In Troubled St. Louis Area, Economist Helps Revive Sociology Dept.

Washington U. in St. Louis

Steven Fazzari
October 20, 2014

After doing without a sociology department for nearly 25 years, Washington University in St. Louis has reinstated the department and chosen a longtime faculty member at the institution, Steven Fazzari, to be its first chair.

He is starting from scratch in rebuilding, as all that remains of the former department is memories. The first courses could be offered as early as next fall.

Mr. Fazzari says the main focus in the initial recruiting of faculty members "is to find scholars who work on inequality and social stratification," which are among the subjects of his own research in economics.

The reintroduction of sociology has seemed all the more urgent because of tensions in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb eight miles north of the campus. Hundreds of people have gathered during the past two months to protest the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer there in August. The fatal shooting of another black teenager this month by an off-duty white officer in St. Louis sparked more protests.

Barbara A. Schaal, Washington’s dean of arts and sciences, said in a written statement on Mr. Fazzari’s expected efforts: "The complex and troubling situation in Ferguson is a reminder of how urgently this work is needed."

During his 32 years at the university, Mr. Fazzari has studied large-scale economic structures. More recently, he has been analyzing the role within them of rising income inequality, ballooning household debt, the recession that began around 2007, and now the slow recovery from it.

During the last two years, analyses of those phenomena by Mr. Fazzari and his colleague Barry Z. Cynamon have been cited often in American and international media coverage.

Administrators had considered appointing a senior figure in American sociology to be chair, but, "lacking an obvious candidate," as Mr. Fazzari puts it, they turned to him. Along with several teaching awards, he has six years of experience as chair of the economics department, and has done stints on campus-planning and hiring committees. He was a member of the campus advisory panel formed last year to consider how to revive sociology.

"There is much overlap between the problems addressed by economics and sociology," he says. "Economics also provides a firm grounding in technical modeling and data analysis that is part of much advanced work in many social sciences, including sociology."

Mr. Fazzari has research and teaching ties to various sociology-related departments on campus that may help hasten the establishment of graduate-level programs. That addition should attract well-credentialed candidates for faculty positions who might balk at starting out with no graduate students, says another key planner, Henry L. (Roddy) Roediger III, a long-serving professor of psychology who is also dean of academic planning in arts and sciences.

The decision to close the original sociology department in 1991 was presented as budgetary but regarded by some faculty members as political. Asked about the real cause of the closing, Mr. Roediger, an authority on memory and memorization, says that in the interests of moving forward that is all best forgotten.

The order of the day, says Mr. Fazzari, is far more upbeat, as colleagues and master’s and doctoral candidates in related fields like social work, economics, American studies, and African-American studies are expressing interest in early collaborations with the new department.

Working closely with Mr. Fazzari, as associate chair, is Mark R. Rank, a professor of social work at Washington who trained as a sociologist and is an expert on poverty and social welfare.

Douglas S. Massey, a sociologist at Princeton University who is chair of an external panel that is advising the effort, says the formation of a new department is rare in the discipline and offers an opportunity to "put together something at the cutting edge." Applications for faculty positions are starting to pour in, he says, and he predicts the hirings of "some up-and-coming people who have showed some real promise."

Two or three faculty hires will probably be made for each of the next five years, says Mr. Fazzari. The strategy will be to lure rising stars who will themselves draw in more senior figures.

Eventually, Mr. Fazzari expects, he will hand over the reins to one such dyed-in-the-wool sociologist.