About Us

Living the “Sociological Imagination” – Our Biography and Sociology

The Department of Sociology at the University of Missouri, in its second century of existence, continues its strong tradition of questioning conventions, “taken-for-granted” assumptions, and the status quo -- both within the discipline and within the broader society and the world stage. Our department remains an intellectual home where questioning assumptions and challenging authority are not only permitted, they are expected.

The Department of Sociology at MU was founded in 1900 with the appointment of Professor Charles Ellwood who became the first chair of the Department. When MU President Richard Jesse, founded the Department of Sociology, he said that a sociology department would not be doing its job if it did not cause trouble. He welcomed the critical role of sociology and expected it from the new department. His expectations were quickly realized. Throughout its history, sociology at Missouri has been distinguished by a critical stance toward the discipline and the larger society along with a pervasive concern with social problems such as social inequality. This concern often led to controversy as MU sociologists tackled important issues of the day, frequently taking unpopular positions and challenging conventions.

Charles A. Ellwood was a Ph.D. graduate from the University of Chicago, the first sociology department in the United States, and a student of Albion Small, the founder of the Chicago department. The first Master’s degree in Sociology at MU was produced in 1902 and the first Ph.D. in 1904, both with Ellwood as the adviser. Ellwood stayed at Missouri until 1930 when he left for Duke University. During his time at MU he became a sociologist of major national importance and built up a sizeable department. He advised many M.A. and Ph.D. students whose theses and dissertations often focused on the state of race relations and the condition of public institutions such as prisons and almshouses in Missouri. Ellwood’s mark on the department from his long tenure followed by that of his students is still evident today.

Charles Ellwood was from the era in which sociology was emerging as a distinct field of study distinguished from philosophy, political economy, religion, and other fields. Ellwood defended a scientific conception of sociology, but he also argued that sociology should address social problems and contribute directly to social reform. His moral and religious convictions fed directly into his sociology. Later, some advocates of a more scientific sociology would classify scholars like Ellwood as "do-gooders" who held sociology back from its scientific ambitions. Ellwood wrote an influential textbook on Social Problems which sold over 200,000 copies and established the model for social problems courses around the country. Thesis and dissertation topics at MU in Ellwood's period were largely focused on social problems including poverty and racial inequality in Columbia and other Missouri towns. One of his students, Terence Pihlblad, earned both his M.A. and Ph.D. at Missouri and subsequently joined the MU department as a professor, serving in that capacity, with minor interruptions, into the 1970s. Pihlblad's dissertation, completed in 1925 under Ellwood's direction, criticized the then-popular notion that intelligence tests might be used to determine which racial and ethnic groups were superior. Pihlblad argued that intelligence test scores reflect educational and social backgrounds rather than native intelligence.

A tragic event in the 1920s (recounted by retired business executive, Bob Beasley, at the Centennial Symposium held by the Department of Sociology in September 2000) illustrates the kind of public controversy that has often affected MU sociology since the 1920s. In 1923 a young Black man was lynched in Columbia after being falsely accused of a sexual assault against a young white woman. He was hanged from a bridge over the main road running by the MU campus. In the aftermath of the event, according to Beasley's report, Charles Ellwood was a vocal, public critic of the lynching and of the local citizens for allowing such a thing to happen in Columbia. Ellwood became the target of Ku Klux Klan threats and much local indignation. In the same time period, Terry Pihlblad must have been writing his critique of the use of intelligence tests to determine racial and ethnic superiority. Also, Herbert Blumer, later to become a prominent sociologist at the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley, completed an M.A. degree at MU in 1925 and stayed for a few years as a teacher. He became a target of public criticism around 1927 for suggesting in a guest lecture at Stephens College that there are no pure races, a point which Ellwood and Pihlblad had both argued in their writings.

Despite public controversy, Ellwood succeeded in building a strong Sociology Department at MU. Within a few years after the founding of the program in 1900 the department had 4-5 faculty members and was rated among the top 10 departments in the country. Ellwood himself was highly regarded nationally and published 22 articles in the American Journal of Sociology between 1899 and 1934. This journal, published at the University of Chicago, was the most prominent American sociology journal of the period. Ellwood finally left Missouri to head the Sociology Department at Duke, where his recruitment was part of a much-heralded rebuilding strategy. (Duke also hired the famous psychologist McDougall around the same time.)

Ellwood's career established some features that continued to mark the Department of Sociology at MU. Those of us who came to MU in the 1960s and 1970s encountered some of these distinctive characteristics without realizing the connection to Ellwood's time. Terry Pihlblad, Ellwood's student who taught at MU from around 1930 into the 1970s, continued Ellwood's interest in poverty, aging, and racial inequality. He regularly taught a course on "ethnic minority groups" and another one on the “The American Negro.” Noel Gist, who joined the department around 1937 was also prominently concerned with inequality and taught an international comparative course on racial and ethnic minorities. He wrote a book about Anglo Indians, a minority group in India. Gist was also a prominent textbook author. He wrote a text on Urban Sociology which went through many editions. We discovered at the Centennial Symposium that Gist, Pihlblad, Robert Habenstein (who joined the department around 1950), and many of their graduate students were active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. They were members of the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and participated in many sit-ins at local restaurants. This tradition of activism continued to the present. A number of MU sociologists were active in anti-war protests in the 1960s and 1970s. Many sociology students and some faculty were active in anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s. Sometimes, as with Ellwood, the activities of the sociologists brought trouble. In 1970 the Department dismissed classes for two days because of the course of the Vietnam War and the killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State. This brought sanctions against a number of faculty which led to an AAUP censure of MU in 1973. The anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s resulted in the arrests of a number of sociology students (as well as students from many other departments) for trespassing on the Francis Quadrangle. (They built shanties in front of Jesse Hall and maintained them over several months.) Thus, the building of a strong department of sociology has gone hand-in-hand with a history of activism which has occasionally led to criticism and stronger sanctions. At times the activism eroded administrative support for the department, but the activist tradition continues. Today a number of faculty are active in the feminist movement both locally and nationally. They have made very strong and effective demands upon the administration and have succeeded (with others, of course) in establishing a Women Studies Program. Some current faculty are currently active in protests against capital punishment. The Department faculty have also been very strong advocates for and contributors to the Black Studies Program as well as the Peace Studies Program.

The MU Department continued also Ellwood's concern about quantification in sociology. In the 1950s this department along with others in the Midwest Sociological Society resisted the efforts of the American Sociological Association to impose a uniform model on the discipline. The department maintained in the 1950s a balance between quantitative and qualitative methods. At the Centennial Symposium graduate students from that era -- Irwin Deutscher and Allen Grimshaw -- talked about a creative tension between these methodologies that fueled intellectual growth among students. Habenstein, on the qualitative side, and the late Toimi Kyllonen, on the quantitative side, strongly presented their views. Students were pulled between them and grew intellectually as they formulated their own positions. The department did not purge quantitative methods. Rather it built a program in which different methodologies could survive and contend. Today the Department has great strength in quantitative methods, and all graduate students develop a basic competency in those methods. It also has great strength in qualitative and historical-comparative methodologies and intellectual environment in which different methodological approaches thrive and stimulate innovations. Indeed, the strength of the department in multiple methodologies is one of its comparative advantages in recruiting graduate students and faculty.