is sociology shrinking as a discipline?

On Twitter, Phillip Cohen published some data from a small sample showing that, on average, sociology programs are losing majors. This data must be taken with caution as it is a small sample, but it is instructive.

Should we be worried about this?

  1. Maybe not: The main reason to be chilled out about this is that this is not a collapse of sociology. Rather, it’s about students shifting to vocational fields (like business, policy, and education) or arts & sciences fields with big external labor markets, like economics and computer science. It could be a lot worse.
  2. Maybe we should be worried: Most sociology programs depend on either undergraduate enrollments or big grants generated by population/health/demography researchers. So if we collectively shrank by 7% – in an economic expansion – that’s bad news. After a recession, we should be expanding, at least a little.

I am in between. All non-vocational fields have stalled over the last 30 years or so. So we should be glad that we attract enough attention to mitigate that trend. But sociology is a program built on people – surveys, experimental labs, interviewers, etc. We need people!

If you are a pessimist, you can ask – what can be done to reverse the trend? I have two ideas. One is to add just a little more vocational material and advertise what we do better. For example, soc programs are often good at teaching basic stats. We can also teach some basic coding and emphasize writing more. That should be part of our brand. We teach sociology and it’s something you can use.

Another idea is to expand the intellectual scope of sociology. In theory, sociology is a holistic science about community, culture, and population. In practice, undergrad courses often focus a lot on inequality. It’s important but you can have too much of a good thing. If students think that all we teach is inequality, over and over, then why would bother to major in it rather than just take a course or two?

What do you think?



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Written by fabiorojas

February 5, 2020 at 12:03 am

Posted in uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Why would we be expanding? In good economic times, high ed enrollments overall go down as labor market potential is higher ( Also, I’d want to see enrollments in Soc in relation to enrollments in disciplines that draw on Soc, such as criminal justice/justice studies/law and society. One of the ways to retain high Soc enrollments in such contexts is to make double-majoring easy.

    Liked by 1 person


    February 5, 2020 at 3:59 am

  2. There are so many local and statewide variables that impact enrollment the data don’t say much. What does it mean that VCU has 30 more majors last year v 5 years ago? Regional population growth and the university more aggressively expanding? What does it mean that OSU and GSU have 150 fewer majors than 5 years ago? These programs both still have 500+ majors so they’re not hurting. It’s hard to say anything meaningful without more data/context.

    Agree about a softer inequality emphasis and more seriously promoting ‘vocational’ fields like demography, medical, ccj, enviro, big data/stats, etc. Focus on turning out data wonks who get good private and public sector analyst gigs, advertise and market that to attract future majors. Of course some departments are far better resourced to do this than others.

    Liked by 1 person


    February 5, 2020 at 4:37 am

  3. @Mikalia: Fair points, but we should care independently of other disciplines, because enrollments == resources, like salaries, research supports, ability to sponsor grad training, etc.

    @P: I think I am less interesting in explaining department variation than in the bottom line. If Philip’s calculation is correct, he’s tracked departments that have about 11k majors and it shrank to about 10k. If this random sample is indicative of a bigger trend, then we should be concerned. And some areas, like basic stats every dept can do.



    February 5, 2020 at 4:53 am

  4. I think the sample is too small to say. Over half total decline is explained by three huge programs (GSU, OSU, USC). But in general these are certainly the questions we should be asking. More data!



    February 5, 2020 at 5:10 am

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