SOAN Department Proposes Split Into Individual Sociology and Anthropology Departments



Munroe Hall is home to the Sociology and Anthropology Department, which may soon split in two.


The Department of Sociology and Anthropology (SOAN) proposed splitting into two individual departments, offering two separate majors, during the faculty meeting last Friday. Linus Owens, associate professor of sociology, and James Fitzsimmons, associate professor of anthropology, presented the plan, which aims to expand the autonomy of the new Sociology and Anthropology departments while increasing majors’ focus on their field of choice. Per college policy, the proposal cannot be voted on until the final faculty meeting of the year in May.

“We’re two different disciplines, and we’ve grown over the years,” Owens said during the meeting. “We’ve gotten big enough to become increasingly disciplinarily focused on each side, and it makes sense. We think we are at the size where we’re better off splitting to offer both a sociology major and an anthropology major, rather than trying to pull them together.”

The current SOAN major offers three tracks: an anthropology focus, a sociology focus, and a combined third option that allows students to take an equal number of classes in both disciplines. Prior to 2012, the department did not allow students to choose a focus. It has since grown then to 12 faculty members, with six in each field, numbers comparable to departments such as Classics, Education Studies and Comparative Literature.

“As soon as it becomes possible, it starts to feel like it needs to happen,” Owens told The Campus. He said most SOAN faculty members agree that they should offer separate majors through separate departments, but do not all agree on the timing. 

Several faculty members expressed concern that the process was too rushed, while others worried that the division could prevent students from moving as freely between the disciplines while deciding on a major. “What this proposal in one way has allowed each side to do, I think, is to further define these disciplines,” said Professor of Anthropology Ellen Oxfeld. “So the new anthropology major is going to look more defined than the anthropology track.”

Oxfeld said the element the department was still deciding how to go about the joint major option, which would replace the current combined SOAN track.

“We have the requirements worked out for each major. Each side seems satisfied with those requirements,” Fitzsimmons said at the meetings. “We also have a provisional outline for a special joint major. Yes, at least as far as the joint major stuff, that’s more of what’s worked out in the last week. What I would add is that there is willingness on both sides to compromise.” 

Amid questions about the specifics of that which they were voting on and how much authority faculty had over these decisions, one professor at the meeting asked whether the split would involve a need for new positions or increased funding. “There’s no additional staffing expected, required, asked for,” Owens answered.

Members of the SOAN department are working with Dean of the Faculty Andi Lloyd on the administrative processes involved in the proposed split. Lloyd, who Owens described as an objective voice more informed about the college’s procedures, was unable to attend the faculty meeting.

Owens told The Campus that the “how” complicates the “why.” He said the majority of Middlebury’s comparably-sized peer institutions have separate departments, the current system unnecessarily combines two different disciplines and the current flexibility of the SOAN department does not offer students sufficient disciplinary depth. While the current plan is to continue offering a joint major, “most people have a preference,” Owens said.

Preliminary discussions with students indicate support for the split. “Students’ educational outcomes are also a driving force behind these decisions,” Owens said.