At 50, Sociology finds strength in numbers

The Department of Sociology at Western developed around demography and quantitative analysis, a strength it carries to this day. During the 2016-17 academic year, Sociology is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

While part of the university since the 1940s, the earliest sociologists were based in Economics, in what was then the Department of Economics and Political Science. Through the 1960s, Grant Reuber, Department Chair, began to hire sociologists with a focus in demography.

Demography provided a strong quantitative base, which Reuber, an economist by trade, supported, as opposed to what he viewed as “the softer side of sociology.” Demography also set Western out among other sociology departments; only the University of Montreal had a similar focus. The department officially opened in 1966, with five faculty members, offering an undergraduate major and a master’s degree.

“Grant’s vision was to establish a department that was demographically focused, which shares techniques and approach with economics, as they are both quantitative focused areas of study,” said Tracey Adams, current Chair of the Department of Sociology.

Many of the early faculty members came from the United States. “The 1960s were years of rapid growth for all Canadian universities, and there were very few qualified Canadian PhDs at the time,” said T.R. Balakrishnan, one of the first five facultly members in the department.

“Early on, it was clear this department was going to be a leader in Canadian sociology,” professor emerita Gail Perry wrote. “It also served as a ‘training ground’ for students to be active in social movements and social protest.”

Through the 1970s, Western students took a very active role in expressing their opinion on the state of the university. This was most visible in 1974.

Students were upset a professor on a one-year contract did not have her contract renewed. The Sociology Course Union felt, when making the decision, the hiring committee placed too much emphasis on research and not enough on teaching. The union expressed their discontent through protests and occupying the department for three days. A mass rally brought out more than 250 students, and a Committee of Inquiry was formed to look into the hiring decision-making process.

In the end, the committee sided with the department’s decision.

“Students were looking for something to demonstrate about. The students viewed this as a case of worker oppression and grabbed on to it,” said Sam Clark, a professor who joined the department in 1972. “It was a tumultuous period on campus, and the department was seen as rather conservative, especially as compared to others across Canada.”

The protest was reflective of the involvement and passion students had, as well as the debate between what was important to the university – teaching or research.

The 1970s saw growth in both these areas, with the establishment of two research centres – the Population Studies Centre and the Health Care Research Centre, as well as increased enrolment in the masters programs and the establishment of a PhD program in Social Demography in 1978. With that expansion, Western was the only university in Ontario to offer a PhD in Demography.

“With the group of seven demographers, the department was well positioned to attract students,” said Rod Beaujot, who joined the department in 1976 with a focus on population dynamics and demography.

Through the 1980s, the department expanded its teaching and research focus. Faculty collaborated with other Canadian departments with strengths in population studies, especially at the University of Montreal, University of Alberta and with various federal ministries.

Faculty members also secured large research grants, and “the 1980s were a time when the department firmly established itself as a leading institution in the field of sociology not only in Canada but worldwide,” Perry said.

In 1990, the graduate program expanded to be a wider PhD in Sociology. The number of people applying to the program with a demography focus remained dominant initially, but more students turned to other areas of sociology.

Through the 1990s, the first group of faculty members began to retire, and the focus on demography began to shift.

Across the study of sociology “there was a change in the nature of demography from formal to social,” Clark said. “At Western, we also saw the emergence of other areas of focus, including health and aging, and inequality.”

Beaujot continued, “There was a push to have a diverse faculty and to cover various areas of strength. This disciplinary change included a move to the more qualitative and theoretical orientations. In that, Sociology at Western followed a trend in Canada and throughout the world.”

In 2005, a Criminology major was introduced, followed by an honors specialization in 2007, expanding the undergraduate offerings and increasing the number of students.Through the last 15 years, enrollment in graduate programs has increased significantly, reaching a high of 78 in 2011-12.

Alumni from the department have gone on to play important roles, including Deb Matthews, Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development and Deputy Premier of Ontario, who completed her PhD in Sociology while she was MPP for London North Centre. Others have taken roles in other universities or gone to work with Statistics Canada and with other government agencies around the world.

Through the changes, the department has been “a very collegial department, very social, more than other departments or universities which is good for faculty morale and for students,” Balakrishnan said. “I always liked working with the students, enjoyed graduate teaching, and always found it interesting to see how they do after. For a professor, the most gratifying thing is to see where your students go.”

The department still draws on its roots in quantitative studies. The focus for current research is population dynamics and social inequality, with two new hires in this field and two additional hires coming soon.

“I’m happy the department has established an area of concentration for Population Dynamics and Social Inequality,” Beaujot said. “The definition of an area of strength includes a larger proportion of the total department, it gives Western a specialization that stands out in relation to other Canadian universities and that is competitive compared to universities in the United States and Europe.”

“Our goal is to produce research to inform people, but that also has policy relevance,” Adams said. “We are already a national leader with an international profile; we want to enhance this profile in population dynamics, build this reputation and profile. “We strive to maintain a balance between research excellence and developing students, and we want to continue to offer strong undergraduate and graduate offerings.”

As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, the department will establish a speaker series, supported by a donation from Balakrishnan.