More sign on for an 'ology

Tony Breslin

Sociology is a growth area in textbook publishing. Tony Breslin reviews updated and new course books

A-LEVEL. INTRODUCTORY SOCIOLOGY (THIRD EDITION) By Tony Bilton, Kevin Bonnet, Pip Jones, David Skinner, Michelle Stanworth and Andrew Webster Macmillan Pounds 14.99. SOCIOLOGY EXPLAINED By Andy Barnard and Terry Burgess Cambridge University Press Pounds 16.99

Sociology has had its detractors over the years: Conservative politicians, national curriculum planners, tabloid journalists and BT advertising campaigns have all had their say on the 'ology everybody is supposed to hate. In schools and colleges, though, the story is different. Today, more than 30,000 students (up 50 per cent on a decade ago) are enrolled on A-level sociology courses, a similar number follow GCSE programmes (in spite of the national curriculum) and health and social care forms one of the more popular GNVQ vocational areas.

The three key A-level textbooks are Tony Bilton's Introductory Sociology, Mike O'Donnell's A New Introduction to Sociology and Michael Haralambos's Sociology: Themes and Perspectives. This third edition from the Bilton team is far more than a dust off and reprint. It has been completely redesigned and rewritten in such a way that it represents the bravest and most successful attempt yet to bring what is happening in academic sociology to the A-level market. In short, it sets at its core the debates around modernity and post-modernity that are central to the current and future status of sociology itself as a discipline.

The text is organised into four sequential sections: Studying Modern Society defines the notion of "modern" society and opens the debates about identity, globalisation and the uneven shifts into post-modernity; Social Division and Power addresses class, gender and ethnicity as the strands of social stratification that permeate our social and political structures; Dimensions of Contemporary Social Life considers many of the classic areas of substantive sociological concern such as the family, the education system and the world of work; while Theorising Contemporary Sociology returns to the concerns of the opening section and uses them to establish a theoretical context.

This is difficult material, but it is written in an accessible style and is very well organised with clearly stated aims at the start of each chapter and concise summaries at the end. A running glossary in the margins of the intervening pages demystifies some of the more complex terminology and the use of a variety of data pieces further enhances the reader's understanding.

In terms of A-level, this is probably a text for the upper rather than the lower sixth, one that will challenge the more confident student, albeit at the risk of occasionally leaving the less assured behind. It does, however, provide an excellent structure for schemes of work that address, in the authors phrase, "sociology today".

Sociology Explained is a less ambitious project. It provides a lively and readable introduction to the discipline organised around the precise headings of the new Associated Examining Board A-level sociology syllabus. As a result, certain areas are treated in more depth than in the previous book (mass media is the most notable example), but in other places the coverage can be a little superficial. Ethnicity, for example, is dealt with in a few pages in a chapter on Stratification, which is mostly concerned with social class. However, it's also worth pointing out that A-level textbooks tend to offer too much detail, not too little, and leave students struggling to cram facts that are hardly likely to aid their examination grade.

Andy Barnard and Terry Burgess's Postscript provides one of the most accessible and straightforward summaries of post-modernism to be found in the range of resources currently available to teachers and students. It is unashamedly "bolted on", a strategy that may not please theoretical purists, but one that may be more successful in reaching students and teachers, especially those who are new to the subject.

Tony Breslin is chair of the Association for the Teaching of the Social Sciences and director of sixth-form studies at the School of St David and St Katharine, Haringey, north London. The ATSS can be contacted at PO Box 61, Watford WD2 2NH.

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