People in their context

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Sociology third edition By Anthony Giddens, Polity #163;49.50 (#163;14. 95 paperback)

Introduction to Sociology Fourth edition. By Mike O'Donnell, Nelson, #163;17.99

Sociology in Perspective

By Mark Kirby, Warren Kidd, Francine Koubel, John Barter, Tanya Hope, Alison Kinton, Nick Madry, Paul Manning, Karen Triggs. Heinemann, #163;18.99.

Teachers of A-level sociology have never been so well served with resources. posters, videos, photocopiable packs, a range of CD-Roms and individual topic books combine to make the fully stocked sociology resource base an exciting place to wander.

Most of us, though, operate in a world of scarce resources, and teach students who are themselves on limited budgets. So, for all the variety available, most students have, as their main resource, a single core text and most resource bases are, in fact, small departmental cupboards rather than multi-medi a playgrounds.

The role of the core text is therefore vital and likely to remain so. Publishers, aware of this, are keen to serve a market that extends to more than 30,000 candidates every year. Over the past 18 months, at least 10 substantial new or revised texts have been announced or published.

Readers will recognise Sociology as the third edition of Anthony Giddens's established text. The first edition, published in the late 1980s was a thorough affair but, in every sense, had the appearance of a traditional academic text, extending beyond the boundaries of A-level students.

This revised version is better designed and presented with clearer summaries, stronger sets of important terms and extensive further reading lists at the close of each chapter.

Moreover, in the past, the Giddens text, with its focus on issues of culture and identity and the debates about globalisation and the emergence of late modernity, seemed so formidable because it was ahead of the syllabuses. The examiners, and I speak as one of them, hadn't quite caught up with Britain's leading sociologist. But these are the issues on examination papers now and teachers and students trying to gain an idea of the changes are unlikely to find a better place to start.

An accompanying reader, Sociology: Introductory Readings, and an Instructor's Manual written by Eric Harrison and Sue Hemmings (which is issued free to those who adopt Sociology) strengthen the central text further and clearly increase its classroom usefulness.

It is a tribute to Giddens's work that Mike O'Donnell takes as the starting point for Introduction to Sociology a reworking of his popular and long established text, an historical template that carries the student from the traditional, through the modern to the late modern. Thus, he seeks to "guide the reader away from sometimes rather abstract theory to the context in which social change and issues emerge".

The excellent opening chapters which address concepts, theories and methods within this historical framework are followed by well-crafted sections on all of the key syllabus areas. Further, O'Donnell has incorporated a range of readings, drawn largely from his earlier New Introductory Reader in Sociology, into each chapter and has used these as the basis for data based activities, thereby complementing a range of other activities and conventional essay questions sprinkled throughout the text. This makes the book a much more "active" one than the already strong third edition that it replaces.

Sociology in Perspective is completely new and differs from Sociology and Introduction to Sociology in that it is dedicated to A-level. Giddens and O'Donnell have produced fine texts for teachers and for stronger second year A-level students, but they are also written with undergraduates in mind.

The text produced by Kirby's team of mainly practising teachers is much more focused on the typical A-level student. It begins, bravely and successfully, with distinct chapters on sociological theory and research methods, follows these with three detailed and interlinked stratification chapters, addressing class, ethnicity and gender, and then goes on to cover the full range of syllabus areas in the remaining sections.

The style of the writing addresses and engages the student directly in a way that perhaps only Roger Gomm has mastered through his National Extension College materials before. The text is permeated with cleverly devised discussion points and activities and each chapter starts with a detailed outline of coverage and closes with questions from recent A-level papers produced by the three main examination boards (AEB, IBS and NEAB). There are also suggestions for coursework and reading.

Sociology in Perspective delivers complex and up-to-date content in a way that is as accessible to a 16-year-old beginning A-level as it is rigorous and comprehensiv e to a strong second year student approaching the examination.

With some irony, Kirby and his co-authors note that "although the idea that it is best to learn through doing has been around for a long time, it is only relatively recently that textbooks have begun including activities that encourage this". Certainly, these three books encourage an active approach to sociology and innovative teaching. They will be welcomed by all who want to make the study of sociology, in Giddens's phrase, "a liberating experience"' and, no doubt, an enjoyable one too.

Tony Breslin is head of social sciences at the School of St David and St Katharine in Haringey and chairman of the Association for the Teaching of Social Sciences.

Forthcoming A-level sociology textbooks include Sociology: An Interactive Approach (Collins); Making Sense of Society (Longman); and Think Sociology (Stanley Thornes)

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