A new department comes to life in Arts & Sciences.
In late 2003, professor and sociologist Mark Rank walked up to a podium amidst applause. The George Warren Brown School of Social Work had just honored Rank with an endowed professorship named after Herbert Hadley, a Washington University chancellor back in the 1920s who had also served as Missouri’s governor. Friends and colleagues gathered at the ceremony to congratulate Rank on becoming the new Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare, and also to hear him speak about his forthcoming book: One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All.
“I could have so easily missed it,” Steve Fazzari recollects more than 10 years later. Fazzari, professor of economics and now chair of the newly reestablished Department of Sociology in Arts & Sciences, looks back at this event as the first step in a long, somewhat winding path that led him to his latest leadership role. Rank, who serves as associate chair of the new department, agrees that it was an important moment.
The two professors had been casual friends since arriving on campus some twenty years earlier, in 1982 and 1985, respectively. They were a similar age and both grew up in Wisconsin. Their phone numbers, oddly enough, were just one digit apart. They had offices in connected buildings – Fazzari with economics, Rank with the original sociology department, which formally closed in 1991. They would bump into each other and chat. But it wasn’t until Rank’s talk about One Nation, Underprivileged that they began paying close attention to one another’s work.
At the time of Rank’s installation as an endowed professor, Fazzari felt like he was at something of a professional crossroads. He was even considering an offer from an outside institution. The dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at that time, Ed Macias, encouraged him to look for new challenges within the university rather than feeling he had to go elsewhere. Rank’s installation presentation in some ways helped Fazzari find that new direction. In the talk, Rank discussed his findings about how poverty affects all Americans, not just those experiencing financial hardship. He talked about how poverty stems from economic structures and governmental policies, rather than individual failings.
“I was just really impressed and attracted to those ideas,” Fazzari says. “For a variety of reasons I was thinking about inequality in my own work, and it just became this sort of serendipitous stepping stone to more conversations. We found this synergy of interests.”
He and Rank went on to spend hours discussing inequality in the United States, especially as Rank shaped his 2014 book Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes. These conversations led to a grant-funded, co-taught course on the American dream designed to bring perspectives from social work and economics together. Today, Fazzari is considered a leading scholar on the relationship between rising income inequality and macroeconomic trends in the United States.
“This was all directly related to the creation of the sociology department, or at least my role in that project,” Fazzari says. “Just seeing how these things were so central to American society and were not being fully reflected in traditional economics, for example, and probably in other places in the institution as well. I saw this as something that would be good for the university, which has been very good to me.”
Much has been written – and speculated – about how a dwindling program, departmental tensions, and competing institutional priorities led to the eventual disbanding of the first sociology department in 1991. Some former professors have pointed to the tumultuous late 1960s as the beginning of the end. Issues the department faced at that time included, most dramatically, a physical altercation between the former chair and a graduate student. In the following decades, many key faculty left for positions elsewhere. Eventually, administration came to the difficult conclusion that it was not financially feasible to rebuild the sociology department to a stature consistent with an ambitious university. In April 1989, a phased closure was announced.
In more recent years, the university has recognized sociology as a noticeable gap in course offerings, as psychology professor Henry “Roddy” Roediger noted in Student Life:
“About 10 to 12 years ago, some undergraduates came to me after some horrific murders and said, ‘We’d really like to take a course on the criminal mind, and there doesn’t seem to be anything like that in psychology.’ I said to them, ‘Well, the way academics divide things up, criminology is usually considered part of sociology, and that is normally where such courses would be taught.’ There is a huge swath of intellectual material that we don’t have in Arts & Sciences because we do not have a sociology department.”
This academic gap particularly troubled Barbara Schaal, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences. A renowned evolutionary biologist, Schaal serves on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) under President Obama. She also recently became president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes the prestigious journal Science. This broad experience and perspective solidified Schaal’s strong conviction that the world’s complex problems must be approached from multiple angles and disciplines. Sociology, like other social sciences, brings unique and necessary insights to national and global issues. She envisioned sociology’s return as a priority for the future of Arts & Sciences.
In fall 2013, she presented a case for the department’s return to the Academic Planning Committee (APC), which advises the dean on major directions in Arts & Sciences. She also formed an advisory committee, chaired by Roediger, to gauge campus-wide interest in the idea. In March 2014, she announced her intention to form the department. “Reestablishing our sociology department will enhance our ability to educate our students and conduct world-class research in areas that are central to the critical social issues of our time,” she said.
Recognizing the value of sociology on campus was the first of many steps in the department-building process. Then came the complicated question of what came next.
Initially, Schaal and her advisors considered what Fazzari refers to as the “big bang model.” Arts & Sciences could hire a distinguished sociologist to lead the fledgling department. With this approach, a new chair would shape sociology at Washington University by attracting new faculty members and helping to decide the future direction of research and curriculum.
Though in some ways the most obvious direction, this approach presented several potential challenges. Any professor with the prestige and expertise necessary for the “big bang” model to be successful would already be attached to a highly ranked academic institution. Drawing him or her to a new situation would take substantial resources, a significant amount of time, or both. The new chair would also likely require assurances that he or she could hire new faculty members right away – a further up-front drain on resources. Even if expense were not an issue, the reverberations of the ‘big bang’ across campus would be hard to predict. Bringing in a large group of hires all at once could work out well, but there would also be some risk involved.
With these concerns in mind, Schaal began to consider a more organic approach to building sociology. What about recruiting a bit more slowly, which would be more in line with the financial constraints that are realistic these days? What about building a department, but not all at once?
The organic model presented its own issues. Leading such an effort requires both commitment and patience, without the immediate gratification of an unlimited hiring budget. A person with existing experience and connections at Washington University seemed like the best choice to hold the process together and guide the department through its earliest phase, but there was one obvious problem. Without an existing sociology department, there were no sociologists within Arts & Sciences to lead the charge.
“After one of these meetings, I thought ‘hmm, maybe I could do that,” Fazzari recalls, “and just about the first thing I did was go to Mark’s office.”
Though he was drawn to the role, Fazzari initially thought it was “probably crazy” to lead a department with only limited knowledge of the subject matter. “I was thinking maybe I could do this, but I mean, I don’t know the discipline. Mark and I have taught this course together; we’re friends; I’ve read his work. But I really have a very limited knowledge of what could truly be described as sociology.”
Rank encouraged Fazzari to move past these doubts and pursue the job. Fazzari also checked with Roediger, who encouraged him to consider offering his services as the initial chair. At this point Fazzari had successfully chaired the economics department for six years. This background – along with Rank’s disciplinary expertise and Roediger’s experience building up a highly regarded psychology department – formed a triangle of leadership that felt right to everyone involved, including Dean Schaal. She offered Fazzari the chairmanship just as he was leaving on a trip to Australia and New Zealand during a sabbatical year. Before boarding his plane, he dashed off some memos with initial ideas. Upon his return, it was time to officially start building sociology.
Building a new department from scratch would be a challenge for any academic discipline, but this may be particularly true for sociology – a field that encompasses a dizzying number of subtopics and potential angles. Some of these branches can be glimpsed by perusing the list of current working groups within the American Sociological Association. Dozens of ‘sections’ cover topics like the environment, human rights, sexuality, inequality, labor, crime, and aging. Across these seemingly dissimilar areas of inquiry, an overarching focus on society and social behavior brings topics under a common framework.
“The sociological perspective is trying to understand certain behaviors and actions within the context of the larger society,” Rank explains.
“For example, there are a number of sociologists that might be interested in the family, or criminology, or organizations. The field itself is very broad, but it’s putting this lens of understanding on these particular areas.”
Broadly thinking about economic class, a core topic within sociology, provides an example of this approach. What does it mean to be rich, poor, middle class, or working class? The answers to these questions are for the most part defined by society. The same can be said for questions relating to race or gender. What does it really mean to be a woman in the United States in the 21st century?
“Societies aren’t just a bunch of random individuals,” Fazzari adds. “There’s interplay between the individual and the broader social context."
As recruitment started in earnest and decisions had to be made regarding the future direction of the department, teams of advisors became increasingly important. Doug Massey, a renowned sociologist from Princeton, led an 8-person external advisory committee. A 12-person internal committee, including members from across the humanities and social sciences, led the search process. Chaired by Roediger and Fazzari, this group began the time-consuming search for a team of outstanding sociologists to be Washington University’s first recruits.
With the help of these advisory committees – and with Fazzari and Rank’s own interests and research as a backdrop – the leaders of the effort decided that the new department should at least in part focus on issues of inequality. This decision was made in the spring and summer of 2014. Then in August, with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ensuing unrest, the value and need for discussions about race and inequality on campus became even more apparent.
Though particularly relevant today, issues around inequality have been essential to sociology since the start of the discipline. “If you think about Marx and Durkheim and Weber, some of the leading sociologists in the 19th and early 20th century, they were concerned about the issues of social class and social inequality,” Rank explains. “It’s a core area, and it makes a lot of sense in today’s world to focus on that. We’re more and more concerned with rising inequality, particularly in the United States. So it’s an area that I think fits really well with what’s going on and also what the discipline has been focusing on for a really long time.”
In addition to thinking about which subsets of sociology would be the best fit for Washington University, the leadership team had to consider things like research methods. The university as a whole has an increased focus on ‘big data,’ for example. How would sociology fit into this picture?
Traditional sociological research often relies on quantitative data gathered from the census, surveys, or other sources. In these types of studies, sociologists glean statistics and other numerical information from a random sample of a population. In other types of studies, sociologists instead focus on qualitative information gathered from in-depth interviews and community engagement. Though learning from numbers (quantitative research) in many ways differs from learning from descriptions of social experiences (qualitative research), Fazzari and Rank believe it’s outdated and misguided to pit the two approaches against one another.
“Twenty to thirty years ago there seemed to be more conflict between these methods, whereas younger people are seeing them as more complementary,” says Fazzari. Rank, who has undertaken both types of research in his own work, fully agrees with this view. With the advice and support of the external advisory committee, the faculty search committee sought out candidates that brought a variety of methods to the table.
Over time, the various committees began to understand the type of people and scholarship they hoped to bring to campus. But at least initially, Fazzari had concerns about whether promising scholars would choose to move to Washington University, which did not yet have known sociology colleagues with whom to interact and collaborate. Administrative and logistical details around the search process, like advertising, evaluation, and campus visits, kept the team more than busy. But it was really this basic question that kept Fazzari up at night. Would outstanding sociologists want to take a chance on something new?
As the recruitment process ramped up, these concerns dissipated fairly quickly. A number of the most promising candidates expressed strong interest in the opportunity to shape the direction of a new department. These final candidates included three accomplished sociologists, all still relatively early in their careers – Adia Harvey Wingfield, David Cunningham, and Jake Rosenfeld. These three scholars all accepted offers to join Arts & Sciences in fall 2015.
“The idea of starting a department from scratch at such an excellent place is pretty close to unprecedented," says David Cunningham. "If you look back at departments that have been especially influential in terms of innovating and making a contribution to the field, they’ve often grown in periods of pressing social issues and social conflict. They’ve been able to speak to those issues in immediate ways. So the new department at Washington University represents an important opportunity that is also coming at a particularly crucial time.”
Adia Harvey Wingfield has a similar view. “The challenge of building a new department from the ground up at a top university is pretty much unheard of,” she says. “It’s exciting to be involved with the prospect of figuring out with my new colleagues what we want to focus on, what specializations we want to emphasize, how we want to structure a major, a minor, and a PhD program. We all want to work to make this one of the top departments in the sociology field.”
Incoming associate professor Jake Rosenfeld shares the rest of the team’s enthusiasm. “I couldn't be more thrilled to join Professors Wingfield, Cunningham, and Fazzari in the new department,” he says. “What's wonderful about the opportunity is the strong backing of so many at Washington University for our efforts, along with sociologists across the nation, who want to see the effort succeed - and want to see the new department thrive.”
To start, each of the new faculty members will begin teaching undergraduate classes in his or her core areas of interest. Over time, they will build toward a fuller curriculum – first a minor, then a major, and eventually a PhD program. Following the organic model first envisioned in 2013, recruiting is projected to continue through 2019. Partnerships with the Brown School and the Institute for Public Health, as well as programs in Arts & Sciences like Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, African and African-American Studies, and American Culture Studies, are already being considered.
Eventually, Fazzari and Rank will hand over leadership to the new generation of sociologists on campus. But for the time being, Fazzari is thrilled to put his 33 years of experience at Washington University toward such a unique and transformative goal. “To be using those hours and that work for this purpose is incredibly rewarding,” Fazzari says. “It’s demanding, but also gratifying.”
Research interests | Wingfield specializes in research that examines the ways that intersections of race, gender, and class affect social processes at work. In particular, she is an expert on the workplace experiences of minority workers in predominantly white professional settings, and specifically on black male professionals in occupations where they are in the minority.
Latest book | No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men's Work (Temple University Press, 2012)
Former institution | Georgia State University
Course to be taught in fall 2015 | Social Theory
Initially, what direction would you like to see the department take?
I think my new colleagues and I are similar in that we focus on different issues of racial stratification. Our research areas and our strengths complement each other in that way, and I’d like to see the department focus on these issues of stratification in contemporary society. The department could help students and faculty think through more of these questions about what inequality looks like and how it’s manifested, particularly in a modern society that is often labeled post-racial or colorblind.
What are you most excited to share with students in your "Social Theory" class?
Often I find that students have preconceived notions about theory. They think it’s going to be boring and that it will be completely divorced from their everyday lives. I really like the challenge of exposing students to people they may have only heard of in passing, as well as people and ideas they’ve never encountered before. In my theory classes we cover Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. But I also try to expose students to more contemporary theorists - people like Patricia Hill Collins and her ideas on black feminist thought, and Arlie Hochschild and her ideas about emotional labor, which I think are very valuable as we become more of a service-oriented economy. These are the type of things that students really tend to latch on to. They see how real and vibrant this material really is. Theory has such resonance for our everyday experiences as social beings.
Research interests | Cunningham’s current research focuses on the scope, organization, and legacy of racial contention. His past work centers on the Ku Klux Klan, in particular the complex roles that the klan played in various communities throughout the 1960s and the enduring impacts of KKK activity on contemporary voting patterns and crime rates.
Latest book | Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan (Oxford University Press, 2013)
Former institution | Brandeis University
Course to be taught in fall 2015 | Order and Change in Society
In your recent book Klansville, USA, how was your approach as a sociologist different than if you had researched the KKK as a historian or through some other discipline, like American Culture Studies?
One thing that sociologists do is conceive of cases like the KKK as instances of broader related phenomena. In Klansville, USA, I engaged with a longstanding body of theory about how social and racial conflict can be based in patterns of competition between groups. If those bodies see themselves in competition for resources, the identities that can strengthen social boundaries between groups solidify, and you tend to see contention over those resources. So my approach was to apply that theoretical framework as a lens to understand the klan and the environment around which the KKK was able to build a following.
Can you briefly describe your course "Order and Change in Society"? What types of social systems and networks might you discuss?
This course is not conceived as a typical introductory sociology class, which traditionally seeks to provide students with an overview of various core sociological sub-fields. Instead, "Order and Change" examines foundational processes that reproduce the social order but also create possibilities for social change. It’s organized around a set of theoretical approaches that provide this foundation, which we then apply to a wide range of topics - from how status is navigated at cocktail parties, in elite boarding schools, and on public buses; to how social networks can help us get jobs while also shaping our vulnerability to health risks; to the impacts of contemporary policing policies. The ultimate goal of the course is to introduce a set of tools that students can apply to almost any trend or case of interest.
Research interests | Rosenfeld’s research and teaching focus on the political and economic determinants of inequality in the United States and other advanced democracies. His recent scholarship shows in detail the consequences of labor’s decline: curtailed advocacy for better working conditions, weakened support for immigrants’ economic assimilation, and ineffectiveness in addressing wage stagnation among African-Americans.
Latest book | What Unions No Longer Do (Harvard University Press, 2014)
Former institution | University of Washington (Seattle)
Course to be taught in fall 2015 | Sociology of Race and Ethnicity
How did your training as a sociologist help you understand interpret material for your latest book, What Unions No Longer Do?
One aspect of the book that I'm pretty proud of is its expressly interdisciplinary character - it draws on and (one hopes!) speaks to scholarship in sociology, history, economics, and political science. That said, being trained as a sociologist I think led me to ask certain questions that scholars in other disciplines may overlook. To provide just one example, a rich literature in sociology on immigration and economic assimilation among recent arrivals inspired me to look at both the history and current patterns of unionization among recent arrivals to the U.S.
What are you most excited to share with students in your course "Sociology of Race and Ethnicity"?
Given all the international attention to recent events in the St. Louis region, in my upcoming course we will definitely address Ferguson and its aftermath. Before doing so, however, it's important that students have a firm grounding in the sociology of race and ethnicity. So we'll begin by reading works by Rogers Brubaker and others on how race/ethnic groups get defined in the first place. We'll also delve into the history of race - and racial oppression - in the U.S., by reading recent sociology that covers what's remained similar and what's changed regarding racial stratification in this country. A young sociologist at Berkeley, Cybelle Fox, has done some wonderful work on this topic. The course, I should add, is still very much in development, so I expect many of the details will change as we approach the fall semester!
Originally published in June 2015 for the Ampersand: Alumni Edition. For more stories and updates from Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, visit our news and events page or subscribe to the Ampersand weekly newsletter.