Sociology, an academic field that’s been in slow decline for decades after its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s with the likes of social critics Talcott Parsons and C. Wright Mills, has recently gotten a new lease on life – because one of its subfields, criminology, is now one of the most popular majors on college campuses, attracting students ranging from freshmen to doctoral candidates surveying a rich field of job opportunities after graduation. This development has caused some consternation among…sociology professors.
Instead of rejoicing, as one might expect, at the vast influx of students that could mean bigger sociology budgets and even the saving of once-moribund programs from the axe (Washington University in St. Louis, whose sociology department was famous during the 1950s, killed it in 1990 because the students were no longer there), many professors instead denounce what they see as a “cop-shop” mentality fostered by criminologists uninterested in the fashionable pet topics for many in the field: race, class, gender, and social inequality.
According to a report in Inside Higher Education, one of the top agenda items for the American Sociological Association at its annual meeting in early August was the airing of a report by a task force set up to study the relationship between sociology, criminology, and criminology’s nuts-and-bolts-oriented sister discipline criminal justice, another booming field on campuses. The report sparked a spirited discussion that revealed many sociologists’ marked hostility to criminology as a genuine academic discipline. One professor described a department of seven full-time faculty members who “view it as a badge of honor to dismiss criminology” and deal with the growing demand for courses in that area by hiring part-time adjuncts. In another department at a large public university, more than half of the 600 undergraduate sociology majors are choosing criminal justice among five available concentrations, yet only three of the 30 sociologists on the faculty specialize in criminology. Overall, the report noted, two-thirds of sociology enrollments are now in criminal justice, while only one-third of faculty slots are in that subfield. Not surprisingly, many campus criminologists have reacted to the hostility or indifference of their sociologist colleagues by hiving off into their own separate departments of criminology and criminal justice.
The task-force report included other statistics that conventional sociologists probably find distressing. “Between 2001 and 2006, criminal justice overtook sociology in the number of bachelor’s degrees completed,” Inside Higher Education reported. “Sociology increased by 14.5 percent during that period, to 31,406. Criminology increased by 35.7 percent, to 34,209.” Meanwhile, the number of sociology master’s degrees declined by 15 percent, while the number of criminology master’s increased by 135.5 percent and criminal justice master’s degrees increased by 56.5 percent.
Proffered explanations abound for students’ declining interest in conventional sociology and increasing interest in the study of crime and criminals. Dennis MacDonald, a sociology professor at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire who chaired the task force, attributes the change of focus to college undergraduates’ forsaking the traditional goal of a broad-based liberal arts education in favor of career training. This, in turn, says MacDonald, has to do with what he sees as decreased willingness on the part of today’s young people to parse the classic texts of sociology – the works of Emil Durkheim, for example – in the age of PowerPoint and YouTube. Blame it on the culture, or blame it on lackadaisical elementary and secondary education, but “I don’t think that today the typical student has quite the capacity to study ideas or look at arguments critically,” says MacDonald.
Thomas Mieczkowski, a sociologist by training who chairs the criminology department at the University of South Florida, which boasts 1,800 majors, views the issue somewhat differently:
Criminology offers students a connection with real life and real-life problems that conventional sociology nowadays lacks. “Sociology as a field has become highly theoretical over the past 20 years,” says Mieczkowski. “In my grad-school years, I saw a lack of connection between sociology and the pragmatic social issues that people were interested in.” That lack of connection, Mieczkowski believes, accounts for both scholars and students’ drifting away from conventional sociology into spin-off specialties – not just criminology but gerontology, demography, urban planning, and even women’s studies – that seem to say more about people’s lived social experiences.
It’s certainly true that theory has made deep inroads into sociology – and “theory” these past 20 years usually means trendy victim-centric ideology. The current issue of the American Journal of Sociology features such titles as “Gender, Race, and Meritocracy in Organizational Careers” and “The Social Dynamics of Mathematics Coursetaking in High School.” Simply comparing the course offerings of South Florida’s criminology department to those of its sociology department is instructive. In criminology the courses bear such straightforward titles as “Drugs and Crime” and “The Psychology of Antisocial Behavior.” The sociology department’s sole foray into criminal behavior, “Sociology of Juvenile Delinquency,” focuses on “defining” delinquency and “social control,” reflecting postmodernist guru Michel Foucault’s idea that criminal laws are simply society’s way of stigmatizing those it deems marginal. In the marketplace of ideas at South Florida, as well as in the rest of the country, students are choosing to buy something more relevant to human experience, even though many conventional sociologists might wish otherwise.