Copyright Sociological Research Online,

Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader

Les Back and John Solomos
Routledge: London
0415156726 (pb)
£18.39 (pb)
646 pp

Order this book

There is an unofficial war currently raging within British institutions of Higher Education, particularly in the social sciences. On one side are hard pressed students, with mounting debts and modular credits to pick up, desperate to get just enough information needed to pass their courses, as they rush to graduate to join the Brave New World of 21st century work. Rallied against them are lecturers, equally anxious in trying to get students to read for their degrees, to get them to go beyond the plethora of 'introductions to…' and beginners manuals that emerge each semester, and to engage at first hand with the writings of particular thinkers. As a last futile attempt to hold back the rush for instrumental learning, the niche of the 'Reader' has emerged in the past decade, almost as a half-way house compromise – students still have to read something 'in the original' but without the trouble of actually reading through the whole stuff. Most academic publishing houses now have their own Reader lists, and not just for particular theorists, whose work may be difficult to access, but increasingly for subject specific areas too (think of Blackwell's 'Companion to…' or Sage's 'Handbook of…' series). Presumably it is just such a condition that is the subtext to (the series editor) Chris Jenks' preface, when he claims the necessity for the new series of 'Routledge Student Readers' (of which the book under review is the first) as a 'positive and informative response to the mass audiences and radically changing circumstances that increasingly shape initial university education'.

The key problem of course with Readers is that we are at the mercy of the expertise/prejudices of the editors as to who are really the key authors that define a particular field (and which of their works). Often the intellectual biases of editors sneak through and can have quite damaging effects in producing skewed accounts of what a field, or discipline, actually looks like. This problem is avoided in Theories of Race and Racism: A reader as it is edited by two of the leading figures within sociology, and the sociology of racism in particular, namely Les Back and John Solomos, who have produced a balanced and largely successful attempt at mapping the historical origins of theories of 'race' and racism, the changing signification of 'race' during the 20th century, and its current place within contemporary social theory.

The book is divided into six parts (each with a short overview) with most of the major figures you would expect to find being referenced, and a comprehensive and well-written introductory essay that outlines an agenda for future research and emphasises the inherently political nature – whether acknowledged or not – of sociological research into areas of 'race' and racism. The book concludes with a detailed guide to further reading. The six parts, containing 41 chapters in all, cover 'Origins and transformations', 'Sociology, race and social theory', 'Racism and anti-Semitism', 'Colonialism, race and the other', 'Feminism, difference and identity', and 'Changing boundaries and spaces'. The engagement with the work of scholars on anti-Semitism is a welcome departure for a book on racism, and the further inclusion of questions concerning cultural identity and ethnicity – often ignored in more orthodox accounts of racism – gives the collection as a whole a distinctiveness and greater contemporary relevance.

The text favours the work of those writing from within the Atlantic 'race relations' paradigm, namely of Western Europe and North America – even when consideration is given to South and East Asia, Africa, the Pacific, or South America, it is usually by those writing from within the academies of Britain and America. Despite its comprehensiveness, there are still some surprising omissions, especially from European figures outside of the non-English speaking community – no Colette Guillaumin, no Michel Wieviorka, no Etienne Balibar. And no place for figures such as Cesaire, CLR James, Memmi or Said, even in the section on colonialism. Of course, there is only so much one Reader can do, and arguing about the 'inexcusable' omission from Readers is always a little like complaining about the absence of our own favourite tune from the latest Top Ten love song lists.

The key question is whether the Reader will be likely to accomplish its bold aims, described by Chris Jenks, of aiming to 'stimulate the interest of undergraduates', and to 'engage the critical faculties' of readers in a way that will encourage the 'transfer of analytic skill from one context to another'? It probably will, and if we are to have such Readers then it is difficult to think of a better model than that put together by Back and Solomos. And if students would be inspired to read Du Bois, Fanon or Hall in 'the long original version', which they just might, then the book would have served an even greater purpose.

Ben Carrington
University of Brighton

Copyright Sociological Research Online,