Conversations in Michigan Sociology

As one of the largest and most methodologically and topically diverse departments in the United States, the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan is well-situated to confront issues related to the discipline.    Accordingly, considering Michigan sociology in particular, a more specific question is how might the faculty of the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan uniquely respond to, challenge, or manage specific conditions in its pursuit of scholarship and intellectual engagement?  These larger and more specific questions comprise the agenda for the department's annual Conversations in Michigan Sociology symposium.

2011 - Interdisciplinarity: Is There a Common Ground for Sociology?

As a multi-method discipline, sociology is uniquely situated in academia’s growing investment in interdisciplinarity.   Its various methodological orientations – demographic, historical, qualitative, and survey-based, to name a few – foster bridge-building to other disciplines.   Comparative historical sociologists’ engagement of historians, survey-based and demographic sociologists’ connection with statistics, and qualitative sociologists’ collusion with anthropology are a few examples.   Furthermore, traditional topical areas such as race, gender, sexuality, crime, and formal organizations have been incorporated into newer disciplines such that sociology serves as both a formative contributor and a robust intellectual neighbor to fields such as African American studies, Latino studies, public policy, criminology, communication studies, organizational studies, cultural studies, social work, urban studies, and women’s studies, among others.  In each of these fields, sociology has maintained a visible presence, even if the value of that presence is variable across these fields.  

Topical specialization has facilitated interdisciplinarity in another, equally significant, way.  This is  reflected by the existence of 48 sections of the American Sociological Association (ASA)  that operate as distinct and autonomous sociological communities in pursuit of a scholarly agenda without regard for any continuity or consistency in promoting a generally shared outcome for or effect upon the discipline.  Of course, the proliferation of these sections does not, in and of itself, reflect interdisciplinarity.  However, as many ASA sections rather easily identify with and form scholarly and intellectual relationships with disciplines and disciplinary communities outside of sociology, this adds to the sense that a defining feature of the discipline is that sociologists have extensive, formally structured relationships to scholarly communities beyond the parameters of sociology, and those relationships often may be more durable than those occurring within the discipline.

Some argue that the emergence of interdisciplinarity and the organizational dynamics of the American Sociological Association have left the discipline without an intellectual core.  Instead, as those embracing this sentiment argue, sociology is little more than an amalgamation of research areas and communities that share nothing more than a commitment to some notion of the social as a sphere worthy of scholarly consideration.  Taking this into account, a looming question for contemporary sociology is what, if anything, constitutes common intellectual and scholarly ground for the discipline in an era of intense interdisciplinarity and (if considered from the perspective of the proliferation of ASA sections) seeming fragmentation.

The University of Michigan's 2011 Conversations in Michigan Sociology symposium dealt with this very issue.  The panelists were:

  • Ray De Vries, Professor, Bioethics/Medical Education/Obstetrics and Gynecology, Medical School (Sociology Ph.D.)
  • Muge Gocek, Associate Professor, Sociology and Women’s Studies
  • David Harding, Associate Professor, Sociology and Ford School of Public Policy
  • Karin Martin, Professor, Sociology and Women’s Studies
  • Yu Xie, Professor, Sociology and Statistics

Click the following link to see a video of the 2011 event:

Interdisciplinarity: Is There a Common Ground for Sociology

2012 - 'Sociological Theory' Contra 'Theories in Sociology'

Sociology continues to wrestle with the matter of how to come to terms with general sociological theory as a part of the sociological enterprise.  At bare minimum, general sociological theory serves as a core element of graduate training programs and undergraduate program curricula, serving long-standing roles as a core part of the curricular content for introductory seminars in PhD. programs and as content for staple theory courses in undergraduate programs.  Otherwise, there has been considerable debate about what role such theory should or should not fulfill in the discipline.

Scholars who pursue their research in any of the various subfields of the discipline continue to draw more or less (and sometimes not at all) from generalized sociological theory as they pursue their research and teaching.  The distancing that some sociologists have maintained from generalized theory is partly due to the establishment of robust theoretical camps and models in the major subfields of the discipline (examples include the blossoming theoretical traditions in culture, gender, organizational studies, and race and ethnic relations, to name a few areas) that, in their minds, more effectively advance sociological inquiry.  Otherwise, some sociologists regard the work of classical theorists as well as more contemporary figures who have been defined as “macro” theorists or generalists (e.g., Bourdieu, Giddens, Habermas, Luhmann, etc.) as less relevant to various subfields in the discipline than it is for broader discussions of the state of modern society.

The Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan is a unique arena in which to consider the question of what to do with and about generalized theory.  Its faculty pursues field research of various sorts such that the department maintains no “in-house” generalized theorists, but rather various individuals who employ generalized theory to different degrees and with different intensities.  Hence, the questions motivating this year’s conversation are:

  • What role does generalized theory play for you in the subfields in which you conduct your research and reaching?
  • From the vantage point of the subfields that you work in, what do you regard as the fate of generalized theory in sociology (that is, what future promise or challenges remain for generalized theory in your subfields)? And,
  • Reflecting upon the discipline more generally, in your mind does sociology continue to need and/or benefit from generalized theory?

The University of Michigan's 2012 Conversations in Michigan Sociology symposium deals with this very issue.  The panelists are:

Click the following link to see a video of the 2012 event:

"Sociological Theory" Contra "Theories on Sociology"


2012 - Michigan at 80: Advancing Research Methods in the Discipline

In its 80-year history, the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan has served as a leader in the production of empirical studies that have affected the worlds of policy, business, and community organizing, aside from the discipline, itself.  Although many factors have played a role in helping the department to achieve this level of success, one critical factor has been the department’s historic commitment to rigorous methodological training.  To commemorate eighty years of advancing methodological insight and excellence in Sociology, a selection of the department’s senior faculty who have been leaders in developing and applying specific methods for sociological analysis will address the following questions:

  1. Why did you commit to your chosen method for sociological investigation?
  2. What has been your intellectual and scholarly experience at Michigan in pursuing research with your chosen method?
  3. What is your sense of the present and future possibilities and challenges for pursuits in your area of methodological specialty in Michigan sociology?

The 80th birthday symposium deals with these very issues.  The panelists are:

  • Mark Chesler, Professor Emeritus of Sociology
  • Reynolds Farley, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Research Professor Emeritus of Population Studies
  • Max Heirich, Professor Emeritus of Sociology
  • Albert Hermalin, Professor Emeritus of Sociology
  • James House, Angus Campbell Distinguished University Professor or Survey Research, Sociology, and Publich Policy and Research Professor of Epidemiology
  • Gayl Ness, Professor Emeritus of Sociology

Click the following link to see a video of the event

Michigan at 80: Advancing Research Methods in the Discipline

2013 - The Fate of Social Class in Contemporary American Sociology

Throughout the history of American sociology, and the history of sociology at the University of Michigan in particular, social class has remained an important concept for analysis and argument.  Yet, its importance in sociology has not allowed the term to serve as the basis for a formally crystallized subfield of the sociology of class.  Indeed, what many regard as the other two central concepts in the discipline, race and gender, have become bases for the creation of formidable and distinct subfields.  Social class, in contrast, remains a topic of extreme concern and focus for sociological inquiry without having been situated so precisely in the discipline. Hence, the questions motivating this year's conversation are:

  • How and why is the concept of social class salient in your research agenda?
  • From your scholarly vantage point, is there an intellectual crisis in thinking about and/or researching class in American sociology?
  • Does class hold a space of scholarly significance in sociology that is distinct from race and gender?  If so, what is it? If not, the how does a focus on social class enrich, sustain, or advance studies of gender or race in sociology?
  • How could class be thought about in new or novel ways that enriches the contemporary sociological enterprise, or might there be a need to return to more traditional or classic ways of thinking about the term?

The University of Michigan's 2013 Conversations in Michigan Sociology symposium deals with these very issues.  The panelists are:

Click the following link to see a video of the 2013 event.