Evolution of a Division: Highlights from 125 Years of Social Sciences

Ingrid Gonçalves
Photo Credit: 
Photos courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library

As the University of Chicago celebrates its 125th year, 2015 also marks the 85th anniversary of the Division of the Social Sciences. The Division emerged from a collection of autonomous departments to provide a single institutional structure for all social sciences education and research at the University, advancing the work of students and scholars across a broad range of specialties and approaches. 


1890: The University of Chicago is founded, with plans for faculty and students of the arts and sciences to be grouped into three undergraduate Colleges and two graduate schools. Early departments are governed by “heads” who enjoy near-sovereign power over their jurisdictions.




1892: The Department of Sociology is established with Albion Small (above) as head professor. Small plays a leading role in defining sociology as an academic discipline and is followed by generations of students and colleagues who pioneer new methodologies in sociology, including the study of urban life, demography, and social structures.


1892: Frederick Starr (below) joins the faculty and the Department of Anthropology is founded. Its programas of study imbue students with a foundation in the history and foundations of social and cultural theory. Noted UChicago anthropologists range from primatology expert Russell H. Tuttle to Judith B. Farquhar, PhD’86, whose work focuses on contemporary China.


1893: The Department of Psychology is founded (left), originally known as the Laboratory for Psychology. True to the Division’s interdisciplinary nature, many faculty members serve on more than one of the department’s programs in cognition, developmental psychology, integrative neuroscience, and social psychology.


1897: The Department of History is created, developing into a leader in cultural and intellectual history, interdisciplinary and comparative history, and international history. Its faculty includes Pulitzer Prize winners John Hope Franklin (above) for George Washington Williams: A Biography (1986) and Bernadotte E. Schmidt for The Coming of the War, 1914 (1931).



1900: The Department of Political Science opens, setting the stage for its emergence as a leader in the study of government and politics. Former teachers in the department include Harry Pratt Judson (pictured far left) and authority on American social and political issues Charles E. Merriam (above).



1925: The Department of Economics is created. Its students and faculty (including medical education and professional assessment pioneer Christine McGuire Masserman, above) have advanced our understanding of society, spearheading the study of ideas ranging from econometrics to human capital .


1929: The Social Science Research Building (shown above at a conference honoring the tenth anniversary of its dedication) opens. Although the building houses individual scholars and their research, it does not house their departments as administrative entities, foreshadowing a shift toward a new approach to academic governance that looks beyond traditional departments as scholarly units.



1930: The Board of Trustees votes to restructure the University into the four divisions, the College, and professional schools. By grouping the previously semi-sovereign departments under the leadership of a Division, Hutchins hopes to encourage divisional cultures of interdisciplinary educational work.


1930: The Committee on Child Development is created. Ten years later its title is updated to the Committee on Human Development, reflecting the growth in research interest (the committee becomes the Department of Comparative Human Development in 2006.) This academic year the Department celebrates its 75th anniversary.


1931: President Hutchins appoints Beardsley Ruml, PhD’17 (above), as the first full-time dean of the Division of Social Sciences. An educator, executive, and adviser to commerce, industry, and government, Ruml personifies the Division’s new collaborative, interdisciplinary spirit. He leaves UChicago in 1934 to become the treasurer of Macy’s Department Store in New York City.



1938: The Division establishes the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS). Today students select from courses throughout the social sciences to personalize their programs of study.


1941: The Committee on Social Thought (founded by John U. Nef Jr., shown above with his father) is founded to promote deeper understanding of the fundamental issues that govern the social sciences, where students research important classic and modern texts before concentrating on a specific dissertation topic .


1941: The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) is created as a wartime opinion polling organization. Since then, NORC’s standard-setting data collection and analytical tools have enriched public policy debate and decision making by creating a knowledge base to generate effective solutions to social problems.



1960s onward: The Division of the Social Sciences facilitates the development of interdisciplinary institutes and research centers, such as • The Center for Middle Eastern Studies (1965) • The Institute for Mind and Biology (1988) • The Consortium on Chicago School Research and eventually the Urban Education Institute (1990) • The Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (1994) • The Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics (2011).


2012: The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society is established as a collaboration between the Divisions of the Social Sciences and the Humanities to advance student and faculty investigations of large-scale questions. In 2015 it moves into the former Meadville Theological Seminary.


2014: Saieh Hall for Economics is dedicated. The result of the adaptive reuse of the former Chicago Theological Seminary building, Saieh Hall provides state-of-theart facilities housing the Department of Economics, the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago, and the Center for the Economics of Human Development.


Related Department(s):