Doing Sociology – Funding, Teaching & Opportunities

The Fate of the Book Review

Issue 44: Opening Up Sociology Wed 5 Feb 2020 0

Alan Warde, Review Editor, UK

With my colleague Simin Faedee, I have recently become responsible for the Book Reviews section of Sociology: the journal of the British Sociological Association. As chance would have it, I held the same position thirty years ago. The most obvious difference is that articles are more plentiful – and more uniform – and that reviews are much diminished in number. Comparison with 1989, when I shared the Review Editor role with Larry Ray, shows that Sociology 29(3), then published quarterly, contained 5 articles, a review article and 54 book reviews. In August 2019 (59(4)) there were 10 articles and 3 book reviews (the journal now appearing six times a year). Where once there were 10 books reviewed there is now only one. This could just be a matter of successive editorial boards revising journal policy, but I suspect that it indicates some significant change in the professional practice of sociology.

The journal Sociology is not entirely typical. Some journals never have published reviews. Some have maintained a fairly constant flow in the recent period at least. A BSA sister journal, Cultural Sociology, has printed approximately eight reviews per quarterly issue throughout its 13 volumes. Contemporary Sociology, exceptionally, publishes nothing else. It produces a large number of reviews spanning the discipline, with books mostly written by North American scholars and almost always in English. Reviews are conducted in considerable depth and some extended Review Articles are of exceptional quality. My New Year’s resolution is to read it regularly. Of our own ESA journals, European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology continues to include about three in each issue, although European Societies published only one in 2019. Contemporary Sociology notwithstanding, the general trend seems to be a steady reduction, currently accelerating. The American Journal of Sociology reduced the number of reviews by 40 per cent between 1989 and 2019, Acta Sociologica by 50 per cent, British Journal of Sociology by 75 per cent, while Année Sociologique, European Sociological Review and Journal of Sociology eliminated them altogether.

Discussing my new (now potentially rather tarnished) role as editor with an admittedly impromptu and unrepresentative sample of colleagues, it came as a shock to discover that, young or old, European or British, most never read the reviews in sociological journals, and most of the rest do so very rarely. I was surprised because I like reading reviews and during my professional career I have scoured the reviews sections of many a journal. I did manage to locate three other sociologists who regularly and purposefully seek out reviews, but even they do not use journals as their means of access. So, while authors like to have their books reviewed and colleagues usually happily agree to write reviews, the number of people who read any review will be few. Does it matter?

Maybe I should expect a fall in volume of reviews because we read journals differently from 30 years ago. As readers we now learn about new books, often one by one, perhaps as journals publish them ‘on-line first’, or more likely when announced electronically by their publishers. With on-line first publication of articles now very common probably few of us look at the complete contents of an issue of any journal, previously the sole form of delivery of both articles and reviews. An official publication date for an issue becomes irrelevant once we receive alerts, in a fragmented and episodic manner, to individual items which we examine independently of the journal in which they will appear. Thus, the main channel through which we might encounter a set of reviews disappears and thereby at least one purpose of a Reviews section – to selectively determine priorities for the use of scarce reading time – is removed.

I might not grieve over the disappearance of book reviews if I were assured that it does not signify the reduced impact of books on the development of sociological knowledge. However, that may be happening. One symptom is books being cited less frequently in the reference lists of contemporary journal articles. In Sociology 23(3), in 1989, just over half of the citations in the five articles published were books. In issue 53(4) it was only a quarter. One in four is a not-insubstantial proportion. Also, notably, books have a longer half-life and are more extensively discussed in detail than articles. Nevertheless the fall is dramatic.

Reduced dependence on books necessarily increases the discipline’s reliance on journal articles. There are now many more journals and more issues per year. This reflects sociology becoming a more empiricist discipline as it apes natural scientific conventions and procedures. Some sciences move on almost exclusively by accumulating empirical findings, but this is not the experience of interpretive social sciences like sociology. Personally, I would be very disappointed if I were only able to read journal articles. Many are deeply unsatisfying because there is not enough space in the average journal to advance much beyond reporting a few empirical results and discussing briefly and very selectively their immediate implications for the narrow topic under scrutiny. That is often insufficient for the depth, complexity and width required of good sociological explanations. Books by contrast can devote space to describing properly both the intellectual and social context of their topics as well as to extended interpretation of the significance of the findings of their research. When it comes to evaluating outputs in our increasingly ubiquitous research assessment exercises it is no accident that books are more highly ranked than journal articles. Books are better to think with (and also they pay royalties to authors).

The tyranny of journal publishing augurs badly for sociology. The big five international corporations selling scholarly journals, from which they make extortionate rates of profit, may not have abandoned publication of books but are not increasing their publication of monographs apace. Anecdotally, they lack enthusiasm for scholarly tomes which provide less lucrative and less predictable sources of income. They have a strong interest in journal pages being devoted to articles and little to gain from giving publicity to books. Another indicator of change is the almost total disappearance of the ‘Books Received’ column, and where it still exists it is much diminished. Contemporary Sociology 18(4) in 1989 recorded 350 books in the relevant two month period, which dropped to 110 in 2009 and to about 80 in 2019. It is not insignificant that the books reviewed, and the list of books received, by Contemporary Sociology in 2019 were very heavily dominated by (mostly American) University Presses. That is, in its own terms, highly positive; much of the most valuable, sophisticated, well-written sociology emanates from those publishing houses. The not-for-profit scholarly publishers, for whom academic excellence remains a concern, provide outlets for extended sociological analysis which deserves enthusiastic applause.

So, as a reviews’ editor, I ask myself – and you – whether anyone would regret the passing of the book review? It would after all reduce the burden of labour upon us all; no editing, no writing, no reading. After all, books can exist without reviews. But how then should I choose which books to read? I could just select books in a serendipitous manner, without anticipating their usefulness to me. I then would not have to torture myself about failing to read books which others have declared important. Scholarly paradise? I think not.

As Andrew Abbott (2016) noted, 50 years ago the profession shared a general knowledge of major new works, particularly perhaps in macro-sociology and theory. [1] Books were the preferred medium and received extensive publicity. A general journal, like Sociology, even 30 years ago was able to review books from across many sub-disciplinary fields. As the profession has grown and extended internationally, commonly shared knowledge has become less and less possible. Perhaps, therefore, the publishing of reviews should now be the task of specialist journals – although that might have the unfortunate effect of further reducing disciplinary connectivity. Or maybe general journals could use their allocated space differently in order to publicise and evaluate novel books more effectively; Simin and I are diligently reviewing alternative formats! The Reviews sections of journals have been until recently the principal vehicle for the communication and evaluation of sociological monographs. If, as it seems, they are becoming obsolete, how else can critical reviews of these primary forms of sociological scholarship be made systematically available?

Reference
[1] Andrew Abbott (2016) ‘The demography of scholarly reading’, American Sociologist, 47: 302-318

Comment on this article log in with your ESA username and password: a comment field will appear.
Or reply to Alan Warde’s question via email to editor [at] europeansociologist.org.

Authors