Tackling Social Problems through Service-Learning

Article excerpt

Social Problems: A Service-Learning Approach

Corey Dolgon and Chris Baker

Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2011

This social problems text is well-designed and written in a thoughtful and appealing manner. It provides recent data describing major social problems confronting the United States and presents the data through clearly laid out tables and graphics. It offers a primer on key sociological concepts and theoretical perspectives and then applies them consistently throughout the book in order to explain the emergence and persistence of these problems. In this sense, it is comparable to many other recent social problems texts. Further, it comes with a set of on-line resources for students and teaching assists for faculty through the publisher's website (also like many introductory level texts), all of which are helpful and readily accessible.

However, what distinguishes this work, and what I appreciate most about it, is the extensive integration of service-learning case studies and examples throughout the book. There is also an intentional, yet subtle, encouragement of student activism throughout, conveyed through success stories of students' organizing campaigns from college campuses around the country. Such cases offer hope and empowerment for students who may otherwise conclude that some of these social problems are completely intractable. For readers of the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, the service-learning examples alone are likely enough to lead social problems instructors to adopt this book. Yet I would also recommend this book even to those not interested in integrating a service-learning approach in their course, based on this sense of hopefulness and the dozens of examples of contemporary success stories of social change.

The authors, Corey Dolgon and Chris Baker, follow a standard format throughout the substantive chapters of the book, chapters two through ten. They start each chapter with a compelling example of a student engaged in a service-learning project addressing the social problem discussed in the chapter. This is an effective device as it draws in the reader to be interested in the problem while humanizing the impacts the problem has on real people. It also offers a sense that even though the problem may be huge and that powerful forces are behind the structural arrangements in place, that human agency can make a difference. The authors then move to describing the problems through the use of statistics and how the problems have changed over recent decades. The graphics are simple yet persuasive as data are marshaled to build the case for how social pressures and intentional policies have altered the impact of the problem in the past. Dolgon and Baker then move to explain the patterns of the data through the functionalist, symbolic interactionist, and conflict perspectives, noting how social movement pressure from below has historically ameliorated or lessened the problem, whereas inaction or mobilization from above has led to increases in inequality or worsening of the problem. The chapters then conclude with three extended case studies of service-learning examples that have made an impact at the local level. The examples are well chosen to reflect different theoretical perspectives, thereby enabling students and faculty members with different theoretical predispositions to find examples that resonate with them in each chapter. They also represent an incredible array of partnerships between community-based organizations and institutions of higher education; racially and ethnically diverse students, faculty and citizen activists; urban, rural and suburban locations; social class, gender, and sexuality diversity; and project types--ranging from direct service, to advocacy, to organizing, to action research. This, too, serves to spark civic engagement, as virtually every reader of the book can see himself or herself in the shoes of engaged participants in these projects, addressing problems in their own community. …