Sociology in America: A History

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Sociology in America: A History Craig Calhoun, Editor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

This volume was commissioned to commemorate a hundred years of sociological development. The book consists of twenty-one chapters, each written by one or more separate authors. The content of the chapters range from the historical background of sociology in the later half of the nineteenth century up to modern times. Sociology and social work were closely linked in the early attempts to create a new academic discipline. Each had its origins in the many changes and problems in the years following the Civil War. The accelerated rates of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration produced many new social problems that were in need of attention.

Following the creation of new departments of sociology, the annual meetings were polarized by verbose debates over whether the new field should be oriented toward finding practical solutions to social problems or whether the emphasis should be on developing methodologies for a science of society. The later position drew heavily on the academic models provided by the physical and biological sciences. To a very large degree, this controversy was softened in the 1920s by social workers becoming professionalized and splitting away from the field of sociology. Sociology as an academic discipline was male dominated, while the more practical field of social work was disproportionately female.

Sociology at the University of Chicago became noteworthy for its emphasis on field research. The city of Chicago was regarded as a sociological laboratory and graduate students were sent out into the field "to get their feet wet." Less emphasis was placed on a specific methodology than on subject matter. All aspects of city life were regarded as suitable for study. Participant observation, open-ended interviews, and life histories were among the many form of qualitative analyses that were employed. The distinction between objective, quantitative data, and the study of subjective experiences in a social setting has persisted to this day.

As academic sociology grew, it fragmented into specialized areas. Criminology, race relations, urban sociology, industrial sociology, rural sociology, educational sociology, family studies, and many more grew out of the trend toward specialization on specific topics. General theories of sociology diminished as a result, and in many cases, the specialized areas split away from sociology to form separate academic departments. …