Sociology department builds from ground up, focuses on race relations in St. Louis

Ariel Kravitz | Contributing Reporter

As hundreds of new students enter life at Washington University, an entire department of professors is learning the ins and outs of the University as well.

The sociology department, re-formed this semester after a nearly 25-year hiatus, currently consists of three professors, all new or returning inhabitants of St. Louis: David Cunningham, Jake Rosenfeld and Adia Harvey Wingfield. Each has unique expectations for the department and for the University.

As social activist and interest groups expand and broaden, this new department gives students the opportunity to apply what they learn to the issues they’re advocating for.

Regionally, the professors are diverse: from the Northeast, Cunningham previously worked at Brandeis University outside of Boston; from the South, Wingfield came from Georgia State University in Atlanta; and from the West, Rosenfeld returned to St. Louis, where he previously lived, after eight years with the University of Washington in Seattle.

Each had a very similar reason for coming to Washington University.

“It really just seemed like such a rare and exciting opportunity to be able to help build the department from the ground up at an elite university like this one, so it was really the proverbial offer I couldn’t refuse,” Wingfield explained.

Wingfield went on to describe what she hopes for the department.

“I’d like to build this into a top department that’s competitive with other top programs in sociology and make it a place that’s a really diverse and welcoming environment for faculty and graduate students and undergraduate students of all backgrounds,” she said.

Her colleagues agree. Rosenfeld discussed his visions and expectations for the program as well. Together, he and Wingfield co-chair the faculty recruitment for the department, which is one of their primary concerns.

“I hope that we grow, and we grow relatively quickly,” Rosenfeld said.

Cunningham has similar hopes of building a strong department, but discussed his particular vision of the department in a larger context.

“We can think about issues that are important within the discipline but also important in a broader public sense,” Cunningham said.

The region of St. Louis was also a factor in attracting some of the professors to Washington University. Racial conflict, prevalent in St. Louis, is a focus of study for Cunningham.

“Certainly to be at the heart of [St. Louis’ racial conflict] seems appealing in a lot of ways,” Cunningham noted.

Most of Cunningham’s research has been centered on racial contention and racial violence. He studies this through analyzing the Civil Rights Era and the Ku Klux Klan.

Wingfield also studies race, but she focuses on the role it plays in the workforce.

“Most of my research looks at social processes that replicate inequalities in professional work environments for minority professionals. So I looked at black men who work as doctors, as nurses, attorneys, and engineers. I looked at black women who work as business owners,” Wingfield said.

In addition to continuing research, Rosenfeld is excited to be teaching undergraduates. His course this semester, “Sociology of Race and Ethnicity,” is not just new for students, but for himself as well.

“I’m incredibly excited about it. Now, this is a course that, especially with ongoing events in Ferguson, Baltimore, other places around the country, that I think is vitally important and quite timely, and I think that sociologists have something pretty particular and illuminating to say about it, and so I’m hoping that this course sheds some light on what’s happening in our region,” Rosenfeld said.

The courses offered this semester are: “Order and Change in Society” (Cunningham), “Sociology of Race and Ethnicity” (Rosenfeld) and “Social Theory” (Wingfield).

Members of the new department are optimistic about the direction that it’s heading.

“We are really united in wanting to see this department succeed, and that gives me great hope and confidence going forward,” Rosenfeld said.