Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Sociology (3rd edition)

Anthony Giddens
Polity Press: Cambridge
1997
0745618030 (pb)
14.95 (pb)
xiv + 626 pp.

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The scope of Sociology is extraordinarily wide - 21 chapters with titles as varied as Types of Society, Gender and Sexuality, Deviance and Crime, Work and Economic Life, Cities andthe Development of Modern Urbanism, Revolutions and Social Movements and So ciological Theory. This third edition contains two new chapter: The Body: Eating, Illness and Ageing and Mass Media and Popular Culture. Running to more than 600 pages including a full index, bibliography and glossaries, the novice sociologist can find mu ch grist in preparation for exams and plenty of examples and insights of intrinsic interest. (Indeed, I can testify that even a hoary sociologist can dip into it with pleasure.) There is a weight of erudition informing the book but this is carried lightly by an elegant style of writing. Basic concepts and important terms are clearly marked and each chapter concludes with a neat summary and brief list of suggestions for further reading. The book design is of an equally high order; uncrowded text with wide margins, a plethora of graphics, apt cartoons and each chapter is headed by a photograph that gives one pause to ponder. (Some are rather cryptic, even weird.)

One of the newly written chapters, The Body: Eating, Illness and Ageing, exemplifies some of the strengths and weaknesses of Giddens's approach. It opens with a striking pair of photographs comparing two emaciated women, one a Somalian dying of hunger and the other an anorexic American. Rather surprisingly in view of the fact that comparison and globalization are stated to be major themes of the book, there is scant discussion of the former - but the contrast provides a suitable peg on which to hang a dis cussion of anorexia and bulimia as social diseases of affluence. Globalization is invoked in relation to the fact that, in the affluent countries, a very wide range of food is available throughout the year drawing on sources from all parts of the world. T he argument proceeds by noting that increased choice and susceptibility to norms of the healthy and aesthetic body forces us to make dietary decisions, but decisions which are fraught with tension and anxiety. The very vigour of the rhetoric tends to carr y the reader along - rather deceptively, for there is no account of why there should be such increased susceptibility and why it takes the forms it does. While it would be quite unjustifiable to criticise the explanation for being incomplete, it is a pity that the reader's attention is not drawn to the incompleteness. To take another example, there is a short passage stating that there have been deeply divided views and exercise of violence concerning abortion but no attempt to propound a sociological exp lanation for the sources and form of the disputes. In part, the source of the difficulty is the pressure to cram too much into only 21 pages - including eating disorders, reproductive technology, images of health and illness (including a discussion of AID S), health care systems and ageing - while still incorporating anecdotes, photographs and a cartoon. Incidentally, the section comparing the health systems of the UK and USA is somewhat anodyne and does not fit particularly well with the rest of the chapt er. In short, this chapter, like much of the text, resembles a meal consisting of a multitude of tasty appetisers -but no beef!

The above comment is not intended as a damning criticism but only a means to provoke some questioning as to how Sociology should be used. (These considerations apply equally to several other textbooks of similar high quality.) There is nothing wrong with appetisers as long as those consuming them are under no illusions as to what they are. Not being a school teacher, I am in no position to judge how far Sociology stimulates the taste for Sociology of sixth form students, but I guess its widespread adoptio n is a positive indication on that score. However, I do have reservations about its use as a first year text in universities. One problem is simply that a proportion of the first year class has already come across it or similar texts in their 'A' level st udies so it would be tedious and counter-productive to go over it again. Perhaps the author and publisher should come clean and state whether the book is intended for school or university. More fundamentally, I would be reluctant to use it as a university text because it seems to me that a central objective for the first year is to gain a sense of the level of depth and complexity for which students should be aiming; for this purpose, the scope needs to be narrowed and the style of learning needs to be mo re questioning, critical and reflexive than the model provided by Sociology.

Jon Gubbay
University of East Anglia

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998