Sociology, Gen Ed, and Breaking the Rules

Fewer students are majoring in social sciences but they’re still one of the most popular areas of study. Santa Clara sociologists explain why

Sociology, Gen Ed, and Breaking the Rules
Why do we do the things we do? We've been searching for the answer since antiquity. Image: The School of Athens by Raphael, courtesy Wikimedia.

Christina Nelson ’24 says she’s always been a person who wants to understand “the why.” Why do we do the things we do? Why do we treat each other this way? The why of it all, she says, drove her to major in sociology.

“It seemed like it would help me answer those questions,” Nelson says of sociology, a social science that analyzes society and human behavior. Majors are trained to ask big questions about human interaction, conduct research and collect data, and address issues in groups, communities, cultures, and organizations.

Though sociology is not a vocationally oriented major—the way, say, mechanical engineering or organic chemistry are—Nelson says it’s an open one that could set her down any number of career paths.

Still, the social sciences and humanities posted some of the biggest declines in majors over a 10-year period in 2022, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Questions have been raised nationally about whether to continue requiring undergrads to take courses in these fields. And some states have specifically targeted fields like sociology and ethnic studies as part of an ideological broadside that has also included banning books, the teaching of Critical Race Theory, and diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

Nelson calls that fear. “I think people are scared of sociology because it talks realistically about a lot of ugly truths that many would rather bury,” she says. Sociologists are taught to “question everything… which can feel threatening to large institutions.”

It’s worth noting here that although social sciences lost a significant number of declared majors in the last decade, the field remained one of the most popular in America. Of the 2 million bachelor’s degrees conferred in the 2019-2020 school year, social sciences and history awarded 161,200 degrees—the third most behind business and health sciences. Sociology remains “one of the most popular majors in the country,” says Santa Clara Professor Margaret Hunter.

The recent scrutiny of sociology is disappointing, Hunter says, but not all that surprising.  “Sociology has been characterized as an advocacy-oriented discipline that isn’t based in research,” she says. But that’s false. It’s scientific, producing quantitative or qualitative research: “It’s systematic investigation.”

“Our research disproportionately reveals inequalities—employment discrimination, by gender and race, etc. People don’t want to be confronted with the empirical realities of the world that we live in,” Hunter says.

The Department of Sociology at Santa Clara University promises to give students a “sociological imagination” that unveils a greater understanding of the forces that shape society and influence culture. Sociology can fulfill credits in SCU’s Core Curriculum, the general education that all undergraduates, regardless of major, are required to take.

Sociology is applicable in so many fields, Hunter says. Majors, for example, learn “how to do a good survey, how to review research, how to analyze data.” In tech, sociological principles can help determine how artificial intelligence created by humans can perpetuate inequalities in education or healthcare. It can help us understand how to reach different communities in preparing for climate change realities. “It’s highly relevant to anyone who lives in society,” she says.

Ruben Villa ’10 double majored in sociology and studio art. After graduating in the middle of the Great Recession, Villa likes to say he applied for a gig at a “company in Cupertino looking for a Photoshop expert” before learning Photoshop. He spent more than a decade working design jobs at places like Apple and Google before opening a creative studio in Gilroy, Calif.

Beyond his graphic design skills, Villa credits studying sociology for being able to navigate big corporate spaces. “It helped me understand a world that I was not introduced to by my parents,” says Villa, a first-generation college student whose parents immigrated from Mexico. “It helped me understand the rules of the game, the unspoken dynamics, the vocabulary, the etiquette.”

For example, Villa says he’s a “connoisseur of writing the perfect email.” He knows how to give feedback in a way that won’t make people feel defensive, that will get them to feel like they’re part of the process. It’s about “building community via communication,” he says.

Talking to Villa is like talking to someone who’s got it all figured out. It’s calming to meet a person who seems to know exactly what they’re doing and, especially, why they’re doing it. But in reality, Villa is just really good at identifying any given context he’s in. “If more folks understood their context, they might reconsider their place in it… and that could cause problems for the status quo,” he says. And that’s a threatening idea for those who make the rules. As Villa says, “Learning the rules helped me understand where and when it was beneficial to break them.”

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