College Quarterly
Spring 2004 - Volume 7 Number 2
Notes How Societies Work: Class, Power and Change in a Canadian Context, 3rd edition.
Joanne Naiman
Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2004.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Teachers like me can get pretty cranky about the publishing industry. One of the main sources of our chronic discontent is the domination of the post-secondary educational market by enormous, expensive "door-stoppers" with fantastic "production values" and "content" that would be a fine non-medical substitute for Valium. Composed by committees and dedicated to the dual goals of dumbing down introductory courses while offending no one with the substance of their narratives, these whoppers purport to provide adequate introductions to everything from anthropology to zoology, but succeed mainly in making life easier for overworked teachers desperate for an easy vehicle for "curriculum delivery."

In the last issue of this journal, I groused about the change in college publishing since my undergraduate years in the mid-1960s. This time I want to celebrate a fine textbook that is representative of the kind of volume I like to see. I use How Societies Work in my Sociology course in the Seneca College's School of Public Safety and Police Studies. It is not the sort of book that is commonly to be found in the hands of aspirant police officers, and that is precisely why I like it.

Naiman's approach to matters of class, race and gender is somewhat evasively called "political economy." It would be more accurate to say that it is influenced throughout by Marxist analysis. Unlike most such treatises, however, her book is refreshingly free of cant and jargon. She plunges into questions of biological determinism, the origins of civil society, the social construction of knowledge and the role of the state with language that is wholly accessible and a narrative that, while always critical, remains fair to alternative explanations of social behavior.

What is excellent about her work as a teaching tool is that it has a point of view and that viewpoint can be a fine starting point for student discussion. An old phrase to put down participants in futile arguments is that a particular exchange created "more heat than light," implying that bland, one-size-fits-all tracts are more conducive to education than self-consciously quarrelsome narratives. My experience, on the contrary, has been that very little light is created in the absence of heat.

So, give me a text with a coherent perspective, well-presented positions and a commitment to open dialogue anytime. Whether coming from the left, right or even the centre, it is bound to engage students more than a weak compendium of pallidly received opinion, especially of opinion received so long ago that it has gone as stale as pablum on a shelf before being ladled out what we tend to call our "customers," a bit of language that illustrates how much education itself needs to be analyzed in our consumer society.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. His email address is


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology