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History of the Department of Sociology

Sociology has a long history at Vassar, extending back over 100 years but the department has existed as an independent entity only since the 1980s.

In 1892, Herbert E. Mills, professor of economics, introduced a course called Social Science, which was intended as “a study of some of the prominent social problems,” ranging from divorce to immigration. In the following year, the Economics Department, along with this single sociology course, became the Department of Economics and Sociology. Several courses on current economic and sociological issues were added in the early 1900s, and a course on Programs of Social Reconstruction was introduced in 1920. Economics and Sociology became a major field in 1927, offering only a combined concentration. During the 1930s, the course offerings in sociology were significantly expanded, incorporating classes such as Social Institutions, Principles of Sociology, Social Measurement (a research methods course), and a Seminar in Social Problems. Beginning in 1943, the department also encompassed anthropology and became the Department of Economics, Sociology, and Anthropology. Students in the department were allowed to major in any of the three fields and, at that time, a course in Social Theory was introduced. The department’s first field work opportunities were offered in 1945. Anthropology and sociology split off as a separate department from economics in 1968, at which time a number of courses in more specific sociological subjects were incorporated. Classes dealing with gender and racial issues in sociology were created in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Over the past three decades, the Sociology Department has undergone significant changes as it emerged from a joint Anthropology-Sociology Department in the early 1980s. Early on, sociology faculty designed a novel introductory course centered around the “classical tradition” in sociological theory. This, along with reconfigured requirements for the major and a required senior thesis, contributed to the transformation of sociology at Vassar. The ensuing increase in course enrollments, numbers of majors and seniors writing theses resulted in marked growth in the size of the department in the 1990s and the 2000s. Today Sociology is a vibrant department characterized by a diverse faculty all of whom are engaged with multidisciplinary programs and strongly committed to social justice and the discipline’s relevance for grappling with the complexities of a contemporary world.

During the academic year 2010-2011, the sociology faculty was involved in a series of discussions on how to support our majors intellectually and personally while they work on their senior thesis projects. As a result, the department established a new one-year long course, Senior Thesis Seminar, and has been offering it since the fall of 2011. The seminar has successfully provided our majors with regular and collaborative settings where they can exchange and share feedback from seminar instructors and their classmates throughout the entire process of thesis writing.