Sociology became a recognized academic discipline in the United States in the 1890s. The first department of sociology was established at the University of Chicago in 1892. During a time of rapid industrialization, massive immigration, and sustained growth of cities, sociology emerged as a broad “practical” field of study that focused heavily on social problems and social reform.
John R. Commons in the Department of Political Science and Sociology taught the first sociology course at Oberlin in 1891. An 1888 graduate of the college, he later became an eminent institutional economist at the University of Wisconsin.
W. I. Thomas, a professor in the English department for four years, was, in 1894, the first person to hold the title, professor of sociology. He went on to the University of Chicago to become a well-known scholar.
Some of the sociology courses taught during those early years were entitled Christian Sociology, Historical Sociology, Practical Sociology—Criminology, Practical Sociology—Charities; and Socialism and Social Reform. The college established a Department of Economics and Sociology in 1910, with majors possible in either division. Sociology courses were listed separately in 1914, but it is not clear when a separate department was established.
The sociology curriculum began to take on a more contemporary form with the introduction of such courses as Social Organization; Representative Theories of Sociology; Race Problems; and The Immigrant.
In the 1920s, Newell L. Sims introduced courses in anthropology, a subject that had not been taught at the college for some years. By 1937, the Department of Sociology consisted of three full-time faculty members. While they gave some attention to anthropology, their courses were primarily sociological in character.
A pivotal change occurred in 1944, when the college, seeking to strengthen the department and give it a new direction, appointed Loren Eiseley, a noted anthropologist, as chair. By the time of his departure three years later, he had greatly strengthened the anthropology curriculum and changed the name to the Department to Sociology and Anthropology.
An era of consolidation and growth began in 1947, when all three members of the department were newly appointed. Richard R. Myers was a specialist in industrial sociology, and George E. Simpson, the chair, and J. Milton Yinger were trained in sociology and anthropology. Building upon the foundation laid by Eiseley, they began to enrich the curriculum and to bring the two disciplines into an integrated program of studies with a single major. With increased student enrollments, the size of the department expanded steadily, reaching eight faculties—five sociologists and three anthropologists—by 1969. This increase in faculty size made it possible to build the curriculum into a richly diversified and comprehensive program of study.
For several decades, the department has been notable for the vigorous research activities and scholarship of its faculty; many who have gained national and international reputations for their scholarly and professional accomplishments. After flourishing for over 40 years as the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, the anthropologists, for professional reasons, petitioned to break away and form their own department. Thus it happened that in 1987: The Department of Sociology was reinstituted; this time as a five-person unit.
The curriculum of the Department of Sociology incorporates major specialties in the field of sociology, and emphasizes comparative, international, and interdisciplinary approaches to the study of society. Members of the department are dedicated to maintaining high standards and creativity in teaching, course development, and scholarship, which is the essence of the proud heritage of more than 120 years of sociology at Oberlin College.