sociology as a mature, reflective, intellectual project, which can be made accessible, engaging and relevant.