A Brief History of Sociology at Columbia University

Historically, the Department of Sociology at Columbia University was seminal in establishing Sociology within the academic system after World War II. Columbia University remains the only Ivy League institution at which a distinguished Sociology Department is central to institutional identity. At present, the Department is building on these foundations in a new phase of expansion and development.

For nearly forty years after Columbia University's re-founding as a research university in the 1890s, Franklin Giddings was Professor of Sociology. An early theorist, he was also influenced by positivism and strongly emphasized quantitative methods, thus founding a defining feature of the Department's tradition—simultaneous attention to "Theory and Methods." Though Giddings was highly productive and a stimulating lecturer, he was not an institution builder and the Department grew slowly. Its scope and depth advanced considerably with the appointment, during the inter-war period, of Robert S. Lynd and Robert MacIver.

Lynd, together with his wife, Helen, had just published Middletown, a classic ethnographic study of an American city. Its close study of everyday assumptions and practices was perhaps the first sociological study to reach the general public and thus to influence the broader culture. Lynd was later to write Knowledge for What?, a study of ideological assumptions shaping social science research; its fuller impact was not felt until the discipline responded to American society's problems in the latter part of the twentieth century. While Lynd stimulated empirical studies, Robert MacIver wrote large-scale theoretical works of social and political theory inspired by classic liberal thought.

Other sociologists contributed as members of the Barnard College faculty. William Ogburn, important in the development of quantitative methods, was later an editor of Recent Social Trends in the United States , a comprehensive survey of American society in the early Depression and an early instance of social analysis in the public service. For more than half a century, Barnard's leading sociologist was Mirra Komarovsky, who became an influential sociologist of the family and a pioneer of the sociology of gender.

The appointments in 1941 of Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld were made in part to resolve differences between MacIver and Lynd over the Department's future direction. Merton and Lazersfeld were expected to sustain Lynd's and MacIver's respective emphases on empirical and theoretical styles of sociology. Instead, they found common ground in research inspired by "middle-range theory"—testable propositions, derived from fundamental theory, addressing observable phenomena. Their collaboration modernized Giddings' founding vision and pervasively influenced the discipline all over the world.

Merton was a leading sociological thinker during the era in which functional theory was dominant. Contributing to the discipline's intellectual foundations in many publications, he also created an empirical sociology of science and invented focus group research, to mention but two contributions of many. Merton's 1949 volume, Social Theory and Social Structure, was only the first of his several now classic volumes of his theoretical and empirical work. Among his many honors, he received almost thirty honorary doctorates from American and foreign universities.

Lazarsfeld developed survey research into a leading research method—including the first studies of voting behavior—and developed modern market research, mathematical sociology, and mass communications research. Founder of the Bureau of Applied Social Research, the first modern American sociological research institute and thus the ancestor of today's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP). Lazarsfeld showed how the organizational requirements of sustained empirical research could be integrated into the structure of universities.

During Merton and Lazarsfeld's long collaboration, which extended into the 1970s, the Department played a leading role in the national growth of sociology and the other social sciences after World War II. In addition, the Department included such luminaries as Daniel Bell, who conducted broad ranging analyses of culture, ideology, society and politics; C. Wright Mills, who brought radical and critical perspectives to some of America's and Sociology's most significant concerns; and W. J. Goode, who put family sociology on an international footing. Subsequent appointments included Amitai Etzioni, who initiated the Department's work in Social Policy, and Ronald Burt, a leading figure in network analysis.

The Department also produced students—among them, Peter Blau, James Coleman, Lewis Coser, Juan Linz, S. M. Lipset, Immanuel Wallerstein, and later, Rogers Brubaker, who subsequently became widely influential in cultural, political and organizational sociology, rational choice theory, world systems theory and the study of nationalism. Four of these former students also held appointments in the Department. Among them was Peter Blau who became widely known for his work in stratification, exchange theory and structural sociology, and returned in 1971 as the Quetelet Professor. Former students who taught in the Department went on to notable administrative positions—Jonathan Cole and Harriet Zuckerman, sociologists of science, became, respectively, Provost of Columbia University and vice-president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Columbia University's financial difficulties in the 1970s and 1980s caused shrinkage in all the social sciences, a period from which the Department has vigorously emerged. Nonetheless, strong senior faculty were appointed during this period, including many currently serving. Illustratively: Herbert J. Gans, who formally retired from the faculty in 2007, continues his studies in ethnography, social policy and the mass media; Priscilla Ferguson, works on the theory of culture;  Allan Silver works on friendship, trust and theory; Seymour Spilerman studies the inheritance and distribution of wealth; and Harrison White applies advanced quantitative methods to the study of markets, networks and organizations.

The Department's energetic current development is grounded in its past and looks toward new initiatives. The interplay of significant theory and careful methodology continues at its core. Charles Tilly, coming to Columbia at a pivotal moment in 1996, was significant not only to the development of Columbia Sociology but to the discipline's embracing contentious politics study.  The appointments of Karen Barkey, Peter Bearman, Yinon Cohen, Gil Eyal, Debra Minkoff, Saskia Sassen, David Stark, Diane Vaughan, and Sudhir Venkatesh over the next decade brought new intellectual energy from a diverse range of substantive areas of sociological research to our department. The recent tenure of Josh Whitford, Alondra Nelson, and Shamus Khan further strengthened the department's core senior faculty. 

In addition, the Department maintains active teaching and research ties with sociologists at the School of International and Public Affairs, the Graduate Schools of Business, Journalism and Social Work, Barnard College, Teachers College, and Socio-Medical Sciences as well as numerous other programs at the uptown Health Sciences Campus. Sociology Department students and faculty are particularly active in its various research centers and workshops.

Today, Columbia sociology is a vibrant community of scholars and thinkers, deeply engaged in research and teaching on the central concerns of the discipline.