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College Quarterly
Summer 2012 - Volume 15 Number 3
Power and Resistance: Critical Thinking about Canadian Social Issues, 5th ed.
Les Samuelson & Wayne Antony, eds.
Halfax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishers, 2012
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

I’ll be frank. This is not my favourite introductory sociology text. That uncertain honour goes to another Fernwood publication, How Societies Work: Class, Power and Change by Joanne Naiman (also in its fifth edition). Samuelson and Antony’s anthology, however, is easily my second choice for use in any introductory or slightly advanced course addressing sociology and social issues in Canada.

The primary virtues of both books are that:

  • each is about half the price of one of the generic corporate door-stoppers replete with four-colour glossy photographs, excessive boxes, redundant pull-quotes, and more bells, whistles, beepers and CD-ROMs than anyone should want or could need;
  • they do not patronize students either in style (they’re accessible but adequately challenging for college, rather than geared for chronic high school underachievers) or in substance (appropriate content, covering basic material in some depth, rather than too much material far too superficially);
  • both escape the obvious conclusion regarding most corporate texts; namely, that they are written and designed by marketing committees, pre-tested on addled focus groups and stripped of any concept or data that could upset or offend anyone;
  • they differ from the tepid norm in that they have the wit and the will to approach their subject matter from a definable and defensible point of view.

In short, they are actually about something. They offer a hearty meal, not the thin gruel that displeases no one, but offers little intellectual or practical nourishment.

I reviewed Naiman’s book (third edition) before in these pixels (in 2004, to be exact) and gave it a strong endorsement. Although I am not much impressed by its recent concessions to trendy “teachware” (test-banks and PowerPoint slides available on request), I am not totally insensitive to alleged market demands. I do understand that some college instructors rather desperately need such tools. So, although I will quietly ignore the add-ons, I will almost certainly use Naiman when the roulette wheel of teaching assignments spins and my name next lands on Introductory Sociology.

I recognize, of course, that not everyone will make the same decision. Indeed, I have heard some teachers grumble that How Society Works is too “theoretical.” I take this to mean that it makes actual demands on students and teachers alike by providing genuine postsecondary content and engaging in a critical analysis. In any case, my examination of Power and Resistance will stress how the two books differ, and attempt to show why Samuelson and Antony’s anthology might appeal to some more than others.

Apart from the obvious point that it is an anthology and not the product of a single focused author sustaining a sustained narrative throughout, Power and Resistance differs from Naiman’s book in its diversity of subject matter. By broadening its approach, it may be a better fit for teachers who are less constrained by the staples of sociological theory and method, particularly with regard to “social problems.”

Class, race and gender are the principal stock-in-trade of people concerned with the sociology of inequity. True, other characteristics—ascribed and achieved—no doubt influence how people treat one another, affect which opportunities are refused to some and offered to others, and determine how near or far whole subcultures may be from the centres of economic wealth, political power and social influence.

As I near my eighth decade on the planet, I am becoming unavoidably responsive to the issue of “ageism” as I prepare for my post-academic career as a Wal-Mart greeter. I am aware, as well, of all sorts of other issues that are faced by people with particular national or religious backgrounds, social or political opinions, gender identity issues, physical characteristics and so on. There seems to be no end to the criteria and excuses that open doors to some and slam them in the faces of others. Still, within the strictures of a one-semester syllabus, I find myself fortunate if I can deal competently with the three basics. For me even a cursory discussion of class, race and gender is more than enough.

On the other hand, I am quick to acknowledge that tattoos and tweets are likely to be of great interest to students, especially those directly out of high school for whom the linkages among social structures, ideology and inequity are not immediately comprehensible, much less clear. Moreover, I do not discount questions of body image and its relationship to feminism, nor do I dismiss the host of mental health concerns such as chronic eating disorders which are plainly of sociological relevance as well. These are serious matters, but they are not main themes in Naiman’s book. They do, however, figure prominently in Samuelson and Antony. As a result, Power and Resistance is likely to find favour among teachers who want to “connect” more easily with transparent student “lifestyle” concerns and to explore what I prefer to call “secondary” social problems. Whereas segments on “fat phobia” and “the fluidity of tattoo discourse” do not immediately float my boat, I can understand why such matters matter, and I therefore highly recommend the book to my more adventuresome colleagues.

At the same time, there is much Power and Resistance for curmudgeonly old “fuddle-duddles” like me if, that is, we are willing to be imaginative and agile. We can be reminded, for example, that perfectly viable alternatives to a somewhat deductive pedagogy can address inequity not as an abstraction or, worse, as a reification of actual social relations, but as felt experience. Hints of an inductive method which allows the contributors to this volume to start with the cases and work to generalize from them are probably both scientifically and educationally more satisfying than more traditional approaches.

So, for instance, Mi’kmaq Elder Dr. Daniel Paul’s treatment of what is commonly called “internal colonialism” regarding Native Peoples can be made to start with a discussion of Indian residential schools. Likewise, Ruth M. Mann’s gender concerns take off from a conversation about violence against women. The consideration of ethnic discrimination begins with the question of immigration policy enforcement raised by Wendy Chan. And so on.

Among the topics not always covered in the corporate texts are health care and education, both of which are approached from the viewpoint of a critique of privatization. As well, attention is given to matters regularly ignored by mainstream texts, but likely to pique the interest of young people—namely energy, climate change and the politics of sustainability as well as the social media. Unlike the gushing enthusiasm of educational managers for the tremendous opportunities to reduce or eliminate full-time teachers and to put as many courses as possible on-line, Leslie Regan Shade and Normand Landry, the authors of a chapter connecting the social media and social justice activism, are not uncritical celebrants of the tweets and twitters. And “fat phobia” and tattoos? Yes, they are included too.

In all, sixteen chapters—including two “theoretical” essays and fourteen explorations of specific topics—are just about right for most semester-length courses. The material presented is well-written and well-argued (understandable without being condescending). From the moral economies of food production and energy extraction from the Alberta tar sands to the inherent dangers of the privatization of health care and higher education, Samuelson and Antony have assembled a collection of excellent explorations of public policy issues that could constitute a basic agenda for tonic social change and democratic citizenship. Teachers, like me, whose “comfort level” is highest with larger integrative themes will continue to prefer Joanne Naiman; others, who wish to range more broadly, will surely find Power and Resistance to their liking. Students will not suffer from being assigned either.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com.

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