Studying Society

Evans, Karen and King, Dave
Routledge, London
0415355206 (pb)

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Cover of book Studying Society is divided into 5 parts; each is freestanding and can be studied autonomously. The first part comprises two chapters which introduce the general idea of studying society and also the idea of studying social science, e.g. the concept of 'society' (Berger 1963). A clear-cut explanation of what it means to 'study society' and to 'study social science' is given in the second chapter.

The second part offers general information about the institutional and non-institutional sources of data which are essential for a social scientist. The authors list the most important sources, e.g. academic handbooks, sociological literature classics, official statistical data and reports, media, Internet resources and, last but not least, the essential role of a scientist's personal experiences as a specific resource.

The third part of the book covers the techniques and strategies of data searching and investigation. Beginning with the articulation of a concrete research problem (e.g. Why are men more likely to commit crime than women?) they show, step-by-step, how to organize investigation and take the fullest advantage of the accessible data resources. The sequence of investigation is exposed in detail, even the most basic steps (like data mining on the Internet via Google). Various techniques of data searching are described in- depth, but the problem of 'active reading' is hardly mentioned.

The fourth part is devoted to social scientific methodologies. The authors maintain the classic division between qualitative and quantitative methods but also add some elements of social science philosophy to the discussion. It is not quite clear for a reader why they identify quantitative methods with positivism (understood not only as a kind of science philosophy, but also as a kind of ontology). Consequently, they identify qualitative methods with interpretivism. It is a simple and convenient division, but it is rather doubtful whether introducing such a strong division can help non-advanced students of social science. It could have been enough to describe all methodologies without opposing them so radically. Such a strong division was a dominating paradigm in the 1950s and 1960s but today it is not at all obvious.

In the chapter devoted to quantitative methods, the authors discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these methods. The discussion is illustrated with some examples of large-sample polls in the UK and statistical data gathered by various agencies. Both sorts of data are compared and their limitations are discussed. On the other hand, the discussion of qualitative methods is illustrated with the classic work of Howard Becker Outsiders (1963). In both cases, the discussion of respective methodologies is on a rather abstract level.

Later chapters become more complex, e.g. when the problem of sociology as a multi-paradigmatic science and the multitude of its theoretical approaches are addressed. Studying Society discusses the function of theory in research and science, followed by a concise presentation of three main paradigms in social science: positivist, interpretive and critical.

The last part of the book is devoted to a down-to-earth, often neglected, albeit very important problem of the communication of scientific ideas and results. The authors discuss thoroughly and provide concrete hints on how to write an essay, dissertation or report, how to prepare an exciting presentation, how to make use of tables and diagrams properly and how to communicate one's own ideas via Internet.

Each form of communication is described in a separate chapter and it is shown step-by-step how to prepare a specific form and how to compose it, also what kind of obstacles may appear and what should be avoided. The methods of literature compilation are described in detail as well.

Evans and King fill an important gap in the academic literature for undergraduate students. It can certainly be treated as a guide for fresh students in social science and it can also be helpful for lecturers of introductory courses. What makes a difference between Studying Society and many other introductory texts is that it is consequently written from the perspective of a complete 'freshman' in the study of social science.

The intention of the authors was to make their book as practical as possible and thus to evaluate their project properly one has to consider whether they have fulfilled their own promises.

The real strength of the book is a huge number of precise guidelines and references to the existing information resources. But the majority of these resources are UK-based, which can be a serious weakness for foreign students. Furthermore, some of the data and data sources quoted will become worthless as web addresses change and simply as time goes by and the new data come up. One of the strengths is its richness in examples and empirical illustrations. In most cases, the authors avoid pure abstraction and give a lot of illustrations form the history of sociology.

Nevertheless, there some weaknesses and limitations. My own personal experience with the first year students of social sciences shows that one of their most difficult problems is active reading (reading, understanding, application). From the very beginning they are confronted with the literature written in various styles, and from very different theoretical and methodological perspectives. It often happens that some theories seem mutually contradictory for them, which leads to their cognitive confusion.

A more useful start to the book would have introduced students to text-work, teaching them how to read actively, how to make good reviews and reconstruct argumentation, how to look for inter-textual links. The serious deficit of the reviewed book is that the authors do not mention this important part of a social scientist's craft.

The book is differentiated in terms of the level of knowledge. On the one side a reader will find very detailed (or even too detailed) descriptions of data searching on the internet. Such meticulous guidelines are probably not necessary in case of contemporary students, who know Internet as their own pocket. On the other hand, the qualitative and quantitative methods are discussed in a rather abstract manner. The fourth part is interesting and written with full competence but it is evidently different form the other parts in terms of the level of knowledge and the way of presentation of the contents. Probably the authors have not put enough effort into the stylistic and formal unification of all the chapters. Two different approaches of two different authors are evident and it is not one of the strengths of the book.

Notwithstanding the above-described deficits, the book can be highly recommended for the teachers of first-year students of sociology. All the chapters comprise practical guidelines that enable to develop an interesting agenda for a basic course.


BECKER, H. S. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press.

BERGER, P. (1963) Invitation to Sociology. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.

Slawomir Mandes
Warsaw University