October 05, 2020

Merton’s Role Set: Chairing a Sociology Department

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

Have you met the chair of the sociology department? What do they do, anyway?

When I was an undergraduate at a large public university, I didn’t know who the chair was, let alone what they did. Heck, I am the chair of a sociology department right now, and I’m still figuring it out! But, I think it’s important for you to know what chairs do, particularly in our current, historical moment.

A department chair tends to be someone who is a senior member of the department faculty, who is either voted on by fellow colleagues or appointed by the college dean. They might serve in the position for three or four years, and some get reappointed for another term.

What does the chair do? Undergraduate students might have some idea if they have a grade dispute, or another problem with one of their classes. For the most part, a department chair moves behind the scenes of what the average student sees. There’s a reason you don’t see chairs teaching classes: many shift their workload by teaching less to focus on administrative responsibilities. Those jobs include managing budgets, scheduling courses, overseeing department staff and faculty, developing long-term plans, and communicating university policies to the faculty, staff, and students.

More mundane tasks might be anything from signing a stack of diplomas to fielding complaints about the toilet seats in the bathrooms! The experience is like--as I was warned--being pecked to death by ducks. (For a really deep dive, here’s a fabulous description of the job.) At a deeper level, the chair should attend to bigger picture issues of equity across faculty, and serve as a leader.

How can we think of the role of the chair in a more sociological way? Well, first of all, when I think of role I always think of Robert Merton, who introduced us to middle range theories. The argument was that sociology often focuses on big, or grand theories (e.g., Marx’s historical materialism, which attempts to explain all of human history as a struggle over material resources) or micro theories (e.g., explanations for interpersonal relations, theories of the self), but that we should strive to develop theories of the middle range.

As his main example, however, he offers the role set, which is a “complement of social relationships in which persons are involved simply because they occupy a particular social status” (1968: 42) (For more, see his book Social Theory and Social Structure). A role might be a patterned set of expectations, but a role set is a complement of several roles, which can, in turn, create conflicting expectations and therefore, stresses. Such a development of the concept is connected to larger organizational structures (macro sociology) but also points to something for folks to study (more empirical, or possibly micro sociology).

The idea of a role set, in relation to the job of being chair, is illustrative of this perspective. There are many roles that a chair has to take on: professor, colleague, friend, financial officer, leader, and more. Some of these roles can be at odds with each other. Two colleagues can be very friendly but, once one of them becomes chair, there is a status change that comes with new responsibilities, including evaluating and giving feedback to colleagues who were equals only a few months prior.

It might seem like chairs have a lot of what Pierre Bourdieu called “relative power”—power that can be wielded by using cultural, economic, and social capital in a particular social arena or “field”—but in other ways, the role of the chair is more like a middleman. Chairs have only some control over what college deans and provosts determine, and faculty have a great deal of academic freedom in what they teach in their classes.

On top of this, there’s a significant gender story here as well. Being chair used to be a quite prestigious position, but with added layers of bureaucracy and accounting. These days, serving as a department chair is a service responsibility that tends to fall on women more than men, which means that they are often pulled away from their research and other responsibilities. Some of my colleagues at UMass Amherst have been studying this exact phenomenon and, importantly, have built tools for assessing this service work to better track exactly how this impacts women in academia.

Now, back to this historical moment. There are two major crises that have hit academic departments, and chairs are left to figure out some pretty thorny issues.

The Black Lives Matter movement has made pointed and entirely appropriate demands relating to programming and hiring in higher education, and the unfurling COVID debacle has added intense budgetary pressures on every academic department across the country. Most campuses have gone remote and many of those that started to open, have reversed their decisions. There has also been a long and steady shift away from states funding public universities, and the burden largely falls on residential students (and their families): A significant percentage of university funding comes from tuition, room and board.

Sociology departments have addressed historical racial inequalities at the level of the department (see this example from Washington University in St Louis), while also facing a massive budgetary crisis. Currently, administrators are asking department chairs to trim initiatives and activities so that they can cut their budgets by as much as 15%.

The role of chair seems, with all of these interconnected issues, to be an even more daunting task as we are caught between intense administrative demands and a concerned and overworked group of faculty, staff and students—all experiencing their own pandemic experiences in individual and highly unequal ways. Understanding them through a sociological lens helps us to see the various pressures of the role, and can give you a better sense of how your sociology department works!

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