Second year Sociology PhD Student Angus Mcvittie reflects on some of his favourite reads of the past year. The first in a series of book reviews to be featured on the PGR Sociology @ Newcastle University Blog.
Diane Reay (2017)
Since the first year of my undergraduate degree, I have been a big fan of Diane Reay’s work (something I mentioned on first meeting her to my now great embarrassment). In ‘Miseducation’ Reay combines an accessible writing style with a powerful and emotive critique of social injustice to produce a work that is as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually stimulating. Drawing on statistics, qualitative research data, and her experience as a working-class student and inner-city primary school teacher, Reay details an education system that reproduces privilege and punishes the working classes. Beginning with the introduction of mandatory state education, Reay considers how class shapes experience of education, from access to resources like “good” schools and parental support to the stigmatisation and devaluation of working-class culture and values within educational institutions. Reay shows the difficult road working-class children face to academic success, and the challenges met by those working-class children who do “succeed”, with particularly insightful reflections on her own experiences as an academically successful, working-class female.
Though apparently retired, Reay spoke at the “Bourdieu Study Group 2nd Biennial International Conference 2018: Reproduction and Resistance”, expanding upon the biographical element of Miseducation in a rousing performance which achieved a standing ovation. Soon after, organisers announced the study group is to hold an event in her honour at some point next year. In the meantime, I would strongly recommend ‘Miseducation; and more of Dianne Reay’s work, which you can find via her institutional profile page: https://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/people/staff/reay/
The New Social Mobility: How the Politicians Got It Wrong
Geoff Payne (2017)
Payne is another established scholar with a history of work challenging unfairness and inequality. ‘The New Social Mobility’ draws on a range of literature, research and theoretical insight to provide an engaging look at how social mobility has been misunderstood, and how we can begin to better understand it. Beginning by dispelling the many myths around social mobility (telling us mobility rates are not, for example, “low and falling”), Payne highlights how a focus on “upward social mobility” has obscured our understanding of the workings of social mobility generally, and how illusions of upward social mobility distributed by fair meritocratic means serves as a source of political legitimacy. In an accessible but extensive 200(ish) pages, Payne provides a balanced yet engaging argument as to how social mobility is neither as scarce nor as far-reaching as we have been lead to believe, as well as an exploration of who wins and loses in our current system of “mobility”. Payne writes in an enjoyable and witty fashion. His skilful deployment of poignant humour is a great asset to the book, though never detracts from the seriousness of the situation he seeks to reflect. The book has a point to make and does so well, ending on the proclamation: “Improving mobility rates will do little to reduce social inequality, but reducing social inequality is the sure way to achieving greater social mobility.”(p173)
Recently Payne worked alongside Lisa Garforth and Anselma Gallinat to organise the “Merit or Meritocracy” conference at Newcastle University, and edit a special edition of Discover society with articles from the conference delegates https://discoversociety.org/2018/10/02/focus-merit-and-meritocracy/ . More of his work can be found on his staff profile page at https://www.ncl.ac.uk/gps/staff/profile/geoffpayne.html#publications
Pitbull: The Battle Over an American Icon
Bronwen Dickey (2017)
Though its subject matter is far from my own area of research or “expertise”, I found this book to be an excellent read. ‘Pitbull: The Battle Over an American Icon’ considers the history of the breed and the social processes that have led to its stigmatisation. Banned in the UK under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, Pitbulls have become associated with crime and inner-city youth. Based in the US, Dickey’s own experience as a happenstance adoptive Pitbull owner inspires the book, which draws on interviews with various experts and dog owners, as well as on statistical data and policy, media and scientific literature analysis, to produce a truly engaging work. A journalist by trade, the book reads like an academic monograph (though to its credit is far more accessible than many) and is a stark and thought-provoking exploration of how social class and racial stigma, as well as poor academic practice and moral panic, have taken the Pitbull from “nanny dog” to monster over the last hundred years or so.
As a proud Rottweiler owner, I have my own experiences of the undue prejudice that people, with no knowledge of an animal, will attach to it because of its reputation or appearance. Reflecting on the book, I was struck by a strong realisation that even those most “aware” of processes of stigmatisation fall easily into prejudices not related to the subject matter of their own research. As I meet academics and other PhD students who grimace at the mention of a “Rottweiler” and comment on them being “scary” or “dangerous”, it is evident just how easily preconceptions can become embedded. The book is an excellent exploration of folk-devilry, and provides a call for reflection that can benefit even the most “aware”.
Bronwen Dickey has produced journalistic work on a number of topics some of which are linked on her website: https://www.bronwendickey.com/book-1/
 I wrote an article in this edition. This is therefore a thinly veiled plug for my own work.
 See also Simon Harding’s fantastic book ‘Unleashed’, which is equally deserving of a place on this list.
 Another breed deemed “dangerous” and frequently stigmatised in the media
 I should be clear; as a white heterosexual male this is about my only experience of “undue prejudice”