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Sociology Faculty Salaries Hold the Line in Economic Downturn

by Roberta Spalter-Roth and Stacey S. Merola,
Research Program on the Discipline and the Profession

The years between 1982-1990 and 1991-2001 were periods of economic expansion for the United States. Throughout much of these periods, however, wages and salaries were sluggish for workers who did not possess advanced degrees. In contrast, those with degrees beyond a college education experienced increases, especially in the late 1980s and late 1990s. The period of expansion ended in March 2001, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. How did the salaries of sociology faculty fare during these periods of expansion and decline? How did faculty rank affect academic sociologists’ salaries? How did salaries vary by type of college or university? Finally, how did salary trends in sociology compare to those in other social science disciplines?

Trends in Sociology

Sociology faculty salaries grew by larger percentages during the economic expansion of the 1980s than during the expansion of the 1990s, with the exception of the peak boom years between 1998 and 2000, when all U.S. aggregate wages and salaries increased. Between academic years 1982-83 and 1989-90, faculty salaries for all ranks increased above the rate of inflation by an average of 4.0 percent each year. Between academic years 1990-91 and 1999-2000 salaries increased on average by only 1.6 percent above the rate of inflation each year (see Table 1- PDF). Only during the peak boom years of the 1990s (1997–2000) did sociology faculty see salary gains above those of the 1980s, with average increases of 5.1 percent above the rate of inflation. During the 2001-2002 downturn, average sociology faculty salaries managed to hold the line, increasing by only 0.2 percent above the rate of inflation.

There was some variation in these trends by faculty rank and by type of institution of higher education. During the 1980s’ economic expansion, all ranks of sociology faculty experienced average salary increases of at least 3.0 percent per year over the rate of inflation. The rate of increase was highest for new assistant professors and lowest for full professors. During the boom years of the 1990s, percent increases for all faculty ranks were lower than in the 1980s. Full professors earned the highest percent increases, while associate professors earned the lowest (1.6 percent versus 1.0 percent above the rate of inflation, respectively). During the economic downturn, assistant professors experienced a slight decline in earnings, in constant dollars.

During the 1980s and the 1990s, the percentage change in sociology salaries varied by type of institution. From the mid 1980s, the greatest increases in sociology faculty salaries occurred at public institutions with collective bargaining agreements. Between academic years 1984-85 and 1989-90, salaries at these institutions increased by 26.4 percent, above the rate of inflation. During the 1990s, sociology faculty salaries at private universities increased by 19.6 percent above the rate of inflation, the largest increase among the three types of institutions of higher education. During the peak years of the boom (1997–2000), average sociology faculty salaries at public institutions with no collective bargaining agreements increased by 7.9 percent, the largest amount among the types of institutions. Sociology faculty salaries have been flat in all types of institutions during the current economic downturn, with slight losses at public institutions with collective bargaining.

Sociology Compared to Other Social Sciences

The salary trends in sociology were mirrored by the changes in salaries in other social and behavioral science disciplines, including anthropology, political science, psychology (general), and economics (see Figure 1). All the disciplines, except political science, experienced greater increases in average salaries during the 1980s than in the sluggish period of the 1990s and experienced flat salaries with the 2001 economic downturn.

Between 1982-83 and 1989-90, sociology faculty as a group experienced the largest percentage increase in salary of the five social science disciplines discussed here, 32.2 percent above the rate of inflation. The remaining disciplines, with the exception of political science, were not far behind, however. During the peak of the 1990s boom, economics experienced the greatest percentage increase in average salaries (16.5 percent above the rate of inflation), and anthropology experienced the smallest increase (10.8 percent), with sociology salary increases (13.3 percent) falling in between.

Faculty in economics experienced the largest average increase in salaries between the peak years of the boom (academic years 1997-98 to 2000-01) at 8.5 percent above inflation, closely followed by political science. Anthropology had the lowest rate of increase over the peak boom period at 0.4 percent. Average faculty salaries in sociology increased by about 4.0 percent above the rate of inflation during the peak boom period. During the economic downturn, which started prior to academic year 2001-02, salaries stagnated, with political science experiencing the greatest losses (-4.4 percent relative to the rate of inflation). During this year, sociology barely held the line with a 0.2 percent increase. The greatest increase was experienced by anthropology (2.2 percent above the rate of inflation).

For an unabridged version of this article, see the ASA Data Brief, titled Sociology Holds the Line as Faculty Salaries Feel the Pinch in the Economic Downturn, on the ASA’s website at

Table 1: Sociology Faculty Salaries by Faculty Rank, 1982-83 to 2001-02 (2001 dollars)


Figure 1: Percent Change in Salaries (in Constant 2001 Dollars) for Five Social Science Disciplines from 1982-2002
Source: Compiled by ASA using data from the National Faculty Salary Survey. Selected Years. Washington, DC: College and University Personnel Association for Human Resources

Note: Constant dollars based on the average 2001 Consumer Price Index – All Urban Consumers, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.