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Archive for May 19th, 2009

As Shamus on Scatterplot posted earlier in the month, Washington State University has decided to eliminate its rural sociology program and, with it, the jobs of eight faculty members.  Today, Inside Higher Ed posted a report on the topic:

That a land grant university would simply abolish the discipline — and in particular a rare freestanding program that is well respected nationally — stunned rural sociologists. Many have come to expect that sociology departments (general ones) will be more occupied with issues of criminology and sexuality and suburban youth than with aging populations in rural towns or the new immigration that is changing those communities.

And they say they have seen agriculture colleges focus more of their research on genomics and biotechnology and less on family farms. So Washington State’s decision has come to be seen as mattering nationally — and is galvanizing scholars who have no particular ties to the university and whose frustration extends beyond that one institution.

An interesting aspect of the report is the idea that rural sociology is a candidate for the chopping block because rural life itself seems less important to some than it has in the past:

And thus the reaction to Washington State relates very much to concerns about land grants generally. “There aren’t very many rural sociology programs around. There’s a general perception that rural doesn’t matter anymore. Whenever financial problems arise and administrators get a little touchy about how they are going to manage budgets, this is the sort of thing that happens,” said Kenneth Pigg, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, one institution that still has a freestanding program.

Pigg said that social sciences were once viewed as central to the land grant mission — that departments of rural sociology (or agriculture economics) were applying research to help rural communities. “Now, with the emphasis on life sciences generally, you don’t see that at a lot of universities,” he said. Pigg’s work currently focuses on the impact of technological change in rural areas. While many have said that the Internet is “a savior” for rural life, Pigg said that there’s not nearly enough attention paid to the impact it has and the lack of real access to technology of many people outside of urban areas.

I think that closures such as these point to the increasing importance of public sociology.  While we need to do work that is relevant to public concerns, sociologists also need to have a larger role in informing the public about why our findings matter and which concerns are socially important.  If our discipline is to survive the public needs to know the benefits of taking a sociological view in addition to a biological or psychological view on human behavior.

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