In love with an 'ology

20th February 1998 at 00:00
SOCIOLOGY: An Interactive Approach. Nik Jorgensen et al. Collins Pounds 19.99.

THINK SOCIOLOGY. Paul Stephens et al. Stanley Thornes Pounds 19.

MAKING SENSE OF SOCIETY: An Introduction to Sociology. Ian Marsh et al. Longman Pounds 16.95.

Reviled by headline writers, sociology remains popular with students. Tony Breslin offers a guide to a trio of the latest texts

You got an 'ology," exclaimed Maureen Lipman in a classic BT ad, as she consoled a grandson whose solitary exam pass was in sociology. She gained a peak-time laugh at the expense of what one Daily Mail headline writer went on to call "the 'ology we all love to hate".

Given BT's more recent campaigns - "it's good to talk", and "why not change the way we work?", perhaps we can assume the company now believes studying the social world has much to offer after all.

More than 30,000 A-level students a year seem to agree, and the corresponding boom in textbooks shows it's an 'ology many are learning to love.

The new generation of sociology textbooks differs from longstanding favourites such as Sociology, Themes and Perspectives by Michael Haralambos and Michael Holborn, placing the focus on activity rather than content.

Sociology: An Interactive Approach is an excellent example of this approach. The text is well-researched, written and presented and covers just about all areas of the AEB and IBS syllabuses including culture and identity, community and locality and world sociology.

But the essence of the text lies more in its organisation than its coverage. For example, the opening chapter provides not just an introduction to the discipline, but advice on exams and study skills, including note-taking and file organisation, as well as an introduction to coursework.

Later chapters maintain this active, investigative approach, with previews, bullet-pointed text, a wide range of activities, clear diagrams and highlighted summaries. There are exam-style stimulus and essay questions, a further reading list and some coursework ideas.

Think Sociology represents a further development. Not content with the sort of all-encompassing introductory section in the Jorgensen text, the authors offer substantive chapters on study skills and coursework. Their experience as A-level examiners shines through.

Through these technique-based chapters, Think Sociology provides the most comprehensive coverage of study, examination and coursework skills yet included in a mainstream A-level text. The authors work through data response and essay questions to show how students can gain marks for the assessed skills of knowledge and understanding, interpretation and application, and evaluation.

They also suggest how students should allocate their time in terms of marks. And in a wonderfully ironic piece of participant observation, the authors then invite the student to mark an examination answer, providing the marking scheme to do so.

This demystification of the exam process is healthy for everyone - students, teachers and examiners. The remaining issue-based chapters build on this foundation to provide an impressive and accessible text.

Making Sense of Society: An Introduction to Sociology is well-written and designed, includes a range of activities and uses extracts from the literature with great effect. It is pitched at the undergraduate and A-level markets, so is less of a slave to syllabus innovation. As a result, coverage is generally more conservative, if in places more comprehensive, than the other books considered here.

There are no chapters on culture and identity or sociology of locality, for example, but coverage of the more traditional areas such as education and family is detailed and rigorous, drawing on the latest developments in the discipline.

Making Sense of Society will find particular favour with stronger students as they move into the final year of their A-levels, and will continue to serve them through higher education. All these publications will help students and teachers make sense of society. Dumb it down, they certainly do not.

Tony Breslin is chair of the Association for the Teaching of the Social Sciences and head of social sciences at the School of St David and St Katharine in Haringey, north London

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