A Q&A with Department Chair Mario Small

(December 2023)

Mario Small joined Columbia as a visiting professor in 2021, became Quetelet Professor of Social Science in 2022, and served his first semester as chair of the Department of Sociology in Fall 2023. Although he’s still relatively new to Knox Hall, he’s already become a familiar sight to students, faculty, and staff. It’s easy to catch him on his way to one of his graduate seminars, grabbing coffee in the department kitchen, or busy at work in his new fifth-floor office.

We’re all familiar with Mario’s published work. But what are some of his plans as department chair? What research projects is he working on? Just as importantly, what music has he been listening to? Below, read Mario's answers to these questions and more. 

Mario Small illustrated

What are some goals that you'd like to accomplish as department chair? 

The first goal of any chair in a strong institution should be to not screw things up. Columbia Sociology has an extraordinary history and strong reputation, and my primary objective is to do what I can to maintain it. A second goal involves rebuilding. A few years ago, the department lost several faculty members in a row. In the years since, the department has hired aggressively---Bruce Western was very effective. So, I hope to follow in his footsteps. Given our capacities, Columbia Sociology should be nothing less than a top 3 department. A third goal involves rebuilding community, as it is now clear that life post COVID will not fully resemble life before it. We need to figure out what we want our new community to look like. I would like that project to involve faculty, students at all levels, staff, and our alumni, with whom it is far easier to reconnect than in the past. I've been talking to a lot of people to understand and crystallize our collective aspirations.

You've been a member of a number of excellent sociology departments over the years. What do you find to be distinctive about Columbia sociology?

Some departments are outward-facing, concerned with social problems and policy; some, inward-facing, concerned with fundamental questions and scientific inquiry. Columbia Sociology leans inward, but with important outward elements. So, people tend to be more concerned with solving their intellectual puzzles than with whether the NY Times wrote about their work, which is refreshing. But they also study important questions (inequality, discrimination, autism, etc.) and engage with the world beyond academia (criminal justice, trust in science, etc.). It's a wonderful mix. Beyond that, scholars at Columbia tend to be both ambitious and entrepreneurial about their intellectual work, and our department reflects that in its many centers, initiatives, and collaborations.  

What are some research projects that you're currently working on? 

I tend to work on networks, on inequality, and on methods. On networks, I've been studying mobilization, or how people decide whom in their network to turn to when they need something. I recently wrote a paper showing it is often either other people or their context that actually decides for them. I am finishing another one on why, when Americans need to talk about their problems, they often avoid rather than turn to the people they are closest to. It turns out that "too close for comfort" is more common than many old models about "strong ties" predicted.

On inequality, I'm working on several papers as part of our new lab, the Data and Racial Inequality Project (website in beta). Most of these involve financial access in low-income neighborhoods or the extent to which people are segregated based on not only where they live but also where they go when traveling every day throughout the city. The idea behind DRIP is to ask and answer entirely new questions about inequality given the many types of data now available.

On methods, I have been working to raise standards in qualitative research and its relationship to quantitative methods. I recently published, with various collaborators, a book on assessing qualitative methods, a paper on evaluating interview studies, and an argument for why "big data" research needs field methods. I am working on a paper now trying formalize what researchers mean when they say they have "attained saturation."

What do you think are the most exciting developments in sociology right now? And what do you think sociologists should be paying more attention to?

I think the vast amounts of new data on just about every new aspect of our lives have created enormous opportunity. I am seeing a lot of interesting work on text analysis, on machine learning, and on digital ethnography. People are also combining qualitative and quantitative methods in interesting ways. Substantively, there is interesting and important work on the rise in political polarization, the rapidly changing impact of technology and AI on society, and the contestation around gender and sexuality categories. Many of the perennial topics, such as racial inequality and criminal justice, are gaining new life because of interesting new data: we can now track which neighborhoods had their residents visit which establishments when, and which police officers did what while stopping whom where. It is extraordinary and of course scary. So, we can study entirely new ethical questions. It is an unusually interesting time to be a sociologist concerned with data.

If you weren't a sociologist, what would be your career?

I would probably be a musician, most likely a percussionist. If not, I would be my initial plan, a programmer or systems engineer focused on software. My college job was to go around campus fixing staff and faculty computers. 

What is the last song/artist you listened to? And what is the first song/artist you remember loving when you were young?

The last two were Concha Buika doing a version of Luz de Luna, and Paul Simon doing an original demo for Duncan that has the same chords but entirely different lyrics and melody. Both are beautiful. 

I have always loved music, but the first song about which I have a distinct memory is Ruben Blades' Sin Tu Cariño. I wasn't that young, maybe 10 or so. I remember hearing a song in the radio that was new to me, and completely beautiful and interesting. This was a time when Ruben Blades was very into bossa nova and its chords and melodies, and composers at the time were experimenting with jazz and bombas in salsa. I ran to my stereo, popped in a cassette, and started recording. That recording, missing the first minute or so of the song, was the one I listened to well into my twenties.

What is your favorite thing to do in New York City that you could not do in Cambridge?

1. Go to Harlem, walking the streets, shops, and restaurants off 125th. 

2. Buying my children mamey milkshakes less than 1 mile from home. Scratch that: buying my children mamey milkshakes. 


Congratulations on finishing your first semester as department chair, Mario!