The Sociology of Knowledge and Textbooks
Sociologists are interested in all things social, even how we come to know what we know. The sociology of knowledge is a fundamental question in sociological thought: how is knowledge produced? We also think critically about the social contexts in which we create what humans define as “knowledge.”
So how do you know what you know? Beyond your personal experience, what you learn as a student informs your depth and breadth of knowledge. As you prepare for exams, there are typically two sources of knowledge that you need to master to earn a good grade: things that your professor said in lectures in conjunction with ideas you read about in your assigned texts.
We often take for granted that these are main sources of knowledge without thinking about how ideas become part of your course work, and your textbooks specifically. The production of textbooks is a good example of how knowledge is produced in a social context.
A book that is likely to sell is likely to be published. This probably seems obvious, but getting back to the production of knowledge, it is an important point: knowledge, in this regard, is produced to sell to a specific set of consumers. Students may pay for books, but the real consumer is the instructor, who chooses the book and assigns it to students. So publishers need to appeal to those already teaching a class that might use the book. Publishers ask a selection of instructors who teach a course on the topic whether they would consider using a book before even deciding to publish it, and often hold focus groups or other marketing research techniques to suggest changes to a text to make it stronger and increase sales potential.
Because used textbooks can be easily purchased, publishers feel economic pressure to come out with new editions in order to maintain earnings (which they don’t receive for used book sales). Also, as many instructors are teaching more classes as adjuncts, they rely more on the materials that come with the textbooks (like PowerPoint presentations and quizzes, for instance) which adds to the cost of textbooks.
Instructors choose textbooks that reflect their own understanding of a subject. When deciding what textbooks to assign, one of their most important considerations is likely to be how well it fits their course, especially if they have been teaching a course for some time. If a book is missing material that an instructor likes to include in a class, that might be a deal breaker when choosing a book. Likewise, if the book takes an approach that doesn’t match the instructor’s, it won’t be a good fit. Sometimes committees choose books and this makes the process even more resistant to change.
New instructors might prefer a book that reflects the way they learned material in their own coursework, or at least presents itself in a way that makes it easy for them to organize their new course. I was once asked to write a textbook and told what topics need to be included, even topics which I thought were tangential to the subject. But this is what instructors expect in a text on this topic, the editor told me. I figured if it had already been done, why do it again? This is likely why so many textbooks cover the same topics and even use many of the same examples.
Of course instructors do sometimes radically change their courses, especially if they find a new text that alters their way of thinking or they think might be more appealing to students. But this takes work, and some people—especially those with heavy workloads in teaching, research, or otherwise—might not have the time to revamp a class.
So what does this mean for the production of knowledge in textbooks? Books that are somewhat similar to existing books might ironically have an easier time getting published than those that take an extremely unique approach to a topic if publishers don’t think that approach will appeal to potential adopters (note that by using the word “adopt” for a textbook, there is an implication of a long-term relationship rather than a one-time purchase).
Writing textbooks is seen as more prestigious in some disciplines and universities than others. Writing a textbook is a lot of work and takes authors a good amount of time that might or might not be rewarded. Financial rewards may or may not happen, depending on the number of copies sold and how many times the book goes into a new edition (often, but not always, for sales purposes rather than because there have been new breakthroughs in knowledge). In order to increase sales, textbook authors might choose to present certain information and leave some out that might be perceived as less important by instructors or less interesting by students.
The professional rewards of writing a textbook vary as well. In some educational institutions, where conducting original research and winning grants to do so is the most highly valued activity, writing a textbook might be seen as taking too much time away from other important pursuits. Those that might be most informed about a subject might not be the ones writing the text.
The content in your textbooks was produced by people in a social context impacted by institutional definitions of what constitutes the most important scholarly work. They are produced in an economic context where many publishers are either struggling economically or have been acquired by larger companies, and within the context of the instructor’s own educational background and institutional constraints.
Thinking sociologically about knowledge doesn’t mean that the information in your textbooks is good or bad, real or fake, important or trivial, just that humans produce what we come to understand as knowledge within a set of important contexts.