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Volume 6, Number 2
Fall 2008

Book Review of: The Social Context View of Sociology 


Kathryn Schmidt 
Valdosta State University

    The Social Context View of Sociology by Marty E. Zusman, David Knox, and Tracie Gardner (2009) is an introductory sociology text grounded in a structural functionalist approach published by Carolina University Press (ISBN 978-1-59460-572-7).   The authors offer a book that will satisfy those who seek a book that is easily readable, replete with examples, and offers a coherent structurally focused overview of sociology.  The authors draw on Marvin Olsen's (1968) nine layers of social organization to provide a framework for exploring major issues and institutions.  The authors' teaching experience shows in their ability to pace the material and use their model's levels of analysis to organize each chapter.  Many students will appreciate the clear definitions and range of current examples it offers.  As discussed below, these strengths are outweighed for me by explanations the book omits and by its tendency to reinforce students' view that sociological research and unsystematic personal observations are equally valid sources of knowledge about society.

   The authors' focus on how social context shapes individuals' and groups' experiences is thoroughly incorporated throughout The Social Context View.  Each chapter proceeds through major concepts in the area and then explains how the levels of social organization are important for that concept. For instance, in the chapter on networks, the authors clearly differentiate networks from groups through the use of examples and charts. 

    The authors use several examples of current research throughout the book.  They minimize discussions of methodology that often overwhelm introductory students, focusing instead on the general findings and the findings' relevance.  The authors include end-of-chapter references to some, though not all, of the research mentioned in each chapter, making it easy for students to read the original articles.  While such inclusions were strengths of the book, the authors failed to consistently distinguish between anecdotal stories and research. 

    When the authors successfully combined stories with research findings, the examples bridged concepts to show their relevance to students' lives.  On page 63, the authors summarized several research studies on how dating partners influence each other's attitudes then shared an example of a student who noted changes in her own behavior after dating someone.  In a more troubling pattern, the authors treated many of the anecdotes as equivalent to academic research.  For instance, in a section on how parents may respond to media's influences on their children the authors write: 

Parents concerned about the socialization effects of media often monitor the exposure of their children to television. Some parents do not own a television and do not allow one in their house. The authors know of such a couple. The only time their children watched television was when they visited in the home of a friend. Both children ended up with full scholarships to Princeton. (p. 52) 

    Readers are led to infer that the lack of television led to full scholarships, but there is no discussion of how typical such results are.  Students often struggle to differentiate between the general relevance of their experiences compared to careful research.  The authors' mixing of anecdotes and research seems likely to reinforce students' trouble with such critical analysis. 

    Those readers seeking coherent sociological explanations for social inequality and oppression also will be disappointed in the book's content.  The authors' focus on structural influences on social experiences glosses over experiences of oppression and inequality important to Marxist, feminist, and other 'conflict theory' traditions.  In fact, the term "oppression" is never defined.  The idea that some groups have experienced oppression, as opposed to experiencing inequality, is addressed only by briefly mentioning that social movements in the United States included efforts to end oppression based on gender, race, and sexuality (p. 12 and 128).  The few other references to oppression emphasize that responses to inequality by those who have faced discrimination may distort the functioning of legal systems or workplaces.  For instance, the authors note that O.J. Simpson's:

acquittal in the criminal trial for the dual murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman reflected retribution by the mostly black jury for feelings of racial mistreatment and oppression. That there were no blacks on the jury in the civil trial against Simpson contributed to the unanimous guilty verdict in that civil trial. (p. 196) 
    Without further discussion of multiple reasons that jurors voted to acquit Simpson, this example suggests that 'feelings of racial mistreatment and oppression' and a motive of retribution determined the acquittal.   It does not discuss larger problems of racism in the criminal justice system.  The book also does not address potential remedies for discrimination such as anti-discrimination legislation and Affirmative Action.  After the authors document experiences of gender inequality and ways that women have been disadvantaged in the workplace, they turn to a subheading on "Adversarial Movements and the 'Oppressed' Majority."  It states:
While we have documented the existence of inequality between women and men, reverse discrimination may also sometimes occur. There are rare times when two Ph.D's (one female, one male) are looking for a job at the same four year university.  Since federal guidelines require that a certain proportion of females be hired, the male may be disadvantaged.  In this case, the adversarial movement is the "women's movement" seeking an end to job discrimination and the "oppressed" majority are males competing for the same job as females.  There is no perfection in social life and in social organizations, but the majority of adversarial movements work against the oppressed minority. (p. 221)
    Because this example is never discussed, it seems to perpetuate many misunderstandings of Affirmative Action by confusing it with quotas.  The idea that "federal guidelines require a certain proportion of females be hired" over-simplifies the situation and reinforces incorrect beliefs that hiring quotas are legal and lead to reverse discrimination (Reskin 1998). 

    A comparable pattern of brief and misleading discussions occurred in the chapter on stratification.  After discussing the Indian caste system, the authors mention parallels in the US situation, but their examples misrepresent when particular legal conditions prevailed and ignore the continuation of legal discrimination into the 1960s. 

A similar caste-like system [to that of India] existed in the United States during slavery when southern blacks were denied the right to vote, to be educated, or to use public facilities.  Native Americans have also been treated like outcasts by literally being moved out of town and put in their own place: a "reservation."  Today, some sociologists question how much has really changed. (p. 183) 
    Given the variations in students' knowledge of the historical facts about slavery and the Jim Crow era, this passage may lead to the perception that slavery was mostly about public access and education, not ownership of human beings.  It also implies that these barriers ended with slavery.  While this passage's last sentence on sociologists' concerns acknowledges continued debate about racial inequality, readers are given no information about what those debates are. 

    While less important than suggesting research and stories are equivalent and failing to contextualize experiences of inequality, I was distracted by the authors' use of terms and examples that seemed to assume their readers shared ideas of normative patterns of family and life course events.  For instance, Chapter 7 on "Groups" begins, 

We are born into a group, marry into a group, go to school in groups, work in groups, and die in a group.  The last thing that happens before we die is that the call goes out to family members that the "time is near" to gather for the final hours, death, and funeral. (p. 153) 
    While this pattern may be true of some ethnic and religious groups, the assumption of these patterns without qualifications seemed to falsely universalize these examples as ways that "we" experience life and death. Given our discipline's concern with differences within and among groups, this kind of approach under-represents the multiplicity of family forms we see in our research and in students' lives. 

    This model of shared life course events was woven through the book.  In most chapters, the authors' used multiple references to marriage (implied to equal only legal, heterosexual marriage) as an example of social relationships and social life stages.  They briefly note that same-sex couples could marry in Massachusetts at the time of the book's writing, but never incorporate this into discussions of "marriage" as an example of a concept.  The married couple examples also assumed a husband and wife as the only possible partnership pattern. "The positions in a married couple group are husband and wife with the husband's role including the expectation that he chance the porch light bulb"(p. 155) was one simple illustration of this pervasive pattern. 

    The Social Context View of Sociology will work best for those seeking an introductory text focusing on the structures of society and their influences on individual action.  Its lack of jargon and general ease of reading will appeal to those teaching students overwhelmed by more detailed introductions, but may also encourage such students to ignore distinctions between empirical research and unexamined stories.  Those readers seeking an in-depth analysis of causes of inequality and oppression or historical grounding for current inequality will be disappointed.  Those readers who bring a feminist, queer, or anti-racist analysis to textbook selection are advised that this will not fit into any of these paradigms.

Works Cited

Olsen, Marvin E.  1968. The Process of Social Organization.  New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Reskin, Barbara.  1998. The Realities of Affirmative Action in Employment.  Washington, DC: American Sociological Association.

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