Sociology program soars five years after its revival

Washington University students who have matriculated since 2015 have likely never thought twice about the fact that sociology courses are among the wide variety offered to them. Many even choose to major or minor in the discipline, diving into a wide range of important social issues and processes from diverse methodological vantage points. While the availability of sociology as field of study at WashU might seem unremarkable, it is, in reality, the result of a rare and exciting event only five years ago: the revival of the Department of Sociology.

Alia Nahra

Alia Nahra, who graduated in 2020 as a member of one of the first cohorts of students to major in sociology, was drawn to the small, collaborative nature of the department and the young faculty at its helm. As early as her first year, Nahra felt like a valued member of the department, a feeling that she knew was unusual, in the best sense of the word. “As undergraduates, our values and interests were prioritized and incorporated into the department's evolution by everyone involved, from the chair to graduate fellows and everywhere in between,” Nahra said. “I don't think there's any other place where the input of undergraduate students is so integrated into departmental priorities.”

Over the course of her college experience, Nahra remained highly involved in the department, including serving as a teaching assistant for the courses “Social Movements,” “Order and Change in Society,” and “Social Conflict.” This involvement played a large role in shaping Nahra’s post-college trajectory, too, as she now does anti-mass incarceration research and advocacy at the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute at New York University School of Law.

“The department of sociology has been more involved in my personal development than I could have ever expected of my major or employer, and that is very much because of the people they've recruited to build this team. Without the sociology department, I quite simply would not be where I am today,” Nahra said.

Despite its formal youth, the Department of Sociology’s history did not begin in 2015. In fact, the first sociology class at Washington University was taught in 1906 by Roger Nash Baldwin, who later went on to establish the American Civil Liberties Union. The department grew in size and prestige throughout the 20th century. “Department alumni and faculty became leaders in the discipline — two served as presidents of the American Sociological Association, and WashU connections were instrumental in the founding of the flagship journal, the American Sociological Review, in 1936,” explained David Cunningham, one of the first sociology faculty hires in 2015. Cunningham now chairs the department.

(From left) David Cunningham, an expert on the causes and consequences of social conflict; Adia Harvey Wingfield, an expert on workplace experiences of minority workers in predominantly white professional settings; and Jake Rosenfeld, an expert on the political and economic determinants of inequality in the United States and other advanced democracies, joined Washington University in fall 2015 as the first wave of well-established faculty in the new Department of Sociology. (James Byard/Washington University)

When presented with the opportunity to contribute to the rebirth of a core disciplinary department at a distinguished university, Cunningham realized that this was perhaps a “once in a generation event.” The department’s early development was led by Barbara Schaal, the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor and then-dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, as well as Steven Fazzari, the Bert A. and Jeanette L. Lynch Distinguished Professor of Economics, who served as the department's first chair. While this opportunity was unique and exciting, rebuilding an entire department from the ground up is a herculean effort.

Most importantly, the department that was to be rebuilt could not be the same as the one that disbanded a quarter-century earlier. For Cunningham, it had to be “a vibrant and truly 21st-century department,” one that addresses St. Louis roots and history. “The city’s marked inequalities, along with the presence and impact of so many people and organizations dedicated to building a more just and equitable future, speak to what Dr. King referred to as the ‘fierce urgency of now,’” said Cunningham. Simply put, this was both the right place and the right time to rebuild a dynamic and interdisciplinary Department of Sociology.

Since 2015, the department has grown substantially. It continues to gain strong interest in its undergraduate program and classes, welcomed its inaugural cohort of graduate students this fall, and has grown the size its faculty from three to 13, including members who have presented their work in front of Congressional committees, had their research funded by the National Science Foundation, and been elected to major professional associations. Furthermore, the faculty is racially diverse, with about half composed of people of color. According to Adia Wingfield, the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor of Arts & Sciences and one of the initial faculty members hired in 2015, the department’s diversity sets an important precedent. “We show by example that with commitment, resources, and intent, both diversity and distinction are achievable,” she said.

While the Department of Sociology’s growth over the past five years has been immense, Wingfield believes that the department is just getting started. “Our hope is to continue growing, remain a department where faculty continue to do excellent research and teaching, and to stay a place where undergraduate and graduate students can thrive.”