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Historical Overviews

Simpson and Johnson, 1976


The Department of Sociology at Chapel Hill was founded by Howard W. Odum in 1920. Its history fits roughly into three periods. From 1920 until about the time of World War II was the heyday of regionalism and of what would now be called “policy-relevant” research focusing on problems of the South. The years from World War II until the early 1960’s were a transitional period of departmental growth and diversification of faculty interests. Since the early 1960’s we have had further growth and an almost total turnover of staff, leading to relative stabilization of senior faculty composition and areas of specialization.

Prior to 1920 the nearest thing to sociology at Chapel Hill was the Department of Rural Social Economics, founded in 1916 by Odum’s good friend, E.C. Branson. It was Branson and President Harry Woodburn Chase, another friend of Odum’s, who were responsible for bringing Odum to Chapel Hill as Kenan Professor of Sociology. Among Odum’s legacies to social science are the Department of Sociology (1920), Social Forces (1922), the Institute for Research in Social Science (1924), and a staggering record of research, writing, and public service. Odum was also instrumental in the creation of the Department of City and Regional Planning (1946).

During the fall quarter of 1920 Odum was the only member of the new department, but early in 1921 he brought in Jesse F. Steiner, a specialist in community organization, and later in the year Harold D. Meyer, who was to gain distinction in the field of recreation administration. In 1923 Wiley B. Sanders, a criminologist joined the staff. In 1924 the Institute for Research in Social Science, with its handsome stipend of $1,500 for research assistants, began to attract young scholars to the social sciences at Chapel Hill. Katharine Jocher and Guy B. Johnson arrived in 1924, Harriet L. Herring in 1925, Rupert B. Vance and Lee M. Brooks in 1926. In 1927 Ernest R. Groves, a distinguished scholar in family relations, and T. J. Woofter, a statistician, accepted professorships. After Branson’s death, Rural Social Economics merged with Sociology, and S.H. Hobbs, Jr., who had been Branson’s understudy, joined the staff. Excluding Steiner and Woofter, who left after a few years, and one or two “transients” such as L.L. Bernard (1928-30), the persons mentioned above joined the staff early and remained until their retirement. Ten of them accumulated nearly 400 years of service, or an average of 40 years each—an astounding record of stability for an academic department! The last of the old guard (Johnson and Vance) retired in 1969. Two members (Jocher and Johnson) still live in Chapel Hill.

In 1933 the American Council on Education published an evaluation of graduate academic departments in American Universities. At Chapel Hill eleven departments were listed as “adequate,” but only one of these, Sociology, was rated as “distinguished.” Not bad for a department which was only thirteen years old! The tradition of excellence has been continued, and subsequent evaluations have rated this department among the best in the nation.

Anthropology at Chapel Hill began in 1930 under the wing of Sociology when Johnson started a course in Social Anthropology. Gradually other courses were added, and in 1941 the name of the department was changed to Sociology and Anthropology. Following the arrival of John P. Gillin in 1946, anthropological work was greatly expanded, and in 1965 Anthropology became a separate department. Today it has a faculty of 14 and offers 75 courses.

Prior to Work War IIthe sociology staff was relatively small. The main teaching and research emphases were in folk culture, race relations, regionalism, demography, and social theory. During and after the war the faculty grew. Its areas of interests were considerably broadened to include sociology of the community, industrial and organizational sociology, medical sociology, social psychology, and expanded emphasis on statistical methods. Among the faculty members who served for a time and then moved on were Gordon W. Blackwell, E. William Noland, George L. Simpson, Jr., N.J. Demerath, Reuben Hill, Charles E. Bowerman, Daniel O. Price, and Ernest Q. Campbell. The only oldtimers remaining from the 1950’s are Harvey L. Smith (1952) and Richard L. Simpson (1958).

Beginning in 1963 the faculty grew very rapidly, and much of its growth came through raiding full professors from other institutions which included Yale, Michigan, QQueens, Cornell, Antioch, and Chicago. These senior faculty members snatched from elsewhere were Gerhard Lenski (1963), Robert N. Wilson (1963), H.M. Blalock (1965), Amos H. Hawley (1966), Henry A. Landsberger (1968), Everett K. Wilson (1968), David R. Heise (1971), and Duncan MacRae, Jr. (1971). All of them except Blalock remain on the staff. Other current staff members are recent Ph.D’s or senior faculty who were recruited as assistant or associate professors and were promoted to tenured ranks. These include the present chairman, Krishnan Namboodiri. Faculty size has been stable since the early 1970’s with about 25 members.

Our research and graduate training cover a broad spectrum of fields. Major concentrations include historical and cross-national comparative sociology, population and ecology, organizations and occupations, the family, social psychology, medical sociology, and methodology. Graduate students take a common core of theory and methods courses, then can specialize in a variety of fields including those mentioned above and others besides. Everett K. Wilson’s seminar in the teaching of sociology has been nationally recognized and much emulated. The number of graduate students reached nearly a hundred in the late 1960’s. We deliberately cut it back to about fifty students, with rigorously selected entering cohorts of fifteen, in order to assure close student-faculty contact and good job placements for our Ph.D.’s in a shrinking job market.

Most of our undergraduate teaching is in “service” courses for non-majors. Total enrollment in all undergraduate and graduate courses in 1967-77 was 5345. Our 150 majors take required courses in theory and methods, and can then choose from a large variety of specialized courses. M. Richard Cramer, our chief undergraduate adviser, has developed a vigorous Sociology Interest Group for majors, a strong orientation program, and an annual Career Night for sociology majors and other undergraduates interested in social science careers.

We can point with pride to many honors and accomplishments. (If there is anything we should view with alarm, this is not the place.) Odum, Vance, Bernard, Leonard S. Cottrell, Jr., Hawley, and Blalock have served or been elected to serve as presidents of ASA. Several of our faculty members and numerous alumni have presided over the Southern Sociological Society. This year, our building houses simultaneously the presidents of ASA (Hawley) and SSS (Lenski). Still others have been presidents or chairpersons of the Population Association of America, the Latin American Studies Association, the Society for Social Biology, the Policy Studies Association, NCSA, and several ASA sections. Many of our faculty and alumni have held other high offices in these and other academic societies. We take special pride in our alumni. The department has awarded 391 M.A. and 288 Ph.D. degrees. Their recipients have had productive academic and government careers in North Carolina, across the nation, and around the world. Social Forces is the best of the journals associated with regional, sociological societies, and, with subscribers in more than 70 countries, the only one that seriously challenges ASR and AJS in its international distinction; polls have consistently rated it one of the “big three.”

The department boasts a long record of being ahead of its time and unafraid of controversy. Johnson spoke out, and acted, on behalf of racial desegregation during the 1930’s, undeterred by a barrage of insults and threatening letters from all over the State. (Be it noted that Simpson wrote this sentence and insisted that it be kept.) Jocher and Herring were full professors long before anyone had heard of affirmative action.

We are proud of our past, but perhaps we should not dwell on it so much. One of Satchel Paige’s maxims for assuring longevity is, “Never look back. Something may be gaining on you.” The department at Chapel Hill is not resting on its laurels, but staying busy with an eye to a productive future.

BY: Guy B. Johnson and Richard L. Simpson

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