Concept development in a discipline like sociology is a process and any attempt to identify that discipline’s ‘essential concepts’ must necessarily be a snapshot taken at a specific moment in time. Creating that snapshot is pretty much what we have tried to do in this book. Of course, it means we have taken a risk as one sociologist’s ‘essential’ is another’s ‘irrelevant’ concept. Perhaps that’s why most ‘key concepts’ books aim to be comprehensive lists of every significant concept the discipline has ever produced, which avoids that tortuous selection process. We did consider such a book, but rejected the idea for two main reasons. Reason one; others have produced excellent concept lists with short descriptions that we don’t think we could better. Reason two; we identified the need for more detailed discussions of key concepts than is conventionally the case, so that readers come away with a deeper knowledge of an essential concept’s origins, development and present usage.
The structure of each entry is therefore similar: we set out the concept’s historical origins and theoretical context, move on to explore its meaning(s) in sociological research, introduce some common criticisms and end with contemporary pieces of research which illustrate how the concept is used in real-world studies today. Note that a few of our concepts aren’t really ‘concepts’ at all. Race and ethnicity are two related concepts not one, but they are generally discussed together so we discuss them in the same entry. We do the same with structure and agency and qualitative and quantitative methods. Other concepts are also theories, such as globalization or the social model of disability, but we include them for the sake of comprehensiveness.
Our main problem was to decide which sociological concepts justify such an ‘essential’ treatment and by implication, which do not. Perhaps the easiest to choose are those minted long ago that are still in continuous use. Let’s call these ‘classic’ concepts. Power, social class, ideology, capitalism, society, culture – surely most sociologists would agree that these continue to stimulate debate and guide research projects. The next set includes concepts without such a long history but which have had a ‘significant’ impact on sociology: gender, consumerism, identity and life course fit the bill here. These (and others) have stimulated large bodies of ongoing research and reshaped earlier debates too. Third are those much more recently developed concepts – intersectionality, globalization, risk, restorative justice – that have led to innovative research studies and, in our assessment, are very likely to become ‘essential’ within their specialist fields. This third category is open to disagreement as the concepts have not (yet) become essential and our assessment that they will be so may not be shared by our colleagues. If any of these concepts do not appear in the third edition (should it appear) then you can assume we got it wrong. It does happen. Occasionally.
Anthony Giddens is the former director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and is now a member of the House of Lords. His many books include Turbulent and Mighty Continent, The Third Way and The Consequences of Modernity.
Philip W. Sutton is an independent researcher, formerly of the University of Leeds and Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.