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reflections on the chicago sociology phd circa 2000

It has been 17 years since I got my PhD at the University of Chicago in sociology. I offer some reflections about the department and my experience in it. First, let me start with a few comments about the department’s overall trajectory. Within the history of the discipline, it is sometimes said that you had two major waves. There was an initial “Chicago school” in the early 1900s and then a second wave in the 1950s. The first was mainly about urban studies and social organizations. The second included some of the major interactionists.

When I arrived in the late 1990s, the department was in a fairly different phase. It was at the end of what might be called the “all star” team version of the department. Sure, Chicago still retained a focus on urban sociology, but the 1990s department was a department that managed to assemble an incredibly high impact roster of people at the senior and junior levels. Among the more advanced ranks, you had folks like James Coleman, William Julius Wilson, and Ed Laumann. You had incredibly productive mid-career folks like Linda Wait, Andy Abott, Marta Tienda, and George Steinmetz. And they also hired insanely talented people fresh out of graduate school, like Bill Axinn, Roger Gould, Kim Weeden, Leslie Salzinger, and Patrick Hueveline.

When I got there, this was falling apart. Retirement and death claimied some of the most prominent folks, like James Davis or James Coleman. More than once, I was told, “Jim was a good guy, I wish you could have met him.” A few of the most senior folks, like Wilson and Tienda, moved to other schools. Then, a lot of mid-career professors were raided. Many junior faculty left pre-tenure. No “all star” team stays together forever and the program was moving on to the next phase.

What this meant for students is that the graduate student experience was highly bifurcated. If you were lucky to be associated with faculty who had well established large projects (e.g., Laumann, Sampson, or Waite), you could easily obtain outstanding mentorship and financial support. This was important because, at that time, teaching slots were rare and many students had to self-finance their graduate education. If you were not associated with one of these “workshops” you could easily fall through the cracks. Many faculty did not bring in giant grants nor did they have extensive practices of effectively mentoring people via participating in projects. This pretty unequal system, in my view, explains the extreme variance in outcomes. Some folks co-authored on well developed projects and moved into research positions, while many failed to finish the program at all and struggled for years.

Personally, I was on the periphery of the group of faculty that ran the big workshops. I got some support, but did not work on any of the big projects of the era.  Some of my ideas came by hanging out with people who worked on these projects. My first article, for example, came from a discussion of sexual scripts with a friend who worked on Laumann’s sex survey data. My advisor was nice to get me an office, a good one actually, due to his connections with the big projects happening on campus.

A second thing I want to focus on was the intellectual tenor of the department. One thing you will notice if you examine the department rosters of the 1990s and early 2000s is that Chicago sociology was very unlike other sociology programs. Sociology programs tend to come in a few flavors. One is the demography/health program. Another is the critical social science program where people focus on the trifecta of class, race, and gender. You will find a few programs that focus on historical or qualitative methods. These program models reflect the mainstream of the sociological profession.

Aside from a very central core of people who did urban studies, the rest of the department was all over the place. They might hire a science studies ethnographer (Knorr-Cetina), a nuts and bolts labor market scholar (Kim Weeden) or a dude that did hermenuetics (Glaeser). Or just for kicks, a leading globalization scholar (Sassen). The first year curriculum had a two course sequence called introduction to social inquiry. Instead of teaching actual core models of sociology, it was really an intro to what each person found interesting. I got an odd co-taught course on social control (Bidwell/Gould), then a course on networks (Laumann), and a course on social conflict theory (Levine).

The result of this herky jerky curriculum is that you got introduced to an amazing range of work, but you did not understand what the core of the profession is like. Ironically, I got a very traditional Marx/Weber/Durkheim theory course but, as most readers know, classical theory is not where sociology is at right now.

So when I moved to Indiana, I was relatively unprepared. For example, I had no idea that so many departments were built on demography or health. I also learned that my research did not fit well in sociology and was more interdisciplinary, though it fit well within the milieu at Chicago. On a more professional level, I was not prepared for the world of journals. This was mainly because I had, through accident, taken lots of courses from book oriented people. Also, I completely was not prepared for a world where inequality was becoming the dominant research paradigm in sociology. At my program, they had some truly outstanding inequality scholars, but stratification was just one course among many and you could easily avoid it.

Overall, I am very lucky to have attended a school with great faculty. But in retrospect, I now understand that it was a program in transition and, oddly, relatively unorthodox compared to its peers.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 28, 2020 at 12:26 am

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I had a very different experience in the Chicago sociology PhD program. The prelim exam after the first year of study ensured that we all got a strong understanding of what the discipline is, and how the major subfields approach the study of social groups. Regardless of any idiosyncrasies in the ways certain courses might have been taught, the structure of the program provided a strong grounding in core concepts of the discipline. My PhD is from 1998.

    Liked by 2 people

    Mignon Moore

    April 28, 2020 at 10:16 am

  2. Hey, Mignon!

    That’s an excellent point. Makes a lot of sense.

    My beef with the prelim as it was practiced back then was two fold. First, a lot of students around my time approached the exam cram school style – read summaries and memorize buzzwords to be regurgitated on an exam. So if you did the readings, you learned a ton – I certainly did. But many students did not.

    Second, I am a big believer in repetition. Some sections of the prelim were never linked to courses. It often happened that a topic was on the prelim but not taught in a course. For example, there was a section on population, but no demographer until Patrick was hired circa 1999.

    Liked by 1 person

    fabiorojas

    April 28, 2020 at 1:14 pm


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