Sociology department returns, brings together diverse fields

Monday will be the first day in nearly 25 years that students will have the opportunity to enroll in classes with the Department of Sociology.

In 1991 the Department of Sociology was disbanded at Washington University due to reasons disclosed by Claire Navarro, managing editor of A&S Magazine, including competing departmental priorities and even a physical altercation between a sociology chair and a graduate student.

The department was recreated in response to student demand in surveys and is offering three courses this fall.

Steve Fazzari, chair of the Department of Sociology, noted the importance of bringing sociology back to the University.

“There are a lot of things that are of great social relevance for which we really haven’t had that much in the curriculum,” Fazzari said. “Obviously you can study issues of race in African-American studies, you can study issues of gender in women and gender sexuality studies, but sociology has a way of putting those things together with social theory that is a real addition to what we already have here.”

New departments are often few and far between. The newest departments in the College of Arts & Sciences—the Department of Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures—were formed in 2011 through the reorganization of other departments and programs, rather than the creation of a new department. Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Jennifer Smith elaborated upon the magnitude of such a change at Washington University.

“New departments are rare. There will be years that go by without new ones,” Smith said. “It sometimes happens that a program becomes a department, something that’s already here, but for us to found a department from scratch, that hasn’t been done in a while.”

The good news is that student input plays a large role in the development of new departments.

“Sociology topped the student survey of what we do not have that people wanted,” Smith said.

Undergraduate courses being offered this fall include Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Order and Change in Society and Social Theory. The three professors of sociology new to Washington University include Jake Rosenfeld, whose research focuses on unions and wage allocation; David Cunningham, former chair of Brandeis University’s sociology department with a background studying racial conflict and the Ku Klux Klan; and Adia Harvey Wingfield, who specializes in the intersection of race, class and gender.

Because of the work needed to create a new department, new majors are much more common than new departments. According to Smith, new majors are created most often if a number of students are doing special majors similar to one another. In that case, the University may choose to create a new major encompassing those special majors.

“Back in the day that’s how PNP [philosophy-neuroscience-psychology] started. It was a student-designed special major, and now it’s one of our most popular majors. Applied linguistics just became a new major and that had been done by a couple students as a special major so we went ahead and added that as a major,” Smith said.

Fazzari was particularly impressed by the speed at which the University acted on the expressed need for a sociology department.

“The first time I heard of this was two years ago,” Fazzari said. “To go from there…to have recruited three outstanding faculty members and to have courses being taught and a curriculum being developed is really a remarkable speed for a university.”

Students from a variety of majors have enrolled in the three new courses, all of which were at least 80 percent full as of Sunday night. Other students expressed enthusiasm about the new courses.

“I’m excited to see the types of classes the sociology department will offer, and if it overlaps with [anthropology] classes,” junior Vamsi Marla said.

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Alex SiegmanComment