The State of the Art: A Comprehensive Review of Textbooks in Social Problems « The Socjournal


John D. Carl. THINK Social Problems. Boston: Pearson. 2011. 342 pp. $71.33.

James W. Coleman and Harold R. Kerbo. Social Problems. 10th ed. Boston: Pearson. 2009. 525 pp. $86.60.

Corey Dolgon and Chris Baker. Social Problems: A Service Learning Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. 2010. 459 pp. $56.95.

D. Stanley Eitzen, Maxine Baca Zinn, and Kelly Eitzen Smith. Social Problems. 12th ed. Boston: Pearson. 2011. 637pp. $124.20.

James M. Henslin. Social Problems: A Down-To-Earth Approach. 10th ed. Boston: Pearson. 2011. 558 pp. $121.20.

Diana Kendall. Social Problems in a Diverse Society. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson. 2010. 444 pp. $108.20.

William Kornblum and Joseph Julian. Social Problems. 13th ed. Boston: Pearson. 2009. 570 pp. $121.20.

Robert H. Lauer and Jeanette C. Lauer. Social Problems and the Quality of Life. 12th ed. 2011. 557 pp. $115.31.

John J. Macionis. Social Problems. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson. 2010. 520pp. $121.20.

Linda A. Mooney, David Knox, and Caroline Schacht. Understanding Social Problems. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 2011. 673 pp. $136.95.

Thomas J. Sullivan. Introduction to Social Problems. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson. 2009. 480 pp. $86.60.

Lorne Tepperman and Josh Curtis. Social Problems: A Canadian Perspective. 3d ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press. 2011. $88.95 Canadian.

Reviewed by Lutz Kaelber, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, USA


Social Problems

A quick glance at the undergraduate course offerings of the top U.S. graduate programs in sociology reveals that many of them offer social problems, in various forms and iterations, on a regular basis. The content of the most recent compilation of teaching materials compiled and edited by Walter Carroll and this reviewer for the American Sociological Association in 2007 indicates correspondingly that social problems continues to be taught as a core course in the sociology curriculum in educational communities as diverse as community colleges, large research universities, and small liberal arts colleges. Not surprisingly, the popularity of social problems as a substantive field is matched by an array of textbooks from which instructors can choose. After publications older than 2009, compilations of readings, books focusing exclusively on “solutions to social problems,” and textbooks in neighboring fields such as global problems and social issues were excluded from this review, still about a dozen remain. One of them is a textbook on social problems in Canada, chosen because it allows for a cross-cultural comparison in what researchers and textbook authors come to identify as a social problem. This is particularly evident in the ways in which textbooks cover health care as a social problem, a topic to which this review pays particular attention.

The texts stretch over many hundreds of pages. One tome, Mooney, Knox, and Schacht’s Understanding Social Problems, expands to almost 700 pages, and even one that claims on its back cover “not to bog [students] down with extraneous information,” by Coleman and Kerbo, comes in at about 500. The heft of the materials corresponds to their retail prices, which average about $100 and top out at close to $140 (Mooney et al.). Like the numbers of pages, the costs per page are hardly uniform: while Kendall’s textbook has the highest, at close to 25 cent per page, for most the costs fall in the range between 18 and 22 cents. Dolgon and Baker’s textbook costs less than half per page than Kendall’s and is a bargains in this field, which goes to show that cost-conscious instructors have an option when it comes to choosing value-priced texts. The consideration of relative costs and volume comes with a caveat, however, for the textbooks vary considerably in terms of the amount of text that is placed on a typical page, depending mostly on layout and font size.

Some textbooks prioritize large visual displays over text-based depictions. The greatest extent to which that is the case is Carl’s textbook, THINK Social Problems, which is visually the most distinctive among them. It graces its front page with a layout that seems to have taken its inspiration from a popular magazine, highlighting topics it considers the most appealing to readers (“Is health care a right or a privilege?—p. 135”). Almost every page contains a large picture, chart, or table, with equally outsized captions, while the text itself is set in a relatively small and faint font. The first impression is that of a picture book: the charts contain only basic information and dominate the text, which fades into the background and thus appears to matter less. Its title appears to be a misnomer–LOOK Social Problems might be more appropriate. Every topic is addressed through the all-too-familiar prism of functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism, a common feature of all textbooks. In terms of depth, Carl’s text does not go much beyond what introductory sociology textbooks offer, and there are omissions. For example, the chapter on health explains what osteopaths do but not much about the three main problems of American health care: cost of care, health insurance coverage for the population, and condition (health outcomes such as longevity and infant mortality), and in the discussion of the pros and cons of government-provided health insurance, the author reports false assertions such as such a system would lead to higher taxes but fails to put them under critical scrutiny. The book is clearly meant to appeal to freshmen with no or only the most basic notions of sociology or social sciences. But in pitching to those students, it does have a few redeeming qualities. The prose is lucid and succinct, the information, up-to-date, the scope of comparison, international and multi-cultural. Key concepts are explained at the end of each chapter. The easily accessible and comparatively low priced book succeeds in giving student a basic familiarity with core problem areas in American society and beyond, and students will probably like it. I hesitate to recommend it for instructors whose students typically have taken an introductory sociology course already.

Even Carl’s relatively slim textbook contains no fewer than 20 chapters and covers a familiar potpourri of substantive problem areas: inequality, race, gender, politics, education, health, aging, drugs, sexuality, crime, family, population, globalization, the environment and international conflict. The other textbooks cover most of this spectrum as well, which raises the issues how many chapters in any one of them an instructor would actually be able to assign in a regular academic session. Even longer semesters do not go beyond 15 weeks, and accounting for exam and other non-instructional periods, 12 weeks and 1 chapter a week will probably be the most that is feasible. Hence, a good half of the topics in most textbooks might not be covered.

Another relative bargain, Coleman and Kerbo’s textbook, tells its student readers on its back cover that it “can be read in approximately 20 hours,” or one hour per chapter. Such a dubious claim is especially unfortunate in light of the fact that theirs is actually a textbook that sustains an in-depth narrative. The text is very well written and complemented by the inclusion of figures far less elementary but equally international when compared to Carl’s textbook, and occasionally of small pictures. Core terms are highlighted and defined in the margins. The only downside is the placement of the theoretical perspectives, including feminism, toward the end of each chapter, which comes almost as an afterthought and is more an obligatory nod to pedagogical convention that substantive enrichment. Coleman and Kerbo do what Carl does not, namely attempt to state putative causes of social problems. Health care is fairly well covered, even though the authors have little to say about differences in health outcomes. Overall, this textbook is one of the best values among the bunch and recommended for undergraduate sociology students at any level.

The same cannot be said about the cheapest textbook included here, Dolgon and Baker’s Social Problems: A Service Learning Approach. Visually it is downright austere (the pictures are in black and white, and the text is in black and blue), but the numbers are often a bit dated, the sources sometimes not clearly identified, and the authors seem unaware of the scientific convention that one ought to identify precise page numbers when particular ideas or passages are quoted or paraphrased. The media boxes and case studies in each chapter seem a good idea, except for the fact that there are too many of them, and they take up so much space that that the text itself invariably seems too short. Moreover, they go on for so many pages that a student reader might get lost in the text. It is also one of the most U.S.-centric texts, as international developments receive little attention, particularly in the sections on inequality, population, and health care. The coverage of the latter is short, although it includes a well-argued but all-too-brief section on the history of the American health care system. The textbook’s strengths lie in the identification of experiential education opportunities (the service learning component indicated in the title) and a good glossary at the end of each chapter. The “view from the field,” in which individuals describe their work-related experiences in dealing with social problems, is also unique and valuable. Still, it is not nearly as easy to recommend this textbook, despite its value pricing, as Coleman and Kerbo’s.

What, then, do other, higher-priced or thicker textbooks, or those who have more text per page, provide that the cheaper and thinner ones don’t? Sometimes not much. The behemoth in this group, the textbook by Mooney et al., has “only” 15 chapters, but it covers all the major topics (with the exception of problems of politics and government), and in considerable detail. Added benefits include the copious provision of terms and definitions in the margins and short vignettes and photo essays. The authors make excellent use of figures and tables and go light on pictures. As is the glossary in the back of the book, the chapter reviews at the end of the chapters are precisely written and one of the book’s best features. Each chapter also has a number of test questions, with answers provided on the same pages. Health care is covered in detail. Anyone who has trouble reading tiny fonts will not be happy with the typeset, however, as some of the captions and sections of text are type set in what looks a like a font that is as small as a 8 points. Is the over $40 price premium over Coleman and Kerbo’s textbook justified? Hardly. If the book were priced closer to $100, it would be easier to recommend.

Among the higher-priced textbooks, those by Henslin and Eitzen, Zinn, and Smith are of outstanding quality. The former is among the best in guiding the students through the maze of topics with a clear layout, an easy-to-understand and –follow narrative, and a wealth of figures and tables. The figures and tables are not presented as an afterthought, but rather anchor the accompanying text empirically, and they are invariably well conceived and pertinent. The “spotlights” on social research are a terrific feature, for they highlight some major scholars’ motivations for and experiences during doing research on social problems. Drawbacks include a section on future problems at the end of each chapter that is so short to be almost meaningless and the fact that in the chapter of health care it does not address the problem of coverage. Henslin’s is a very nicely produced textbook, which might justify its somewhat high price. It is particularly well suited for beginning students, especially if an instructor’s goal is to teach students numerical literacy.

In comparison, Eitzen et al. pitch their book more to mid-level to advanced students with some previous exposure to sociology via an introductory course. The textbook’s visual layout is clear and text-heavy, using a moderate number of tables and figures and very few vignettes, textboxes, or other elements interspersed with the text. It is arguably the most critical of the social conditions in American society. The authors present a perspective from the political left, but they are not doctrinaire, and they present information that is tied in with the latest research and go into great depth with most topics, particularly in crisis areas such as health care, education, and inequality. Instructors and student will welcome the inclusion of a chapter on disability. Two drawbacks are minor: the list of key terms at the end of each chapter could be longer, and at the beginning of each chapter, the authors delve directly into the subject matter without giving the reader much indication about what the chapter is about. Given the depth in which the authors address their subject matter, and their obvious expertise in doing so, it is perhaps the outstanding textbook of the bunch, not least because of its critical stance. If instructors wanted to choose a textbook for preparing lectures, this would be the one.

In terms of per-page costs, Kendall’s book, Social Problems in a Diverse Society, is the most expensive. It uses a two-column layout that visually appears to cram text onto the page, and the author seems generally averse to providing quantitative data. What stands out in the table of contents is not the core subject matter for each chapter, set in a tiny font, but various boxes that allude to subject matter ostensibly more palatable to student readers. In regard to content, its section on pornography is outdated; the section on problems in health care, brief; and the chapter summaries, somewhat pedestrian. Its strengths are that it is well written and presents a balanced depiction of major social problems, including a valuable chapter on the media. In some sections, it seems, Kendall writes as if to persuade students that a social problem is real, and the people affected by it typically not the ones who ought to be blamed for it. She clearly does not aim to “preach to the choir” but rather to open the minds of students to issues that they previously may not have known or understood. The student demographic targeted is perhaps a somewhat older, more conservative one, at the beginning of their undergraduate studies, and for instructors drawing students from such a demographic group this textbook might be a suitable choice.

Macionis’s Social Problems employs a similar “text-cramming” strategy as Kendall’s textbook does, except that there are sometimes three columns to a page, and the fonts used are often even smaller. Numerical data are scarce, but the textbook includes a series of nicely prepared maps and intersperses text with pictures and various boxes, includes ones on the construction on social problems, which are generally well conceived. The visual summary at the end of each chapter is a unique and arguably one of the best features of this textbook. With its appealing layout and easily accessible prose, it is suitable for students at any undergraduate level. The chapter on health care is a mixed bag: while the inclusion of a variety of other countries is an effective pedagogical tool to sensitize students about the strengths and weaknesses of different heath care systems, the section on American care system is weak. It does not inform the reader that the current problem with coverage lies not only in a complete lack of health insurance for a part of the population, but also in the lack of coverage in case of catastrophic illness for others, and in the section on costs the author does not mention that it is not the spread of private insurance per se that matters as much as the concomitant high expenses for administration. The textbook replicates the familiar scheme of functional, conflict, and symbolic-interactionist analysis of each social problem area, but is also includes for each the different perspectives conservatives, liberal, and what Macionis calls the “radical left” bring to bear on a social problem. With a strong focus on international issues, this textbook ranks with Mooney et al.’s, Coleman and Kerbo’s, Henslin’s, and Eitzen et al.’s as one of the best written and conceived materials, even though it does not address the problems in the same depth as those do.

Kornblum and Julian’s Social Problems disappoints on some levels, as it looks and reads a little bit like a carryover from the 1980s (the first edition of this textbook indeed dates back to 1983). The textbook presents data sparsely, the data are often severely dated, and the margin to the right or left on each page is unseemly huge. The visual layout is unappealing; if the included pictures’ purpose is to create among students interest in the subject matter, they only moderately achieve this goal. The international component is not very strong. The strength of this textbook lies in its writing style, suitable for beginning students. The prose is relatively simple and easy to understand, even for students without a strong preparation for college. “Dominant trends” are presented at each chapter and help frame the presentation of the topics. Problems in health care are not commingled in a single chapter with mental illness, which is often the case in other textbooks. The chapter itself is adequate. Many chapters also include a section providing explanations of the particular social problem, presented in straightforward and concise manner. Overall, in spite of these positive features, the authors would be well advised to revise their textbook entirely and freshen its look, and the book would to have been priced considerably below $100 to be considered competitive in this group. As it is now, the textbook is difficult to recommend.

Certain issues with visual appeal are also evident in Sullivan’s Introduction to Social Problem and Lauer/Lauer’s Social Problems and the Quality of Life. Sullivan’s textbook uses green and black as text colors throughout: the figures use green lines, the captions of photos are set against a green background, and the headings are in green also. All pictures are black and white. Together this makes for a rather unappealing mix, especially since text paragraphs are long and key concepts, set in bold, occur only occasionally. Once students overcome these barriers to accessing the text, they are rewarded with precisely worded accounts of the origins, manifestations, and consequences of social problems. Generally, in each chapter the author first employs the main theoretical perspectives to allude to different causes of a social problem and then presents information about its extent. Particularly useful is a section on “Future Prospects,” which points to likely developments in the next few years and beyond, and on myths and misconceptions. Summaries at the end of each chapter are well presented, followed by a particularly detailed review section, with multiple-choice, true/false, fill in, matching, and essay questions. Since the questions vary from easy to quite difficult and are well matched to the content, instructors could probably adopt quite a few of these questions for their exams, giving students thereby the opportunity to prepare by answering these questions in advance. A short list of further readings is also included with each chapter. Highlights of the contents are valuable chapters on problems in corporate and government power, and on the environment. The section on health care, on the other hand, is less satisfactory: health care costs in the U.S. are not compared to those in other countries, and a major element that explains the higher costs in the U.S., bureaucratic waste in private insurance, remains unmentioned, as does the problem of a lack of coverage in case of catastrophic illness. While data about the relatively low life expectancy and high infant mortality rates in the U.S. are presented, the link to problems in access to, and delivery of, medical care is not mentioned. Overall, the textbook is fairly solid, and at under $100, a relative bargain.

Lauer and Lauer’s textbook uses a brownish red for what Sullivan’s uses green, but the outcome is similar: it is rather drab looking book, with black-and-white pictures that look rather dull and pages that have a large margin on one side. The summaries at the end of each chapter do not seem concise enough, and the key terms listed there are too few. The study questions provided are of a general nature and not precise and focused enough to allow for a concise review of the content. Key terms highlighted in the margins are explained or defined well, but there are too few of them. Despite sections dedicated to global comparisons, these comparisons are made far too infrequently, and when they are, they tend to portray the U.S. is a less critical light that what is suggested by the data. Apart from these issues, some features of this textbook are commendable. Throughout, it takes on fallacies, or misconceptions, as a “critical thinking” exercise. A chapter begins with a brief personal story that is invariably well chosen to create interest in the topic and lays out the main objectives, and then begins with a short statement in the introduction about the chapter content. Well conceived are the sections on what the authors discuss as social structural and social psychological factors that are in play. The discussion of these factors is detailed, and an indication that the text, which also provides more complex sentence structures and lines of argument that is typical, is targeting students who are somewhat advanced in their undergraduate studies or have had some exposure to sociology before. Still, I am hesitant to recommend this book, for the following reason: provided that the extent of a social problem is often more salient when viewed in comparative perspective and within both a national and international context, Lauer and Lauer often fail to provide such perspective and context. While students learn that thirteen states in the U.S. do not have a death penalty and read about the types of violent crime, the author do not point out that the U.S. is one of very few industrialized countries that has capital punishment, yet her violent crime rates (murder and rape) are also very high. For inequality, students do not read that the U.S. has an extraordinarily and increasing inequality in income (and, to some extent, also wealth), and the statistic about unemployment in the U.S. (for 2007; p. 300) makes it appear as if the U.S. had a lower unemployment rate than most countries such as Canada, Germany, and the Sweden, when in fact the unemployment rates in those countries are currently below the U.S.’s, with a considerably tighter social security net to boot. In the chapter on health care, the authors wrongly claim that “more than 100 million Americans now have no coverage at all” (p. 369), and they address the core problems only in a short paragraph, with no substantive follow up. I do not wish to suggest that Lauer and Lauer intended to hide these problems or be uncritical of certain social conditions, but the shortcomings seem serious enough to caution against using this textbook in its current edition.

Lastly, Tepperman and Curtis’s quite cheaply priced textbook on social problems in Canada is interesting as a study in contrast to the American textbooks. Its structure differs little from the latter: it covers a similar range of topics, and each chapter begins with learning objectives, followed by an introduction, presentation of the major themes, and application of the three familiar theoretical perspectives. Each chapter also includes a separate section on the consequences of each social problem, and possible solutions, with a modicum of pictures. Those sections are an excellent feature of this textbook. Its visual layout is straightforward and makes it easy to navigate the book. The content is less aimed at comparing Canada to the U.S. than one might expect. In terms of addressing health care as a social problem, the contrast is stark, however: the only hint at a crisis in Canadian health care occurs in the context of a section on “waiting times,” which actually does little to address the rationing of certain health procedures for certain non-emergent procedures—apart from the fact that Canada’s expenditures on health care as a percentage of GDP, while trailing the U.S. by fair margin, are actually quite high in international comparison. Still, to paraphrase a point made by a Minnesota senator recently, how many medical bankruptcies are there each year in Canada compared to the U.S.?

What then is the overall verdict on the state of the art in textbooks on social problems? The textbooks reflect a medium-to-high degree of competence, knowledge, and didactic skill among their authors. There are definite signs of cloning among the textbooks, not dissimilar to the academic market in introductory sociology. All of them more or less cover the same topics, although in different level of depth and from slightly differently angles. Exposing students to such a wide array of issues poses the danger that students will learn a little about many things, but not a whole lot about anything. The shotgun approach in the textbooks might not serve students all that well. What might get lost in emphasizing breadth over depth is the distinctive profile of the United States in terms of her social problems (and sometimes also in successes in dealing with them). What might a textbook that addresses such a profile look like? It might focus on the enormous challenges of immigration and multiculturalism the United States has faced, as many nations around the globe consider this one of the more salient relative success stories of the United States. It might also highlight the United States’s enormous per-capita energy use, her contributions to the exhaustion of natural resources and global warming, her tremendous income and wealth disparities, the dysfunctional nature of her health care system, her status as the absolute superpower in the global theater of international relations, her failures in secondary education (as evidenced in the TIMSS and PISA studies, which many of the textbook author still fail to acknowledge), a frail and porous social safety net, a system of crime and punishment with high violent crime and incarceration rates and relatively stiff punishments, and the continued societal debates about equality in terms of gender, disability, and sexual identity. The textbook that addresses these topics and others with the most expertise and in the greatest depth is Eitzen et al.’s, which is my choice for the best textbook overall

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Posted by lutzkaelber on February 15, 2011.

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