The Promise of a Sociology Degree in Canadian Higher Education
Puddephatt, Antony, Nelsen, Randle W., Canadian Review of Sociology
WHAT IS THE PROMISE OF A sociology degree in Canadian higher education? What are we doing as teachers, researchers, and increasingly, as promoters of our discipline in order to shape this promise and present it to the public? In an effort to assess the ways in which sociology departments are promoting the advantages of their programs, we conducted a qualitative content analysis of online program descriptions for all English-speaking sociology departments in Canada. We analyzed the textual content of these descriptions, and took counts of the number of times different themes were presented to prospective students. We find that there are a variety of messages communicated, all of which seem to negotiate the cross-section of students, parents, and employers' interests and concerns. We analyze how the themes identified in our analysis vary by the institutional prestige of the university housing the department, and how departments in research oriented versus primarily undergraduate universities respond differently to increased market pressures and a changing student culture. Reflecting on our findings, we suggest some ways to improve the vision and promise of undergraduate sociology programs as we look to the future.
These goals are much in line with renewed efforts in recent years to bring about a more critical and reflexive sociology, which is set to analyze the structures and everyday practices of our roles as professional academics within the disciplinary field and the institution of higher education. Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 2001) has long pushed for the importance of scholars to be reflexive about their own place and situation in academia, but more importantly, to actively study and scrutinize the power relations and interests within which they make their arguments and carve out their careers. By practicing a reflexive sociology and turning the tools of science back onto itself, "social science, as an institution inscribed in both objective and mental mechanisms ... becomes the target of transformative practice" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:41). The importance of this task is echoed by Michael Burawoy (2005) in his argument for a renewed public sociology that would place heightened emphasis on the "critical" wing of sociology to question, and empirically study the institutional practices and assumptions embedded in the mainstream of our discipline. This article is one such empirical investigation that focuses squarely on the promotional aspects of our field. We hope to better understand how our programs are being marketed, and how the messages presented are linked to larger institutional issues. Only with a clear understanding of these issues can we hope to carve out a vision that is both desirable and practical in the ways we promote and set the agenda for our undergraduate programs to come.
We argue that many of the promotional messages we have analyzed can be usefully interpreted in the context of increased corporate expansion in university affairs, and the larger impact this has had on the perceived culture of higher education from prospective "customers" who expect a strong economic return on their investment. Corporate encroachment in the university has a history dating back to at least the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States and Canada (see Curti and Nash 1965; Miller 1970; Veblen  1957). For example, consider early capitalists like Charles Goodyear, the Armours, the Dukes, and George Eastman, who financially supported professor consultants to carry out profit-making research on oil and the uses of rubber, and to help produce various consumer goods from hotdogs, to cigarettes, to cameras (Nelsen 1975). Many observers have argued that the university and the surrounding market have become far more integrated since World War II (Axelrod 1982; Barkans and Pupo 1978; Giroux 2006; Nelsen 2002; Newson and Buchbinder 1988; Tudiver 1999; Turk 2000). This has not only had effects on research directives and funding, but also on how the university is governed. …