Question: how do you summarise and present the emergence, development and contemporary shape of a diverse discipline like sociology in a single textbook? Answer: with great difficulty, a ruthless selection process and 1130 pages.
The bare facts are that the latest edition of Polity’s Sociologyhas 23 chapters covering the established subjects of theories and methods, families, crime and deviance, religion and health as well as more recent inclusions such as the environment, war, terrorism, the life course, globalization and sexuality.
The book aims to provide a comprehensive introduction to the discipline for all new students, striking a productive balance between the classical traditions and contemporary sociology.
However, textbooks today need to do more than simply describe how sociologists make sense of our constantly changing social world. They also have to actively engage with readers, and the seventh edition goes much further in this direction than the previous six.
The end-of-chapter review sections and exercises are designed to stretch students’ knowledge and develop their research skills, encouraging them to seek out original journal articles, book chapters, online materials, films, novels, paintings and other artworks. The book tries to convince readers not only that is sociology still relevant, but also that in a globalizing age it is becoming more significant than ever before.
This seventh edition marks 24 years since Tony Giddens’s original idea bore fruit in 1989. Since then, both sociology and the world it seeks to analyse, understand and explain have changed in so many ways.
In the 1989 edition, a raft of major social issues that appear as ‘normal’ elements of sociology today were just not widely studied or taught. The fact that the seventh edition extensively covers environmental issues, global warming, terrorism, globalization, gender and sexuality shows that sociology’s central problems have shifted over the last quarter century.
Sociological theorizing has moved on apace too with new theories of globalization, ecological modernization, risk, postfeminism, cosmopolitanism and postcolonialism being developed to help us understand the changing societies we live in. Clearly any textbook worth its salt (or cash) has to find ways of combining the best sociology of the past (rooted in the ‘classical traditions’) with that of the present and this has been a major task for the new edition, which we hope works well.
Uniting the seven editions over 24 years is the conviction that encouraging readers to develop a ‘sociological imagination’ is the fundamental job of any introductory textbook in the discipline. We view encouraging and facilitating the development of a sociological way of seeing and interpreting social life as an end in itself that enriches both individual lives and the wider society, though its value is also evident in any number of contemporary issues.
For example, the recent discovery of horsemeat and horsemeat DNA in a variety of processed foods labelled as ‘beef’ is discussed by politicians and food industry leaders as a problem of fraud and criminality, of mis-labelling and a failure of regulation.
But for sociologists the episode illustrates wider social processes. It alerted people to the existence of some of the basic systems underpinning modern life, in this case the food production and supply chain which stretches across the boundaries of nation states.
Tracing some of the horsemeat from its origin in a Romanian slaughterhouse to a food trader in the Netherlands, on to a trader in Cyprus, then to food processing firms in France before it arrives in British supermarkets demonstrates something of what the rather woolly, abstract concept of globalization really means in practice.
It is unlikely that sociologists will simply ask ‘who is to blame’ in cases such as this. We are much more interested in trying to understand how this ‘scandal’ occurred and what it can tell us about the world we all help to make and inhabit.
Setting aside the initial urge to apportion blame and instead trying to gain a level of relative detachment from our personal prejudices and political values is a prerequisite for acquiring that sociological imagination which enables us to approach the world ‘with sober senses’. This commitment remains the leitmotif of the seventh edition of Sociology.
Phil Sutton is an independent researcher, formerly of the University of Leeds and Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and co-author of Sociology, with Anthony Giddens.