Our History

McGill University’s Department of Sociology is recognized as an exceptional place for learning and research: It is consistently ranked among the top sociology departments in the world, McGill has been ranked as Canada’s best university for 15-years running, and Montreal is recognized as one of the best cities in the world for students to complete their studies. The Department offers Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees and focuses on giving students at all levels valuable state-of-the-art methods and research training that will allow them to pursue successful and meaningful careers in a variety of areas. Our commitment to scholarly mentorship and size create a nurturing and supportive environment for students at all levels. We provide our students with opportunities to take small, research-intensive seminars, pursue individual interests, and work closely with professors. Our faculty include award-winning researchers and teachers with a strong international focus. While faculty are experts on a variety of issues, the Department has three broad areas of specialization: comparative political sociology and development, diversity and inequalities, and population and health.

Our Department, throughout its history, has had a distinguished and innovative faculty. This can best be discussed by dividing the history of the Department into two phases: What might be termed "the Chicago connection" (roughly from the 1920's to the mid-1950's), and the period of expansion (roughly from the late 1950's to the 1980's).

Phase I: The Chicago Connection (1920's to mid-1950's)

From the 1920's to the mid-1950's, the Department was quite small, starting with only one professor (Carl Dawson) in the 1920's, and expanding to only six by the end of this period. Nevertheless, it was a quite distinguished department.

During the first part of this period (the 20's and 30's), the world center of sociology was the University of Chicago. The Sociology Department there established what was later to be called "The Chicago School"—a style of research and theorizing heavily based on empirical community studies. During this first period, most sociologists at McGill were closely connected with Chicago, often by having done their graduate work at that institution.

This was true of the founder of the Department, Carl Dawson, who was born in Prince Edward Island in 1887 and did his MA and PhD work at Chicago, studying under two of the most prominent members of the "Chicago School", Park and Burgess. Dawson was appointed to the McGill faculty in 1922, and served as chairperson of the Department of Sociology until 1952. Being dissatisfied with the material available to students at that time, he soon wrote an introductory textbook with another person appointed to McGill, W. Gettys. This book became the principal text used in sociology throughout North America for the next two decades. In this sense, it was critical for the development of sociology on this continent. Dawson's work, however, was not confined to text writing. He carried out a series of outstanding empirical studies of immigrant settlements in Western Canada, published in a set of books: The Settlement of the Peace River Country: A Study of a Pioneer Area (1934); Group Settlement: Ethnic Communities in Western Canada (1936); Canadian Frontiers of Settlement (1937); and The New North West (1947). In recognition of Dawson's ability in the 1930's the Rockefeller Foundation awarded Dawson a grant of $100,000 to carry out studies of unemployment, one of the largest grants ever received in sociology in Canada. Finally, Dawson was elected President of the Canadian Political Science Association, appointed Chairman of the Canadian Social Science Research Council, and chosen to become a Fellow of the Royal Society; all in all a very distinguished career.

Dawson used his grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, along with later grants (for instance, one from Carnegie), to sponser a series of community studies. A number of these were on French Canada, and constitute some of the most important work of ethnic relations in Quebec: for instance, Horace Miner's, St. Denis. A French Canadian Parish. The author of one of these studies was a new member of the staff at McGill, Everett Hughes, who joined the Department in 1927, where he taught until 1938, when he went to the University of Chicago. Hughes' book, French Canada in Transition, a study of changing ethnic relations under the impact of industrialization in a middle size city in Quebec, is probably the single most well known and highly regarded sociological work on French Canada until recent times. It is, in fact, one of the best known community studies ever done in North America. Hughes went on to be one of the outstanding members of the Sociology Department at Chicago, and of the profession in general.

Hughes was replaced by Forrest Laviolette, who published an important book on the Japanese internment during World War II, entitled Canadian Japanese in World War II. Then, in the early post-war period, several new members were appointed: Aileen Ross, Nathan Keyfirz (part time), William Westley, David Solomon, and Fred Elkins, among others. Again, many of these were graduates of the University of Chicago. And again, many did important work. David Solomon, while a member of the Defense Research Board, initiated a series of seminal studies of the Canadian military. Aileen Ross published a series of seminal articles on the structure of philanthropy, and then began work on social processes in India, publishing The Hindu Family in its Urban Setting, 1961 and Student Unrest in India: A Comparative Approach, 1969. In doing the latter, she initiated what is now a distinctive characteristic of our Department, an emphasis on comparative sociology: the study of social processes in other societies, making our Department much less parochial than many others in Canada. She also published a book on nurses, entitled Becoming a Nurse (1961). Nathan Keyfitz unfortunately left for Harvard, where he became one of the world's top demographers. Fred Elkin published one of the first major works on what in now a pervasive phenomenon in Quebec: French-English conflict within the professions. The book is entitled Rebels and ColleaguesAdvertising and Social Change in French Canada and concerns conflict between French and English advertising personnel. Finally, William Westley wrote one of the single most important books on the police, a work referred to constantly in the literature and in courses on deviance and social control throughout North America. The book, entitled Violence and the Police, attempts to explain why police violence is so pervasive and difficult to control. When it was published, it was given a highly favorable and visible review in the New York Times Book Review section. Westley is also the author of The FormationNature and Control of CrowdsThe Silent Majority,Families of Emotionally Healthy College Students, and The Emerging Worker. Near retirement, he undertook an innovative project to determine how to restructure the administration and work pattern of organizations (business firms, schools, etc.) to simultaneously make them more efficient and more pleasant places within which to work.

The McGill Sociology Department was closely associated with the establishment of scholarly sample survey research in Canada and Quebec. In 1954, several interested individuals established Le Groupe de Recherches Sociales in Montreal. This was the first sizeable non-profit academically oriented research organization in the country. It went through two phases. In the first, the emphasis was on qualitative and library research. In the second, however, the focus was on large scale sample surveys. The great major of those involved in this second phase either were already on the staff of McGill or shortly became so. Among these persons were Maurice Pinard, Raymond Breton (later a faculty member at Toronto), Howard Roseborough (who was for a period Chairman of our Department before his untimely death), Pierre Laporte (later with L'Office de la Langue Française), and Peter Dodd. It is hard to underestimate the importance of this research effort. It resulted in some of the first survey research publications in Canada on Canadian questions, such as the assimilation of immigrants, ethnic relations (done under major grants from the B and B Commission, CN, etc.) the character of mass support for Quebec political parties, and the like.

    Phase II: The Period of Expansion (mid-1950's to 1980's)

    Starting in the late 1950's, there was an explosion of student enrollment in universities, and then, in the 1960's, of student interest in sociology. The result was a rapid hiring of additional staff, so that the Department went from some six full time tenure track members in the mid-1950's to some sixteen in 1973. (It should be added, however, that even at 16, McGill was one of the smallest in Canada. York, for example, had a faculty of 58.) In contrast to the earlier period, these new members were trained at a wide variety of universities (Columbia, Northwestern, John Hopkins University, Wisconsin, Berkeley, Stanford, etc.) as well as Chicago, reflecting the dispersion of sociological training in the United States. The Department appointed both senior members (at the Full Professor rank), and junior ones.

    The faculty during this period was quite distinguished.

    The two appointments at the Full Professor level were Immanuel Wallerstein and Richard Hamilton. Wallerstein was here from 1971 to 1976, when he left for the State University of New York. He is the author of over a dozen of books. While at McGill, he completed the first volume of The Modern World System (Academic Press, 1974), a projected four volume work. This work won the highest award given in the sociological profession. It won praise by historians and sociologists throughout the world, including the dean of French historians, Fernand Braudel. And it was favorably reviewed at length in the New York Times Book Review section and the New York Review of Books. The book was at the forefront of a new paradigm in sociology, world systems theory, which greatly influenced sociological research. Richard Hamilton came to McGill having finished an excellent book on working class politics in France, entitled Affluence and the French Worker(Princeton, 1967). This book attacked and empirically demolished one of the principal theories in the sociology of class conflict. After coming to McGill, Hamilton published three additional books: Class and Politics in the United States, (Wiley, 1972) and Constraining Myths and Liberating Realities (Sage, 1975), and Who Voted for Hitler (Princeton, 1982). Other research included work with James Wright on the structure on belief systems among mass publics, works in progress on Germany, and collaborations with Maurice Pinard on studies of the separatist movement in Quebec. By studying class and politics in four societies (involving the command of three languages), he continued the direction started by Aileen Ross of comparative sociology. His book on class and politics in the U.S. was one of the few nominated as the outstanding book of the year in sociology. Hamilton later joined the department of sociology at Ohio State University, where he retired.

    The other members appointed to the Department during this period were all appointed at junior ranks. Virtually all of those subsequently promoted to Associate or Full Professor similarly made important contributions to the field. Maurice Pinard became one of the major figures in the field of social movements and in the study of Quebec society, most recently though studies on the French Canadian separatist movement. Pinard's book, The Rise of a Third Party(Prentice-Hall, 1971) was one of the first empirical survey research studies ever done on a social movement, combining theory and empirical data in a unique way. And his studies on French Canadian separatism made him the outstanding scholar in Canada on this topic. In recognition of the high quality of his work, Pinard received one of the few Killam awards which are granted and was the first person at McGill, and one of the first in Canada, to receive a SSHRC non-sabbatical leave research fellowship. He was also chosen for membership in the Royal Society. Roger Krohn, another person initially appointed at a junior rank, did one of the first quantitative studies in the sociology of science (The Social Shaping of Science, 1971), thus helping to launch that discipline, and he subsequently edited volume four of the Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook 1981. This latter work entailed the commissioning of articles, and several trips to England, France, Sweden, and Germany, for it was an international project. He, also, contributed himself to the volume. In addition, he did a crucial and innovative study of housing deterioration in Montreal, entitled The Other Economy. The Internal Logic of Local Rental Housing (1977). This work was seminal in that it identified a hitherto unrecognized set of economic processes with major implications for housing policy. Another person initially appointed at a junior rank is G.J. Robinson. She published a major study on the place of the news service in the power structure of Yugoslavia. The book is titled Tito's Maveric Media, 1977. At the time of this study, there were only a handful of studies on the political structure of the media, mostly of the United States, and those done on Communist countries almost all involved secondary data only. In contrast, Robinson learned Serbo-Croatian, and carried out extensive interviewing. Her findings, furthermore, were directly relevant to the single most important controversy over communications in the world at the time, that over so-called "New Information Order". On this latter topic, she published a book titledNews Agencies and World News, 1981. She was also central in establishing the McGill Graduate Program in Communications, then the only such program in Canada, and one involving close links with French universities in Montreal. Another person initially appointed at a junior rank was Malcolm Spector. Spector and co-author John Kitsuse published a book titled Constructing Social Problems, 1977, arguing for a new approach in the study of social problems. This book received excellent reviews from top scholars in the field even though it attacked the approaches of many of them. Spector subsequently was the principal organizer of the annual meetings of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, and the meetings were organized around the topic of this new approach in this field. This approach remains at the cutting edge of research in this area. Spector was an editor of the journal Social Problems, one of the top sociology journals in North America. Prue Rains, another initially junior appointment, published a book on the problem of unwed mothers, entitled Becoming an Unwed Mother: A Sociological Account, Aldine, 1971. This book constituted one of the few consistent applications of the labeling approach, an influential paradigm in sociology. The result was a set of policy implications that fundamentally contradicted the standard, and largely ineffective, policies then being followed. Thus, for both theoretical and policy reasons, it was an important work. Similarly, other persons initially appointed as junior staff have made important contributions to the field: Donald Von Eschen published a set of important articles on social movements which showed empirically that a widespread paradigm in the field is false, and that demonstrated a need to shift from a focus on recruitment to tactics. He later researched theories of economic development, and the problems of rural development in India. Michael Smith published a series of seminal articles on industrial relations in Canada and Quebec, making Smith one of the most outstanding authorities in Canadian this area. He later studied the social roots of inflation, and completed an analysis of sociological theories of inflation in Britian.

    Among junior faculty members at the time, Morton Weinfeld published a book on the Jewish community of Canada titled, The Canadian Jewish Mosaic, (Wiley, 1981), and although he was out of graduate school only four and a half years also wrote a score of articles, based on several different studies. Uli Locher directed a major research project on the adaptation of immigrants in the Montreal area, and worked, as well, on rural-urban migration in the Caribbean (principally, Haiti). Anthony Masi studied the impact of capital intensive industrialization in Southern Italy, while Charles Cappell studied the legal elite.

    In sum, then, the McGill Department was very active and distinguished in scholarship from the start. Through most of its history, it has attracted truly outstanding scholars.

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