November 2015 Issue • Volume 43 • Issue 7

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Sociology Makes a Comeback! The Department Returns to Washington University in St. Louis

Adia Harvey Wingfield, Washington University-St. Louis

Despite recent debates around public engagement and the value of our work, there are indications that sociology is still valued and vibrant. One such indication is the return of sociology to Washington University in St. Louis.

Washington University in St. Louis was founded in 1853. Its sociology department quickly became a top, albeit controversial, department. It was home to many noted sociologists including Lee Rainwater, David Pittman, and others. These sociologists did important research with significant implications—work on public housing, substance abuse, and others. The program also produced several well-known contemporary sociologists such as Melvin Oliver, Thomas Shapiro, and Mark Mizruchi. And it made important contributions to scholarship, with its involvement in the founding of the American Sociological Review as an alternative to University of Chicago’s American Journal of Sociology.

Unfortunately, the department was shuttered in 1991. The few faculty who remained at this time went to other institutions or other departments within the university. Even without a sociology department, the school managed to maintain its status as a top-tier university, but many administrators, faculty, and students were aware that the absence of this important discipline had an impact, and that other departments were simply not able to fill the void. At times, administrators considered various ways to bring back sociology. One idea was to try a “superstar” model for rebuilding—to bring in one or maybe two very high profile, well-known scholars who could attract other faculty by virtue of their reputation and standing in the field. But ultimately, Barbara Schaal, Dean of the Faculty in Arts & Sciences, decided on a different approach—a longer-term project that would involve hiring a few faculty each year to rebuild the department and reinstate it to its full former stature.

Bringing Sociology Back

In 2015, the first stage of this plan came to fruition. After nearly a quarter of a century, Washington University (Wash U) now has a sociology department! We are currently comprised of five faculty members: Steve Fazzari, Mark Rank, David Cunningham, Jake Rosenfeld, and myself. Steve hails from economics and is acting as chair until the department is a little more established and we select someone with a sociology background to take on this role in a more permanent capacity.

Steve’s work has a great deal of overlap with sociology. His 2013 book, After the Great Recession: The Struggle for Economic Recovery and Growth, examines how rising income inequality is linked to greater household debt, and has generated international attention for its prescient analysis of key aspects of the recession and its aftermath. Mark has the unique distinction of being a member of the original department, though he transitioned over to Brown School of Social Work before the department closed. He now returns to sociology to serve as Associate Chair.

Mark is an expert on poverty whose recent book Chasing the American Dream is particularly apropos, given the widening income inequality in our time (a fact which drew the attention of none other than President Obama, who cited Mark’s research in a speech on economic mobility).

David hails from Brandeis, where he served as department chair. His research interests are in social movements, particularly the scope and breadth of racial contention, and his book Klansville, USA was recently the subject of a PBS documentary.

Jake is a native St. Louisian who returned here from University of Washington in Seattle. His book, What Unions No Longer Do, has generated attention from the New York Times, The Nation, Politico, and The Atlantic for its provocative and important conclusions about the consequences of declining union membership in the United States.

I round out the group, having moved here from Georgia State University. My own research focuses on how social processes reproduce racial and gender inequality in the workplace, with particular attention to black professional men in my recent book No More Invisible Man.

Starting with Five

The five of us are excited about the prospect of building our group and re-establishing it as a preeminent department filled with scholars doing innovative, relevant sociological research. We all explore issues related to social inequality, broadly speaking, and will continue to build the department in that direction. We also look forward to becoming a top-notch department that is diverse in a number of ways—not just in terms of racial and gender diversity, but in terms of methodological, theoretical, and substantive approaches as well. And finally, we are committed to collegiality with faculty who genuinely respect each other and work well together. Steve, Mark, David, and Jake certainly make this part very easy!

In the 2015–16 academic year, we currently have a search underway for two assistant professors. Following this, we have a commitment from our dean for 10 hires in our first five years. By the 2016–17 school year, we should have nearly 20 courses on the books, and we hope to be able to launch a major and minor. Shortly after that, we plan to establish a graduate program and begin accepting applicants for graduate study. And all the while, we will be searching for other sociologists who want to be part of the dynamic, innovative, and exciting project of building a department from the ground up.

When colleagues find out that I relocated to Wash U, one of the most common sentiments I hear is that it sounds like such a rare and promising opportunity to help take the lead in creating a new department. These colleagues are absolutely right! Sociology is such a well-established discipline that it is very unusual to find a university that does not have a department at all. But throughout my interview process and during the short time that I have been a member of the Wash U community, I’ve been consistently impressed by the fellow faculty’s and the administration’s dedication to, and support of, bringing back sociology. This is definitely not something that we take for granted, given a broader public landscape that can be hostile to sociologists and our conclusions, particularly—and especially—when they challenge the status quo, as good sociology often does. We hope to repay the goodwill, generosity, support, and enthusiasm of the University by fulfilling our mission to create an exceptional home for sociologists and a fertile environment for rigorous sociological education and study.

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