Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

The Student's Companion to Sociology

Chet Ballard, Jon Gubbay and Chris Middleton (editors)
Oxford: Blackwells
0 631 19948 9
£14.99 (pb)
xvi + 391 pp.

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This is a singular volume. To adopt the analogy of its editors, it is not a textbook, but rather a travel guide for a 'journey into sociology'. It differs from a standard text in two key respects; firstly, the editors have not sought to compose a systematic survey of a particular field, or to write for an audience at one single level, although the target audience for the book is undoubtedly sociology undergraduates. Secondly, the scope of the book is considerably broader than that of standard textbooks, it ranges beyond the usual substantive, theoretical and methodological concerns to also include study skills, careers and sociological resources. The book is composed of a wide-ranging collection of essays, by an equally diverse cast of fifty-six authors. Each essay constitutes a short stand-alone chapter, with little commentary. However, the editors succeed in making sense of the polyphony. The essays are celebratory of diversity within sociology, and frequently ecumenical in approach. They stress not only the differences between sociological approaches, but also the commonalities, which too frequently can get lost in discussions structured around 'debates'.

Although the pieces are grouped thematically there is no natural linear structure, rather we are encouraged to 'consult it as [y]our needs or moods suggest'. The book is divided into six sections; the first deals with the nature of sociological engagement, both personal and political; the second with the nature of the discipline, its traditions, themes and language; the third looks at contemporary issues and texts; the fourth looks at the process of doing sociology from a student perspective; the fifth constitutes a directory of useful information and further resources, and finally; the sixth addresses options for careers and further study. Together, these six sections allow the student to start discovering what sociology is, how to do it, why to do it, what is current, and how sociology can fit into one's future; it's a powerful and ambitious combination. The scope of the collection is broadened further as a result of its transatlantic character. In general however, the distinction between British and American sociology is blurred, in all but country-specific sections on study or conferences.

Given the breadth of the project, and the relative lack of 'dumbing down', brevity is the order of the day. At times this results in ideas being turned over at a breath taking rate. As the structure of the book does not allow a presumption of previous knowledge one can only hope that these more intensive essays will prove stimulating and not disconcerting to a newcomer to the discipline. However, in even the most demanding chapters jargon is minimal and the length of essays (ten pages maximum) gives little scope for fatigue to set in, and uniformly 'leaves them wanting more'.

The greatest strength of this collection comes from its success in making sociology a vital and personal activity. It does this through sociologists' accounts of their relationship to the subject (Rex, Heidensohn, Kuvlesky), through authors' reflections of their motives and successes, through young academics' brief accounts of research that has inspired them and by means of biographical dictionary. As such the book is a positive starting point from which to begin investigating the nature of sociology. Accordingly it will be of particular use to those who are undertaking or teaching introductory courses in sociology.

However, the book has a wider appeal. Its 'doing sociology' and reference sections contain down-to-earth practical information on where to get data, how to read research, use the library, and set about undertaking a dissertation (although not essays). There is information on major sociological journals, sociological associations and information on how to apply for postgraduate degrees both in the UK, America and Australasia. Although the scope and size of the book limits the depth of the reference information, it is generally sufficient to enable students to take the first steps, and always provides further references. Thus, while this book cannot replace specialist dictionaries or careers advisors, it's a very welcome addition.

Despite the fact that this collection claims not to be a textbook, it is up to date, helpful, and covers a very broad range of issues in a positive stimulating manner. I hope that it will be adopted widely.

Jo Wathan
University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998