Textbooks play an ambiguous role in academic sociology. On the one hand, they are very widely used in both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. On the other hand, there is a certain disdain towards the genre. Thus, for instance, when sociology departments advertise their courses with the statement that they are taught entirely with primary sources, they seek to highlight their supposedly superior intellectual standards. Yet, since the early days of the discipline, textbooks have been of pivotal importance in introducing students to the sociological imagination and expressing and defining sociology’s canons.
For example, consider the opening lines of the preface to Robert Park’s and Ernest Burgess’s Introduction to the Science of Sociology , a now classic textbook published in 1921:
“The materials upon which this book is based have been collected from a wide range of sources and represent the observation and reflection of men who have seen life from very different points of view. This was necessary in order to bring into the perspective of a single volume the whole wide range of social organization and human life which is the subject-matter of a science of society.
At the same time an effort has been made to bring this material within the limits of a very definite series of sociological conceptions which suggest, at any rate, where they do not clearly exhibit, the fundamental relations of the parts to one another and to the concepts and contents of the volume as a whole.
The Introduction to the Science of Sociology is not conceived as a mere collection of materials, however, but as a systematic treatise. On the other hand, the excerpts which make up the body of the book are not to be regarded as mere illustrations. In the context in which they appear, and with the headings which indicate their place in the volume, they should enable the student to formulate for himself the principles involved.” (p.v)
The objectives which Park and Burgess state here – to provide a systematic overview of principles of social organisation and to formulate this overview in terms of specific sociological concepts – are clearly geared towards the establishment of a canon for their new discipline. By enabling “the student to formulate for himself the principles involved”, they hope to propagate this canon. Park and Burgess developed this approach to textbook writing ninety years ago. Contemporary sociology textbooks are still by and large driven by the same objectives.
The North Atlantic Bubble I described in a previous post is a firm part of the contemporary sociological canon in the UK. Given their privileged role in introducing the canon to new generations of sociologists, textbooks could contribute in important ways to piercing this bubble and internationalising the discipline. However, this presupposes that lecturers are willing to re-construct their curricula and that, in turn, publishing houses are open to publishing non Eurocentric textbooks, due to their perception of a sufficiently large market for such books.
Many sociology departments teach along conventionalist, Eurocentric lines. Nonetheless, a reformulation of the scope of the sociological curriculum seems to be slowly taking shape. Numerous academic publications have in recent years highlighted and challenged the North Atlantic Bubble, and their ideas are now seeping into undergraduate and postgraduate courses. It might be time to mainstream these challenges to Eurocentric sociology through widely circulating, innovative textbooks.
Read Related Articles