February 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 2

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From the Executive Officer

Sociology Is a STEM Discipline

sally hillsman

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

Last week ASA received a call from a sociology department chair who was deeply concerned about a proposed change to her institution’s General Education curriculum. Under the existing curriculum, students are required to take two courses within the area of “Scientific Investigations”—one in the natural sciences and one in the social sciences. Under the revised Gen Ed curriculum, the social science requirement would be eliminated.

This illustrates a larger and disturbing effort by some significant forces to marginalize and delegitimize the social sciences and sometimes the liberal arts as a whole. Earlier this month in an Inside Higher Ed article, Carol Geary Schneider, President of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, described it as “a dangerous assault,” citing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) recent proposal to eliminate all federal funding for research in the social sciences. In the article, Schneider discusses a current proposal in Florida to establish lower tuition rates for “STEM” majors (narrowly defined as the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics) and a higher tuition for all other majors (February 8, 2012).

We cannot afford to ignore these efforts or set them aside as policy proposals too extreme to actually pass. A bill cutting all funding for political science at the National Science Foundation (NSF) passed in the House of Representatives in June 2012, Congress will be negotiating the 2013 budget over the next few weeks, and threats to the social sciences are likely to be raised again.

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What Do We Do?

Sociologists can take concrete actions. One of which is to help our students and the larger scholarly communities within which we work to understand that sociology is a scientific discipline offering vital insights to the 21st century global community. Sociologists know this to be true, but we may be less adept at explaining it to others. To do so does not need to undermine the humanistic side of sociology as we also defend the liberal arts. (ASA  is an active member of both the Consortium of Social Science Associations and the National Humanities Alliance, which are long-standing and effective advocacy organizations that address scholarly, educational, and science policy issues in our nation’s capital.)

“Make sure the curriculum
committee members and
administrators at your
institution are familiar with
the facts that reflect sociology’s
recognition as a discipline within
the national science community.”

Educate and Advocate

Sociology is part of the national science community. Make sure the curriculum committee members and administrators at your institution are familiar with the facts that reflect sociology’s recognition as a discipline within the national science community.  Two key pieces of evidence are the prominence of the Sociology Program at the National Science Foundation, and the fact that the number two person at NSF, Cora Bagley Marrett, is a sociologist. She has also served as Acting Director of NSF, a $7-billion independent federal agency that is the only government science agency charged with advancing all fields of fundamental science and engineering research and related education. NSF Director Subra Suresh, a distinguished engineer, recently addressed the contributions and inter-relationship of the natural sciences and the social sciences: 

The 21st century is the century of science and engineering for the average citizen of the world. Not for the scientist. Not for the engineer. But for the average human being on the planet that means how a non-scientist, average citizen, engages with science and engineering is going to determine how we, as inhabitants of the planet, are going to achieve or fail at the end of the century. It is crucial that 21st century scientists and engineers understand the life of the average citizen of the world. This invariably calls for a seamless integration of discoveries and approaches between the natural sciences and social sciences. (emphasis added)

An example of such “seamless integration” is a 2012 article by Cornell and Waite in ASA’s Journal of Health and Social Behavior “Social Network Resources and Management of Hypertension.” (see hsb.sagepub.com/content/53/2.toc). Research conducted by scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and under its extramural grant programs encompasses significant sociological studies. This is reflected in the existence of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research within the Office of the Director of the NIH, Francis S. Collins, a geneticist who lead the Human Genome Project between 1993 and 2008.

The social sciences, including sociology, hold a central place in the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general science organization. The social sciences have their own AAAS section—the Social, Economic, and Political Sciences—that provides scientific expertise to AAAS-wide projects. Last year I had the honor of being elected as an AAAS Fellow, joining the ranks of many other sociologists. This year, at the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting, the Plenary Lecture, titled “The Robotic Moment: What Do We Forget When We Talk To Machines?” was given by sociologist Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sociology is a core part of applied science. Evidence of the growing importance of sociology and the social sciences, generally, to applied science is illustrated in the new MCAT exam. Starting in January of 2015, all aspiring medical doctors will take a revised MCAT that includes sections on the social and behavioral sciences, with specific question on basic sociology. (For more on MCAT changes and implications for departments see Footnotes July/August and December 2012.) 

Sociology in the Classroom

Sociology is a gateway to science for undergraduates. To further advance sociology as a scientific discipline (the mission of the ASA), it is our job as members to ensure that undergraduate majors understand the scientific base of sociology and that they can articulate how they have used data and analysis as part of their sociology major. I would encourage all sociology departments to review their program curricula to ensure the empirical base of the discipline is evident and fully integrated across course levels. Even students in introductory sociology can benefit from the experience of working with quantitative data as well as rigorously analyzed qualitative data. For ideas about doing this, see the 2006 Teaching Sociology article “Integrating Data Analysis (IDA): Working with Sociology Departments to Address the Quantitative Literacy Gap” by Carla Howery and Havidán Rodriguez. (Also see www.TeachingWithData.org.)

Research findings from the ASA Department of Research on the Discipline and Profession shows clearly that undergraduate majors who are able to describe their data analysis skills in a job interview are significantly more likely to find employment related to their major, and they are significantly more likely to report being satisfied with their job (Spalter-Roth and Van Vooren 2008 at http://bit.ly/ZkOYUl).

The power and joy of sociology as a STEM discipline is that it addresses systematically the lived experience of students from many racial and ethnic backgrounds, many of whom are also first-generation college students. More than one-quarter of graduating sociology majors have parents with a high school diploma or less. Sociology can provide a meaningful entrée to the scientific method for those who don’t initially think they are interested in science, but find themselves powerfully engaged by the substantive issues discussed in sociology classes and literature. The experience of sociological thinking can help them better understand the social contexts within which they live (Spalter-Roth et al. 2012).

Faced with misguided and sometimes deliberate efforts to marginalize and delegitimize the social sciences, sociologists must be able to articulate that sociology is a scientific discipline that offers vital insights to the 21st century global community. We can do this by actively and articulately advocating for sociology. We can demonstrate the significant role sociology plays within national science organizations. We can be knowledgeable about the contributions sociology makes to the interdisciplinary and global scientific knowledge base. And we can effectively carry out our responsibility as undergraduate teachers to help students understand the scientific foundations of sociology, how it can enhance their understanding of daily life, and how it can provide a solid foundation of skills to help them meet the next challenges in life.

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.


Cornwell, Erin York and Linda J. Waite. 2012. “Social Network Resources and Management of Hypertension.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 53:215-231.

Davis, Shannon N. and Jason M. Satterfield. 2012. “New MCAT Emphasizes Social Foundations of Health and Disease.” www.asanet.org/footnotes/julyaugust12/mcat_0712.html

Howery, Carla B. and Havidan Rodriguez.2006. “Integrating Data Analysis (IDA): Working with Sociology Departments to Address the Quantitative Literacy Gap” Teaching Sociology 34:23-38.

Kain, Edward L. 2012. “Changes in MCAT have Implications for Sociology Department Planning”  www.asanet.org/footnotes/dec12/mcat_1212.html

Senter, Mary et al. 2012. “What Leads to Student Satisfaction with Sociology Departments?” Department of Research on the Discipline and Profession.American Sociological Association.

Schneider, Carol Geary. 2013. “A Dangerous Assault.” Inside Higher Ed. www.insidehighered.com/

Spalter-Roth, Roberta et al. 2012. “Recruiting Sociology Majors: What Are the Effects of the Great Recession?  Concepts, Change, and Careers” Department of Research on the Discipline and Profession. American Sociological Association. http://www.asanet.org/documents/research/pdfs/Bachelors_and_

Spalter-Roth, Roberta and Nicole Van Vooren. 2008. “What Are They Doing with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology?”  Department of Research on the Discipline and Profession. American Sociological Association. http://www.asanet.org/images/research/docs/pdf/What%20Are%20They%20Doing%20

Suresh, Subra. 2011. Speech at the Annual Meeting of the Consortium of Social Science Associations.


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