A century of WSU sociology

Stone ornamentation above the entrance to Wilson-Short Hall.
by Larry Clark ’94

Gang dynamics, effective surveys, rural communities, families, environmental issues—Washington State University’s sociology department explored these societal topics and many others over the last 100 years. The department always kept an eye on the university’s mission to connect research with people and communities across the state.

Fred Yoder was appointed as the first sociologist at Washington State College in 1920 and became the chair of the Sociology Department in 1928. Since then, the department has been a national and international leader in sociological research and undergraduate and graduate education. Many students have gone on to successful careers as academic sociologists, government employees, and workers in the private sector.

Since 1948, when the first sociology doctoral student graduated from Washington State College, over 400 sociology doctorates have been awarded by the department.

Many people associate the Department of Sociology with Wilson-Short Hall on the WSU Pullman campus, named in part after James Short Jr., who started his prolific career in the department in 1951. Short’s groundbreaking work with gangs in Chicago was just one of WSU sociologists’ accomplishments. Read about Short’s research and more highlights of WSU sociology below.

Survey says

WSU’s Social Research Center, the first telephone survey research unit in the country, launched in 1970. Renowned rural sociologist and survey methods expert Don Dillman later led the center, now called the Social & Economic Sciences Research Center (SESRC).

When Dillman, a Regents Professor in sociology, started at WSU in the 1970s, center staff were improving methods for in-person interviews, postal mail surveys, and telephone surveys. The techniques became industry standards, partly due to a commonly referenced book by Dillman. The center researchers were also pioneering adopters of computers to aid in survey work.

Now SESRC still refines methods since the advent of caller ID, cell phones, and the internet, making people harder to reach and more likely to ignore or miss surveys.

The center has run thousands of projects, beginning in the early ’70s with surveys on student and community opinions about racial tensions and protests at WSU. The SESRC continues to annually complete 60-75 projects and employ 150-300 students.

Black sociologists

Over 25 WSU doctoral degrees have been awarded to Black scholars, the first to Charles U. Smith in 1950—a time when very few Black scholars in the United States earned doctoral degrees in any field. Sociologists T.H. Kennedy, dean of the College of Social Sciences, and Wallis Beasley, chairman of sociology, recruited more than a half dozen promising graduate students in the 1940s and ’50s from historically Black colleges.

Many prominent Black alumni sociologists followed Smith. Among them was Anna Harvin Grant (’56 PhD Socio.), the first woman to earn a doctorate in sociology from WSU. She became a nationally recognized expert in Black family life and the first woman as a department head at all-male Morehouse College.

Harvard University sociologist, race and poverty expert, and MacArthur “genius” awardee William Julius Wilson (’66 PhD Socio.) is among the most influential sociologists of his time. His work on race, inequality, and poverty has formed the foundation of countless empirical and theoretical academic works. WSU recognizes Wilson’s body of scholarship with an award in his name. He also received the Regents Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1988.

James E. Blackwell
James E. Blackwell (Photo Irving Johnson/IRV3)

In 1970, the University of Massachusetts hired James Blackwell (’59 PhD Socio.) to expand the fledgling Department of Sociology and Anthropology at its Boston campus. He worked there for 20 years and, as chair from 1970-76, faculty in the department tripled. He spurred the university to bring in more faculty and students of color as well. In 1986, a study reported in Social Forces ranked Blackwell number five among Black holders of doctorates in sociology, living or dead. He was president of the Caucus of Black Sociologists of the American Sociological Association, founding president of the Association of Black Sociologists, and president of both the Society for the Study of Social Problems and the Eastern Sociological Society. He was the author of many books, including The Black Community: Diversity and Unity.

The department was recognized in 2004 with the American Sociology Association’s DuBois-Johnson-Frazier Award for the “…cumulative impact that [Washington State University] has had on shaping African American scholarship…an absolutely monumental and a living tribute to the pioneering scholarship and social activism of W. E. B. DuBois, Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier.” It was the only time a program rather than scholar received the award.

Rural communities

WSU researchers have examined many aspects of rural life since the beginning of the department: work, poverty, family life, gender roles, and more. In a recent example, James F. Short Distinguished Professor Jennifer Schwartz and professor Jennifer Sherman assessed rural jails in the state. The jails are crowded and costly, and the WSU work found who was being incarcerated and why.

Sherman has researched poverty and inequality, including the impact of job loss, underemployment, and poverty on rural US families and communities. She also asks how the social dynamics in rural communities play an outsized role in how a person is treated after an entanglement with the law.

Rural Washington has changed significantly over the decades since Washington State sociologists such as Walter Slocum studied the rural population growth as irrigation and agriculture expanded in the state. Emeritus sociology professor Annabel Kirschner examined the rapid increase in Hispanic population, particularly in eastern Washington, and the need to change services and outreach to those new residents. That work continues with newer faculty, including assistant professor Vanessa Delgado.

Gangs of Chicago

In 1956, WSC sociologist James F. Short Jr. led a groundbreaking study of Chicago gangs. The subsequent findings built understanding of gang dynamics beyond just the lens of criminology. By embedding with gangs such as the Vice Lords, Short and his colleagues learned about the everyday lives of gang members, from positive virtues to violence. In 1965, Short and his University of Chicago colleague Fred Strodtbeck published their findings and more in the now classic Group Process and Gang Delinquency.

gang members in pool room

Families and adolescents

Regents Professor Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson, William Julius Wilson Distinguished Professor Justin Denney, assistant professor Mariana Amorim, and other sociologists at WSU delve into such topics as the transition from adolescence to adulthood, family well-being, changing families in the Covid-19 pandemic, and the role of family in health decisions and outcomes.

Diversity and inclusion in society

Professor Julie Kmec works to understand the cultural constraints and biases that keep women and people of color from entering and remaining in science, technology, engineering, and math. She examines the reasons why there are more women engineers in some predominantly Muslim countries than there are in the United States.

Kmec’s colleagues look at other aspects of diversity and inclusion in US society and beyond. For example, assistant professor Anna Zamora-Kapoor uses sociological tools to understand the social determinants of health and health disparities.

Three influential faculty women in WSU sociology—Lois B. DeFleur, Sandra Ball-Rokeach, and Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman—had a strong synergy in the 1960s-70 as they expanded the role of women within sociology and the department. The 2024 memoir We Few, We Academic Sisters details their time and experiences.

Four WSU women faculty members in stylized orange and red lines

Environmental sociology

The 1970s brought increased awareness of environmental concerns, and the WSU sociology department also began to look at societies and ecological impacts. New faculty members Bill Catton, Riley Dunlap, Bill Freudenberg, and Gene Rosa researched facets such as energy development, environmental protection, rural boomtowns, and nuclear risks.

Eugene Rosa. Photo Robert Hubner
Eugene Rosa (Photo Robert Hubner)

Their environmental sociology insights and graduate students stimulated national interest in research around society and environment.

The work continues with sociologists such as Boeing Distinguished Assistant Professor in Environmental Sociology Dylan Bugden, who examines the contentious politics around climate change.

By Larry Clark, Washington State Magazine