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Sociology Department Goals and Objectives

As an intellectual discipline Sociology concerns itself with the analysis and interpretive understanding of human social life. At Vassar we take our inspiration from C. Wright Mill's sociological imagination" but ground our approach in classical as well as contemporary theoretical frameworks that characterize the field today. Our introductory sociology course is founded on the seminal ideas of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel. Upper level courses build on this point of departure to deepen and broaden the student's capacity to think sociologically and critically about modern society, current social issues, and social problems.
Sociology at Vassar is taught by a diverse faculty, which brings to the classroom a range of backgrounds and research interests. In varying degrees, the guiding precepts of social structure and social construction are often integral to an otherwise wide-ranging set of concerns. On the one hand, the distribution of wealth, power, and prestige significantly shapes and channels patterns of human behavior. As such, "social structure" is central to the sociological analysis of human institutions, relationships, and communities. On the other hand, it is precisely the "social construction" of human meaning, including the importance of local knowledge and situationally nuanced outcomes, that is integral to an understanding of human action and agency. Nevertheless, we live in a complex world in which particular social structures can enable and foster social change just as socially constructed meanings can inhibit and constrain possibilities. In brief, there is no simple formula or set of methods that can easily describe a sociological analysis that takes as its subject matter the wide range of courses that constitute our curriculum. All told, it is the students' exposure to those who practice sociology that enables them to learn to see the world from a sociological perspective and to acquire not only insight and critical awareness, but a passion for social justice.
The fundamental goal of the department is to provide conceptual resources and perspectives that will enable students to acquire what C. Wright Mills calls the "sociological imagination." Mills points us to the intersection of personal troubles and social issues—the ways in which matters that impact individuals in their personal life are interwoven with factors that characterize their larger economic and political milieu. Our goal is to cultivate in both majors and non-majors a sociologically informed capacity for critical thinking that allows students to see themselves and their social, political, cultural, and economic surroundings in ways that transcend "conventional wisdom" and unreflective "common sense."

Toward this end, the department offers a variety of courses that might appeal to students with diverse interests. Our 100-level introductory course, rooted in the classical tradition in sociology, demonstrates ways in which seminal ideas of 19th century sociologists can be applied to contemporary topics and issues. Our 200-level courses address key social institutions (e.g. Mass Media, Family, Welfare, the New Economy) and contemporary issues (e.g. Crime, Drugs, Domestic Violence, Ethnicity, Disability, Globalization, Development and Social Change). At the 300-level, some non-majors may choose to pursue more focused and in-depth study of particular topics that build on their work in intermediate-level courses.    
Broadly construed, the "sociological imagination" and the critical thinking that it enables are integral to the disciplinary goals of the Department. They do not, however, capture or exhaust our intellectual expectations for our majors. The 10 1/2 credits for the major consist of a required introductory course, one 200-level theory course, one 200-level methods course, two 300-level seminars, and a year-long one-credit thesis. Students can elect other 200- or 300-level courses to fulfill the remainder of the major requirements. In combination, the two required courses at the 200-level—Modern Social Theory (Sociology 247) and Research Methods (Sociology 254)—are designed to provide majors with a set of conceptual frameworks and skills integral to the discipline. The 1/2 unit of sociology credit is meant to encourage students to take at least a 1/2 unit of Field Work, facilitating, we hope, meaningful contact in the local community. 

In addition to the breadth and depth that the required and elective courses provide, the thesis allows majors to "do" sociology through a project that they undertake with the approval of the department and the guidance of their first and second readers. Ideally this project serves as an intellectual culmination that allows our majors to bring together elements of their sociological experience at Vassar into a coherent document that they can call their own. The thesis process formally begins with a written proposal, read and commented on by all members of the department in early October. Primarily under the guidance of their first reader, students must submit a series of drafts, including a complete rough draft (due mid February) and a final draft (due in mid April). The final draft is read by both first and second readers, who jointly decide on a letter grade. The first reader is expected to provide the student with written comments that include not only a summary of any criticisms, but also a discussion of the merits and contribution of the work. All senior sociology theses are archived in the department office and will remain on file as an enduring record of a student's final work for the department.