July 26, 2000
One of the first of its kind in America, the Tulane sociology department celebrates its 100th anniversary this year with an eye to the future. While not something the faculty and staff of the department think deeply about on a day-to-day basis, the department's rich history does still resonate.
"It provides a degree of pride and a sense of tradition," admits Joel Devine, professor and chair of the department. "It also seems to bring with it an additional degree of responsibility."
A new academic discipline at the turn of the 20th century, the study of sociology actually started at Tulane in 1895, under the direction of John Ficklin, professor of history and political science. In that first year, course offerings included "Comparative Economic and Social Conditions of Workingmen" and "Race Problems."
The university formally recognized the department in 1900 with the hiring of a single faculty member as professor and chair. In its first decades, the department slowly evolved its identity, morphing first into the College of Commerce and Business Administration and then, by 1927, the School of Social Work.
In 1949, as a result of the postwar reorganization of the university, the faculties of sociology and anthropology joined as a multidisciplinary department. It was not until 1969 that the disciplines again became independent. Throughout its many incarnations, however, the department has maintained a graduate program.
The 1990s brought a new sort of change for sociology as advances in research methods and analytical tools changed the way sociologists work. For instance, Tulane researchers can now access in a matter of minutes data that at one time would have required weeks of waiting, says Devine.
"A dozen years ago we used to send nine tapes to Ann Arbor where data would be loaded and returned. Now you can go directly to the Web for information from government agencies," Devine says. While benefiting from the computer age, the department also has addressed major shifts in traditional funding sources.
"I think many faculties and university administrators have realized that the period of incredible growth in the late '60s has long come to a close," Devine says.
Seeking to counteract financial constraints while maintaining its tradition of research, the department has chosen to focus on areas of natural strength, such as urban issues.
"Being in New Orleans was helpful, vis-a-vis certain urban issues," says Devine. "We have this environment that exhibits so many classic urban dimensions and provides a laboratory."
Conducting studies on issues ranging from inner-city drug use to poverty and HIV-infection rates, the department's urban focus has broadened with the addition of several new faculty members specializing in diverse areas of urban studies.
In the last year alone, three assistant professors-Carl Bankston, Jim Elliott and Melinda Milligan-have joined the department, bringing the number of full-time faculty members to 15. According to Devine, some faculty members are involved in projects with immediate application while others specialize in areas having long-term implications for urban problems.
"These and other substantive, theoretical, and methodological differences make for a more stimulating environment," Devine says.
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