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Has Sociology Suffered the Declines Predicted Ten Years Ago?

by Roberta Spalter-Roth, Director, Research Program on the Discipline and the Profession

In 1993, in a climate of government reductions in funding and fears of too many PhDs chasing too few jobs, outgoing President George H.W. Bush’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended that universities eliminate or downsize departments. Universities were urged to focus on eliminating those departments that did not meet “world class” standards, even if they were successful in meeting the needs of local, regional, or “niche” markets.

Sociology, a discipline that had experienced periods of enormous growth in numbers of students and faculty in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by deep declines in the 1980s, seemed especially vulnerable to cutbacks. Articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education written at the time suggested that many sociologists expected a continued weakening of the discipline, given the recent closings of a few visible departments. Others pointed to the negative effects of the continuing debate about the field’s direction. (For example, some said the growing number of paradigms and specialties in the discipline represented “peaceful pluralism,” while others said it represented incoherence and the “lack of a core.”) Still others were concerned about what they saw as a decline in the field’s reputation, with sociology as the “Rodney Dangerfield” of disciplines, accorded little respect by other disciplines, according to a letter in a 1992 issue of the Chronicle. Some saw the increasing feminization of the discipline as exacerbating its declining prestige, as was happening with other disciplines and professions.

Now that we are ten years out from these predictions of the decline of the discipline, we can examine how prophetic they were. How have sociology departments fared since the calls for elimination and downsizing? Two surveys of sociology programs provide some indicators of the state of sociology at the two relevant time periods. In academic year (AY) 1991-92, the ASA Research Program conducted its first survey of the universe of sociology departments with undergraduate programs and departments that also had graduate programs. The overall response rate was 61 percent. Ten years later, the Research Program conducted a survey of the universe of departments that granted at least a BA-level degree in sociology. The response rate was 56 percent. Table 1 presents the results from the BA-granting sociology programs responding to similarly worded questions, showing how sociology has fared over the 10-year period. While the findings do not suggest there was a rash of department eliminations or mergers, or declines in numbers of students in departments, they do suggest current declines in faculty replacements and the possibility of future downsizing.

Department Structure

Despite the early 1990s fears of wholesale elimination, data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest that the number of sociology departments that awarded at least one BA degree appears to have changed by only one percent during the 10-year period, declining by 16 (from 1,109 to 1,093) departments. It is difficult to attribute much significance to this small difference, in part because the methodologies for the two comparison years were not precisely identical. The percentage of these departments awarding a graduate degree remained stable at about 26 percent. In contrast, the percentage of stand-alone sociology departments, which are not combined with other disciplines, increased by 38 percent. This increase in stand-alone departments is contrary to the predictions of mergers spawned by expected downsizings.

Some department chairs have suggested that the increase in stand-alone departments is not entirely positive for sociology because this change represents the breaking away of criminology or criminal justice programs. As a result, sociology departments may suffer a decline in majors wishing to obtain degrees in these increasingly popular fields. But the growth of other domains ripe with opportunities for sociology may spawn new sociological frontiers, so stand-alone departments of sociology may be able to reshape the discipline’s curriculum to meet new social and practical needs.

Students

Despite suggestions that sociology is not a marketable degree because it has no natural employment constituency, the median number of undergraduate majors per department increased by 18 percent or about 9 per department, while those awarded bachelor’s degrees increased by about 6 per department. The mean number of students applying to departments offering graduate degrees remained relatively stable, increasing from an average of 49 to 52 per department. The number of students accepted to graduate departments declined, as did the ratio of applications to acceptances. This could suggest greater selectivity by departments, which could in turn increase their prestige.

Faculty

Despite reports of an increasing reliance on part-time over full-time faculty members, the average number of full-time faculty per department remained stable from AY 1991-92 to AY 2001-02. This stability in faculty size may not continue in the future, however. The mean number of faculty who had left the department in the previous year as a result of retirement, failing to obtain tenure, or moving to another position increased by 42 percent (from 2.1 to 3.0). Meanwhile the number of full-time faculty hired decreased from 2.8 to 1.5). This means that at the beginning of the 1990s, department size was increasing, while a decade later it is decreasing, with only half of full-time leavers being replaced. Although the number of class preparations per year has remained stable, workloads have likely increased since there are more students and fewer full-time faculty members to teach and mentor them.

Conclusions

While there were some closings, there was no trend toward wholesale mergers or eliminations of sociology departments between AY 1991-92 and AY 2001-02. In addition, the number of students per department increased, as did graduate student selectivity. The potential decline in faculty size, based on the discrepancy between “leavers” and “new hires,” warrants continued monitoring and continued efforts to build the discipline. For example, participants at a 2001 ASA-sponsored workshop on the “Sociology of Sociology,” suggested a number of strategies to increase the discipline’s usefulness, prestige, and material base. These include celebrating and capitalizing on the discipline’s progress in gender and racial/ethnic diversity, fostering scholarly productivity, increasing activities that improve grantsmanship among sociologists, fostering intellectual networks, considering more practical and applied programs, and building a constituency for sociology through increased contact with the media, community groups, and policymakers.