Departments of Sociology in Britain


Sociology emerged in British universities during the early twentieth century as a complex and inconsistent mixture of theoretical and practical concerns that were shaped by challenges from other disciplines, emerging and established, and from political and charitable organisations and projects with their own agendas. When departments were set up, their host university authorities and their newly recruited members often had differing views about exactly what it was that they were setting up, and why they were doing it.

The subject appeared under a variety of departmental and course labels, reflecting the diverse terms that had already been used in the titles of the growing number of books that related to the area: social science, social studies, social work training, social administration, social economics, as well as sociology. It also coexisted, and competed, with the also-emerging discipline of geography and with ethnology and anthropology. The various departments combined, in their varying ways, theory, comparative and historical studies, and practical training. Only gradually did these give rise to the establishment of separate, specialised departments focused on what we now understand as sociology, social policy, and social anthropology. The 'sociology' units, still operating under a variety of names (Social Studies, Social Theory and Institutions, as well as simply Sociology), expanded through the 1960s and 1970s, after which there was a period of consolidation and contraction during which the rise of neoliberalism heralded reforms in higher education that led to closures and mergers in which sociology and various other social sciences were often combined into large multidisciplinary Schools of social science, social and political sciences, or human sciences.

My project has focused on the emergence of the principal contemporary departments of sociology as they developed from the earliest days up to the late 1970s. The full list of mini-histories will be found here.