On a regular basis Sociology Weblog: Merton’s Position Set: Chairing a Sociology Division

By | October 15, 2020

By Jonathan Wynn

Have you ever met the chair of the sociology division? What do they do, anyway?

Once I was an undergraduate at a big public college, I didn’t know who the chair was, not to mention what they did. Heck, I am the chair of a sociology division proper now, and I’m nonetheless figuring it out! However, I feel it’s essential so that you can know what chairs do, notably in our present, historic second.

A division chair tends to be somebody who’s a senior member of the division college, who’s both voted on by fellow colleagues or appointed by the school dean. They could serve within the place for 3 or 4 years, and a few get reappointed for an additional time period.

What does the chair do? Undergraduate college students may need some concept if they’ve a grade dispute, or one other drawback with one in all their lessons. For probably the most half, a division chair strikes behind the scenes of what the typical pupil sees. There’s a cause you don’t see chairs educating lessons: many shift their workload by educating much less to give attention to administrative obligations. These jobs embody managing budgets, scheduling programs, overseeing division employees and school, creating long-term plans, and speaking college insurance policies to the school, employees, and college students.

Extra mundane duties could be something from signing a stack of diplomas to fielding complaints about the bathroom seats within the loos! The expertise is like–as I used to be warned–being pecked to demise by geese. (For a very deep dive, right here’s a superb description of the job.) At a deeper stage, the chair ought to attend to greater image problems with fairness throughout college, and function a pacesetter.

How can we consider the function of the chair in a extra sociological approach? Nicely, to begin with, after I consider function I all the time consider Robert Merton, who launched us to center vary theories. The argument was that sociology typically focuses on massive, or grand theories (e.g., Marx’s historic materialism, which makes an attempt to elucidate all of human historical past as a wrestle over materials assets) or micro theories (e.g., explanations for interpersonal relations, theories of the self), however that we should always attempt to develop theories of the center vary.

As his major instance, nonetheless, he presents the function set, which is a “complement of social relationships during which individuals are concerned just because they occupy a selected social standing” (1968: 42) (For extra, see his e-book Social Idea and Social Construction). A job could be a patterned set of expectations, however a task set is a complement of a number of roles, which may, in flip, create conflicting expectations and due to this fact, stresses. Such a growth of the idea is related to bigger organizational constructions (macro sociology) but in addition factors to one thing for folk to review (extra empirical, or presumably micro sociology).

The concept of a task set, in relation to the job of being chair, is illustrative of this attitude. There are lots of roles {that a} chair has to tackle: professor, colleague, pal, monetary officer, chief, and extra. A few of these roles may be at odds with one another. Two colleagues may be very pleasant however, as soon as one in all them turns into chair, there’s a standing change that comes with new obligations, together with evaluating and giving suggestions to colleagues who had been equals just a few months prior.

It would look like chairs have numerous what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as “relative energy”—energy that may be wielded by utilizing cultural, financial, and social capital in a selected social enviornment or “area”—however in different methods, the function of the chair is extra like a intermediary. Chairs have just some management over what faculty deans and provosts decide, and school have a substantial amount of educational freedom in what they educate of their lessons.

On prime of this, there’s a major gender story right here as properly. Being chair was a fairly prestigious place, however with added layers of forms and accounting. Lately, serving as a division chair is a service duty that tends to fall on girls greater than males, which signifies that they’re typically pulled away from their analysis and different obligations. A few of my colleagues at UMass Amherst have been learning this actual phenomenon and, importantly, have constructed instruments for assessing this service work to raised observe precisely how this impacts girls in academia.

Now, again to this historic second. There are two main crises which have hit educational departments, and chairs are left to determine some fairly thorny points.

The Black Lives Matter motion has made pointed and completely acceptable calls for referring to programming and hiring in increased training, and the unfurling COVID debacle has added intense budgetary pressures on each educational division throughout the nation. Most campuses have gone distant and lots of of people who began to open, have reversed their selections. There has additionally been a lengthy and regular shift away from states funding public universities, and the burden largely falls on residential college students (and their households): A big proportion of college funding comes from tuition, room and board.

Sociology departments have addressed historic racial inequalities on the stage of the division (see this instance from Washington College in St Louis), whereas additionally dealing with a large budgetary disaster. Presently, directors are asking division chairs to trim initiatives and actions in order that they will lower their budgets by as a lot as 15%.

The function of chair appears, with all of those interconnected points, to be an much more daunting job as we’re caught between intense administrative calls for and a involved and overworked group of school, employees and college students—all experiencing their very own pandemic experiences in particular person and extremely unequal methods. Understanding them by means of a sociological lens helps us to see the varied pressures of the function, and may give you a greater sense of how your sociology division works!

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