Washington University Brings Back Sociology

By Frankel, Todd C | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 29, 2014 | Go to article overview

Washington University Brings Back Sociology


Frankel, Todd C, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Perhaps the most fabled academic department at Washington University in St. Louis is the one it doesn't have today: Sociology.

The school pulled the plug on its sociologists in 1991, stunning the Ivory Tower. Departments rarely disappear at big universities. But this one did. The major was cut. Faculty were scattered to other corners of campus and other top-tier institutions.

Gone was a department known both for strong scholarship why Pruitt-Igoe was a failure, how the "tearoom trade" worked and the dysfunctional behavior that many say contributed to its downfall. As the years passed, Washington University plugged along with this curious hole in its academic offerings.

But that's going to change soon. The school says it intends to revive its sociology department, hiring professors and eventually again offering the major to students. Classes could begin as early as this fall, with a minor to soon follow. The university plans to build slowly, hiring two sociology professors a year for several years.

"We need a sociology department and this was the fastest and best way to do it," said Barbara Schaal, the university's arts and sciences faculty dean.

Sociology's comeback was pushed by Schaal, who has been in the dean's post for a little more than a year. The study of human social behavior is important, Schaal said, and relates to important issues such as inequality, immigration and economics. The growth of research using "big data" has allowed the field to become more quantitative and scientifically rigorous.

A poll of Washington University undergraduate students a few years ago found sociology was the No. 1 course missing from the school, Schaal said.

The school's announcement is good for sociology Ph.D.s, who face the same tough job market as many other academics.

"This is welcome news," said Annette Lareau, sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the American Sociological Association.

Feelings about Washington University's decision don't appear to be hindered by memories of what happened to the sociology department the first time around.

In the mid-1960s, the department was flying high. It had 64 graduate students and 18 full-time faculty members, including nine full professors. …

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