Brittney Chew / Sun News Photography Editor Warren Hall after construction Sunday, April 26, 2015

September 25, 2015

Development Sociology Department Celebrates Centennial

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In celebration of its 100 year anniversary, the Department of Development Sociology will welcome alumni back to the Hill this weekend for a two-day event.

Brittney Chew / Sun News Photography Editor Warren Hall after construction Sunday, April 26, 2015

(Brittney Chew / Sun News Photography Editor)

Housed within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, development sociology focuses on research and applied work in current political, economic, cultural and social change. The department has a graduate program, consisting of about 40 students, and an undergraduate major in which 128 students are enrolled.

The celebration, set to take place Friday and Saturday, will revolve around the theme of “Looking Back to Move Forward.” Several alumni will speak on panels that concern both the past and future of development sociology.

Prof. Julie Zimmerman ’97, rural sociology, University of Kentucky, who was tasked with writing a monograph to commemorate the occasion, will deliver the opening speech Friday, highlighting the department’s history.

The department, which was the brainchild of Liberty Hyde Bailey and Albert Mann, was founded in 1915 under the name rural social organization. In 1939, the department changed its name to rural sociology before settling on development sociology in 2000.

Prof. David Brown, a former chair of development sociology who has served in the department for 28 years, said he believes the name “rural sociology” was too narrowly focused, given the rise of urbanization.

“We live in an urban world,” he said. “So you can’t deny the importance of urbanization and urban places to development processes. So we felt that rural sociology was too restrictive.”

Louise Silberling M.S. ’92, who is currently finishing her Ph.D. in the department, said the name change demonstrated a more global focus for the department.

“Whereas rural sociology was meant to focus on the United States and looking at rural society here, we started expanding into international issues and international development issues in particular,” she said.

Despite its name changes and evolution since 1915, members of the department said it has consistently remained a leader in the field. One of the department’s strong points is its flexibility, which Paul Berry grad called “a central and defining characteristic” of the program. It was this flexibility that Zimmerman said allowed her to study in key influencers in several different fields.

“That absolutely influenced my breadth and depth,” Zimmerman said. “Another central feature of the department is its consistent demand for excellence.”

Berry added that faculty-student relations is another aspect that sets the department apart.

“Our department has a very collegial mentality,” Berry said. “The faculty really take the graduate student perspective seriously and try to modify and create the best program.”

Silberling noted that this collaborative spirit is particularly advantageous to graduate students, as they frequently have the opportunity to jointly publish papers with professors.

“[Cornell] has this very long term, very deep reach within the world of international development,” Silberling said. “We have a very long history of relationships with international development institutions.”

On its centennial anniversary, students, professors and alumni are celebrating the department’s progress.

“It’s a testament to the sort of work our professors and students do,” Ryan Nehring grad said. “Doing really critical work and challenging the status quo.”

For Brown, the centennial presents an opportunity to both celebrate the work that has been done and strategize about development sociology’s future trajectory.

“Now we need to think about what’s next, what’s the future of the department, and what kinds of issues are of increasing importance,” Brown said. “What are the emerging issues within the whole scholarship and discourse on development, and how can sociological research contribute to understanding those issues.”

Just as the field has evolved in the past, members of the department are aware that more change is inevitable. Still, students like Berry say they are confident about its future.

“We don’t know what the future will hold, but I think this program has demonstrated a flexibility around a changing academic and outside world, and I think that will continue,” Berry said. “There is exciting work to be done.”