Due to their broad scope and wide use, textbooks play an important role in defining sociological enquiry. They articulate the boundaries of the discipline, and they can also push these boundaries . Nonetheless, they are often held to be simple teaching tools that are in many ways inferior to research-based publications. For this reason, the ways in which textbook actively shape sociological thought sometimes seem to go unnoticed.
For example, textbooks play a very important role in reproducing the North Atlantic bubble. With this term, I refer to the largely self-referential nature of sociological enquiry in Western Europe and Anglophone North America. Societies outside the North Atlantic bubble are, to varying degrees, ignored. Where they are not ignored, they tend to be described in terms of concepts and theoretical approaches that have originated within the bubble.
Textbooks contribute to perpetuating this pattern in two ways. First, they often tend towards contextual selectivity. Books for first-year courses, such as Introduction to Sociology and, in the USA, Social Problems, are a good example here. These books typically offer a broad-ranging introduction to the discipline, which, in the case of social problems textbooks, is combined with a strong focus on current affairs. Yet, current affairs are mostly American affairs, and the concepts, themes, and examples on which these books are likewise often geared towards the USA and Western Europe. Thus, students are consistently given the impression that sociological enquiry is limited – and perhaps should be limited – to the North Atlantic world.
Moreover, such textbooks are likewise highly selective in conceptual terms. Contemporary sociology is arguably a global project. Significant idiosyncratic approaches to the study of society have been developed in many parts of the world. Consider, for instance, the long and interesting history of sociology in, say, Latin America, China, or Japan. Yet, students in the North Atlantic world mostly do not learn about these approaches, as textbooks interpret the world in terms of theories and concepts developed by scholars within the region. Students in the Global South often do not learn about these approaches either, due to the dominance of North Atlantic publishing houses in many parts of the world. Thus, for instance, many new sociology students in Trinidad and Tobago encounter the discipline for the first time through Haralambos and Holborn’s Sociology: Themes and Perspectives. Consequently, they may struggle to find much meaning in a course that speaks to the life world of British students and does not have much at all to say about their own.
Examples of this pattern abound. On the one hand, there are those textbooks that self-consciously limit themselves to discussions of particular societies within the North Atlantic world. Many of John Macionis’s blockbuster texts are prime examples of such insularity. His Social Problems, for instance, looks exclusively at the USA. It does not really convey an understanding of the ways in which US society is tied into much broader, transnational, developments, producing social problems overseas and responding to problems that emerged elsewhere. On the other hand, there are those textbooks that claim to have a global or transnational focus while still interpreting the world in terms of a narrowly North Atlantic view of the world. Joan Ferrante’s Sociology: A Global Perspective and Linda Schneider and Arnold Silverman’s Global Sociology are good examples here. These books look at quite a variety of places – Japan, Mexico, Namibia, Singapore, Korea, Brazil, as well as numerous others. However, this broad international scope merely gives these books a kind of exotic twist, and they still interpret the world through American eyes.
There are also, of course, exceptions to the pattern. Robin Cohen’s and Paul Kennedy’s Global Sociology approaches the discipline from the perspective of international development, thus differing markedly from most introductory textbooks. Conceptually, the text still tends towards an Eurocentric approach to global affairs. Nonetheless, it reflects a diversity of social forms and modes of life experience to a much larger extent than most other textbooks.
On the whole, the outlined limitations seem to be related to broader problems in undergraduate teaching. A seemingly steady increase in lecturers’ workload and unfavourable staff-student ratios at many universities lead to a trend towards cookie cutter courses that reproduce established canons and do not leave room for innovation and experimentation. The course outlines for such cookie cutter courses are, in turn, often built around cookie cutter textbooks, leading to reluctance among publishers when it comes to experimentation with new and unusual content. Nonetheless, there has recently been a marked effort to transcend the North Atlantic bubble, and many established and prominent sociologists have begun to challenge it. It therefore makes sense to consider how these efforts could be translated into new approaches to textbook writing.
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