BOOKS - Dr Jonathan Shapiro Senior fellow, health services management centre, Birmingham University

The Sociology and Politics of Health: a reader Edited by Michael Purdy and David Banks Publisher: Routledge. ISBN:0415233194.288 pages.£17.99 paperback (hardback available).

One of the truisms of the 21st century NHS is that it medicalises most 'dis-ease' into disease. It focuses very largely on finding technical - even mechanical - solutions to complex, multi-factorial problems.

The fashion for evidencebased practice, the obsession with counting activities and processes in order to measure progress and success is based on a touching faith in the science that we believe underlies medicine.

Unfortunately, this usually ignores the fact that health (and hence illness) is an immensely complex web of social and psychological factors. These are as important as the physical plumbing that we tend to consider when we go into hospital.

It is with some sense of anticipation that those with a more holistic view of health and its maintenance might approach this book.

Compiled by Michael Purdy, a lecturer in nursing at Sheffield University, and David Banks, a senior lecturer in the school of health at Teesside University, the book is a 'reader' in the very traditional sense of the word.

It comprises 31 essays exploring various aspects of the subject, linked by a series of narrative introductions to each of its four sections.

These are entitled: ideology and policy, social stratification and health, professionalisation and health, and experiencing health and illness.

In each section, a number of essays have been chosen that reflect the classic thinking that led to the development of healthcare in the western world. These are backed up by more contemporary pieces that put the traditional approaches into a more modern context.

So, the initial section starts with a monograph by Frederick Engels (written in 1886) and this is followed by pieces by various health secretaries (or their minions) from the past 50 years.

So, we have the original NHS Bill (dated 1946), Working for Patients (1989), The New NHS: modern, dependable (1997), Supporting Families - a consultation document (1998) and Saving Lives: our healthier nation (a very recent 1999).

In between are sprinkled bon mots by practitioners, academics and commentators, including Douglas Black, Donald Acheson, Thomas McKeown and Peter Townsend, to name but a few.

A minor complaint here:

there is no information given about any of these authors - no biography or thumbnail sketch, which makes it hard to put them into their context. It also encourages the reader to dip into those pieces whose authors are familiar, at the expense of those who are not.

More importantly, does it work? It would be churlish to do a critique of the pieces themselves since they have all been published before and many are very famous in their own right.

It is only the choice of essays, and the emerging message of the book that may be reviewed, and here it is hard to wax lyrical.

It seems to me that the connecting pieces do no more than link; they do not really express any synthesis of the essays, but merely summarise their content and provide continuity for the reader.

The real value of the book lies in the resource it offers, having all those classic texts together in one relatively slim volume.

Mine will get well thumbed - but as a compendium, not a complete text.