Book Review

Analyzing Contemporary Social Issues: A Workbook with Student Chip Software
Gregg Lee Carter

Gregg Carter's Analyzing Contemporary Social Issues is a new computer-assisted learning workbook using StudentCHIP. It comes complete with diskettes and instructions for both IBM PCs or MACs. This workbook is designed primarily for courses in social problems. However, it can be applied to a number of undergraduate sociology courses, including Introduction to Sociology, Social Research Methods, Criminal Justice, and Senior Seminars. It is geared to the instructor oriented to empirical research who also has an interest in acquainting the student with research data. The workbook and data set allow the student to explore sociological data in a variety of areas including: inequality, poverty, race and ethnic relations, gender and aging issues, the family, health issues, crime, deviance, and social control. The exercises move from easier to more advanced problems, and provide frequencies, scatterplots, and cross-tabulations. Appropriate statistical analyses accompany the tables.

In discussing computer-based learning, Hesse-Biber and Gilbert (1994) correctly contend that the selected tools must be simple, menu-driven programs that do not require an inordinate amount of time for students to gain proficiency. Carter's workbook with StudentCHIP meets these criteria. The program is user-friendly, containing step by step directions, and it has been my experience that students are able to generate tables in minutes.

Analyzing Contemporary Social Issues provides hundreds of exercises from a dozen sources including NORC's best known data sets such as the General Social Surveys, the Census Bureau's and the HIV/AIDS Surveillance Data Base. Also included are data from the international census and from vital in the CHIP data files with 10 or more independent variables (depending on how the independent variables are defined).

The introductions to each of the chapters are clearly written and well summarized conceptually. For example, Chapter 3, "Inequality and Poverty," begins with a discussion of the importance of inequality as a major social problem. It then raises questions about social stratification, the relationship between stratification and inequality, and the consequences of stratification (i.e., what does it mean to be poor, or working class, or rich?). The text briefly discusses two theoretical perspectives on inequality (the conflict perspective and the functionalist perspective), and provides numerous examples. The chapter then directs students to the exercises in the workbook that are related to inequality and poverty. Specific questions are asked (e.g. "Who's at Risk at Risk for Becoming Homeless?") with designated variables to examine, tables to complete, and spaces provided for brief discussion. These exercises are outlined under "Basic" or "Advanced" headings, allowing the instructor to adjust to the students' level of competency.

The topic areas for each chapter are adapted easily to any standard social problems text, such as: Chapter 2, "Social Problems and Social Conflict," Chapter 3, "Inequality and Poverty," Chapter 4, "Race and Ethnic Relations," and Chapter 7, "Crime, Deviance and Social Control." These chapter topics also fit with many standard introductions to sociology texts. The same is true for additional chapters on "The Family and Intimate Relationships," and "Gender Issues."

Analyzing Contemporary Social Issues is also particularly useful for introductory social research methods courses. It gives students the opportunity to do elementary analyses using real data. The advanced exercises in the workbook get the student into multivariate analyses and concepts such as spuriousness. Although it is not necessary for the student to know a significant amount about statistics to do the exercises, more than a passing acquaintance with the concept of causal analysis is necessary to complete the exercises. The workbook provides a highly readable first chapter titled, "A Primer on Critical Reading," which describes the model for causal explanation including the concepts of independent and dependent variables, measurement of variables, and the concept of statistical significance. A second chapter, "A Primer on Elementary Analyses," introduces measures of dispersion and central tendency, basic tabular analysis, scatterplots and the correlation coefficient, and the criteria for establishing causality in nonexperimental situations.

Carter points out that it is possible to use Analyzing Contemporary Social Issues and the data sets as a catalyst for more qualitative discussions. Yet, some instructors might have difficulty in making this transition because the orientation of the workbook is based on the causal model of explanation. It uses defined independent and dependent variables to provide a cause and effect analysis of social behaviors. It does not make contextual questions readily available, and it does not address the broader question of errors of measurement that can lead to real differences among individuals.

This is not to say that the workbook does not do what it purports to do. It does provide students with a great deal of data and with problems that are appropriate to a number of undergraduate courses, especially Social Problems and Introduction to Sociology. It also has enough higher-level statistical analyses and exercises in concepts such as spuriousness that make the workbook and program useful for introductory research methods courses-- especially for an introduction to quantitative analysis.

Particular strengths of this new workbook, and the accompanying data sets, are that it is easy to understand and the exercises are interesting and well planned. The accompanying workbook for instructors is also easy to follow and clearly written. Gregg Carter has done an excellent job; the variety of sources he uses as the data base is particularly impressive. Analyzing Contemporary Social Issues is a significant contribution to teaching sociology. Instructors who are eager for students to use computer-based learning and real data sets to highlight substantive content should consider adopting this text.

Ronnie M. Elwell,  Teaching Sociology

Reference

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene and Melissa Kesler Gilbert. 1994. "Closing the Technological Gender Gap: Feminist Pedagogy in the Comperter-Assisted Classroom." Teaching Sociology 22: 19-31.


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