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Sociology of Education

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History of the Sociology of Education Program

The Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University was founded in 1890 as the School of Pedagogy. As early as 1906, the School offered courses in sociology, taught by Robert McDougal, a Ph. D from Harvard University. In 1922, E. George Payne, who was then the President of Harris State Teachers College in St. Louis, was hired to develop a program in Educational Sociology. Payne was a graduate of the University of Chicago and held a Ph. D from the University of Bonn. Within a short period Fredrick M. Thrasher, a 1926 Ph. D in sociology from the University of Chicago was hired, as was Harvey Zorbaugh, who also held a Ph. D from the graduate program at the University of Chicago’s sociology department. The first really prominent sociology department in the country, Chicago's department came to be known as “The Chicago School of Sociology.” The study of emerging patterns of urban life was among its central themes, along with the development of the earliest versions of what we now call qualitative research, then widely known as participant observation. Two of the best-known books produced by students trained in this tradition were Thrasher’s, The Gang: A Study of 1.313 Gangs in Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed, 1936) and Zorbaugh’s, The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side (University of Chicago Press, 1929).

To mark the prominence of the Educational Sociology Program at New York University, Payne and his colleagues founded The Journal of Educational Sociology in September, 1927. Dubbed a “Magazine of Theory and Practice,” the editorial statement launching the Journal announced that in contrast to psychology, which had developed tests of native capacity and achievement, sociology’s contribution to education was in its infancy and would be devoted to studying and understanding education’s relation to social life. “The sociologist is concerned with education as an instrument for effecting behavior changes in the individual and in his social relations; that is in his [sic] family, in his groups, in his play and recreation, and in his civic relationships, etc. Furthermore, the sociologist is concerned with creating community changes and community practices and methods of discovering to what extent school instruction may effect such changes” (Payne, 1927, iii-iv).

In 1936, Dan W. Dodson joined Payne, Thrasher, and Zorbaugh. Others were associated with the Program at various points, but these three all devoted their careers to NYU and the Program of Educational Sociology. Examples of the fertility of their activity include the founding of a clinic for exceptional children, a particular interest of Zorbaugh’s, who in the 1940’s recognized the educational power of television and helped produce one of the first educational television programs. The beginnings of media studies can be traced in part to the work of Thrasher and colleagues, who, in the thirties, began a series of studies of the effects of motion pictures on children. His courses on the subject were path breaking, including a course, begun in 1934, named “The Motion Picture: Its Artistic, Educational and Social Aspects.” This work is described in chapter 5 (New York Stories, section 3: Cinematic Diversions in Sociology: Frederic Thrasher in the World of Film Appreciation) of Dana Polan's Scenes of Instruction: The Beginning of U.S. Study of Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 

Doctoral and Master’s degree programs in educational anthropology were begun in the 1950’s, spearheaded by Professor Ethel Alpenfels. These programs continued until the late 1970’s. An undergraduate program in social work was initiated by the Department in the late 1930’s, and moved into the School of Social Work at about the same time that the Anthropology of Education program was discontinued.

Payne went on to become the Dean of the New York University School of Pedagogy from 1939 to 1946. An early and strong proponent of racial justice, he was a board member of the NAACP and other national organizations and bodies, such as the League for National Unity, which combated prejudice in education and employment.

Dan W. Dodson, the son of a Texas sharecropper, was, from the moment of his arrival in New York City, active in racial justice efforts as well as a scholar on racism and desegregation. In 1944 he took leave from the University and served for four years as executive director of Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia’s Committee on Unity. This work for Mayor LaGuardia pioneered the field of Human Relations, and set the example for human rights commissions throughout the country. It was during this time that his Texas origins became important for the world of baseball. Sharing bourbon and branch water with fellow Texan and Brooklyn Dodgers’ president, Branch Rickey, Dodson worked to pave the way for Jackie Robinson’s employment as the first black man to play in the major leagues. Returning to the University, Dodson headed up the Center for Human Relations, which offered Master’s and doctoral degrees. Dodson retired in 1972, and the Center closed a few years later.

The Journal of Educational Sociology was published by faculty in the Program until May, 1963, when it was transferred to the auspices of the American Sociological Association and was renamed Sociology of Education. This name change reflects the times, recognizing that the field of sociology had come into its own to such a degree that its practitioners were increasingly doing work in reference to other sociologists and to the discipline itself, not so much in reference to the application of sociological research and theory to affairs in other realms, including education. Many writers in the field make reference to this shift. For example, Donald A. Hansen, in “The uncomfortable relation between sociology and education” (from the book edited by Hansen and Joel Gerstl, On education: Sociological perspectives, New York: Wiley, 1967),” devotes his entire his essay to this issue. Similarly, many of the essays in Sociology and Contemporary Education (edited by Charles H. Page, New York: Random House, 1967) describe the tensions between “educationists” and sociologists. Certainly, the 1960’s were a period of transformation in the sociological study of education.

For the Program in Educational Sociology at NYU, this period was also transformative. Thrasher retired in 1959, Zorbaugh in 1962, and Dodson in 1972. Payne had retired earlier as Dean, in the late 1940s. While some of the new faculty in the Program stayed for relatively short periods (for example, Patricia Sexton left in the early 1970’s to move to the Department of Sociology at NYU; S. M. Miller left to become chair of the Sociology Department at Boston University; and Marvin Bressler, Department chair from 1960-63, left to join the Sociology Department at Princeton University), others came and spent their careers in the Program.

After being the last person to be imprisoned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Lloyd Barenblatt spent almost 30 years teaching courses on complex organizations and doing research on intrinsic motivation (see his article, for example, “Intrinsic intellectuality: Its relation to social class, intelligence, and achievement,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1984. His HUAC story is chronicled in the book by Peter Irons, The Courage of Their Convictions (NY: Free Press, 1988, pp. 83-104). A student of Theodore Newcomb at the University of Michigan, Barenblatt was trained primarily as a social psychologist. He retired from New York University in the late 1990’s.

Joseph Giacquinta, a student of Neil Gross, David Armor, and Robert Herriott at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard in the 1960’s, arrived at the Program about 1967. His research interests centered on planned organizational change, and he remained active in this area until his retirement in 2001. Giacquinta is the co-author of several books, including Implementing Organizational Innovations: A Sociological Analysis of Planned Educational Change (NY: Basic Books, 1971), and, Beyond Technology’s Promise: An Examination of Children’s Computing at Home (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997). His work on the status-risk theory of receptivity to change is widely recognized as an important contribution to the literature on organizational change and innovation. His “Seduced and abandoned: Some lasting conclusions about planned change from the Cambire School study,” (International Handbook of Educational Change, edited by Hargraves, Lieberman, Fullan, and Hopkins. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1998) provides a retrospective on this work. Also see his article, “Status risk and receptivity to innovations in complex organizations: A study of the responses of four groups of educators to the proposed introduction of sex education in elementary school,” Sociology of Education, 48 (Winter, 1975): 39-58.

The transformations of the late 1960’s did not just involve personnel. Around 1973, the Department joined the Social Studies Program to form the Department of Social Science Education; with the addition of the Program in Educational Administration, that unit became the Department of Organizational and Administrative Studies. The addition of Business Education and Educational Communications and Technology led to another name change, to the Department of Administration, Leadership and Technology. In each of these incarnations, the staff and Program structure of Educational Sociology remained basically unchanged.

Floyd Hammack, the program's Director until 2013, began his affiliation with the Program in the Fall of 1971 and has spent his career studying a diverse set of issues centering on inequality and organizations in education. He co-edited (with Kevin Dougherty) Education and Society (Harcourt, 1990). More recently, he edited The Comprehensive High School Today (Teachers College Press, 2004) and co-authored the 7th edition of Sociology of Education: A Systematic Analysis (Pearson, 2012) with Jeanne Ballantine . His papers have concerned private schools, education for nursing, high school dropout, and the development of higher education systems, among other topics.

Most recently, the Program joined in the inauguration of its current home, the Department of Humanities and the Social Sciences in the Professions. This Department was formed in 1999 to provide a home to discipline-based studies in education, several interdisciplinary programs, and the statistics and research methodology offerings for the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.  In this multi- and interdisciplinary environment, the program has generated important contributions to our home school and profession, education, while connecting us, and our work, with the intellectual root discipline of sociology. Uncommon in American schools of education, our Program continues to evolve and to thrive.

As curricular emphases and research priorities follow faculty interests, these too will evolve as new faculty make their mark on the Program. It is clear that a new period in the Program’s history is beginning and we look forward to many more years of vital contributions in the field of education and the discipline of sociology.

Written by Floyd M. Hammack.