The study of sociology in Hong Kong dates back to the 1950s, when some academics from mainland China migrated to Hong Kong and set up several post-secondary colleges offering sociology courses.
The earliest sociology curriculum was offered by Chung Chi College in 1951, followed by United College in 1956 and New Asia College in 1959. Pioneers in the nascent field of sociology at that time included Mr. Shau-lam Wong of Chung Chi, Mr. C.C. Hu of United and Mr. Tsun Leng of New Asia.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong was established in 1963. The Board of Studies in Sociology was organized in 1965 to coordinate teaching and research activities in the three colleges. Those who have served as Chairman of the Board include Prof. Morris Berkowitz, Prof. Burkart Holzner, Prof. Jiri Nehnevajsa, Prof. Robert Chin, Dr. F.M. Wong, Mr. Shau-lam Wong and Prof. Ambrose Y.C. King. In 1977, the sociology curricula of the three colleges were unified into a single curriculum, while the staff and students of the three colleges were integrated into a single Department of Sociology, with Prof. Ambrose Y.C. King as Chairman of the Department and of the Board of Studies. A fourth constituent college, Shaw College, was established in 1986, and the sociology staff and students are similarly integrated into the unified Department. From 1990 to 1992, Prof. Rance P.L. Lee assumed the Chairmanships of the Department and the Board. From 1992 to 1994, Dr. T.S. Cheung was Chairman of the Department and Prof. S.K. Lau was Chairman of the Board of Studies. The designation of ‘Board of Studies’ was discontinued from the 1994-95 academic year. The Department was chaired by Prof. S.K. Lau (1994-2002), Prof. Rance P.L. Lee (2002-2009), Prof. Y.W. Cheung (2009-2016), and Prof. Eric Fong (2016-2019). Prof. Tony Tam took up the chairmanship in August 2019.
During the late 1960s to mid-1970s, the Department made great strides in curriculum planning and academic research, with advice and assistance from Prof. C.K. Yang of the University of Pittsburgh. The Department of Sociology was the first department at CUHK to offer ‘inter-collegiate courses’ that served all students regardless of their college affiliation. More importantly, an impressive number of overseas academics have served as visiting professors in the Department, greatly strengthening its teaching and research capacity. A number of graduates of the Department have continued their studies in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan and other overseas countries, and returned to work in various academic institutions in Hong Kong. This has contributed greatly to the localization of sociology in Hong Kong.
In the mid-1960s, each college decided to establish its own research centre to promote sociological research by the staff and to train students: Chung Chi’s Rural Research Centre, United’s Urban Research Centre and New Asia’s Sociology Laboratory. In 1969, a larger step was taken by combining these three smaller research units to form the Social Research Centre, which was first headed by Prof. Ambrose Y.C. King, and then by Prof. Rance P.L. Lee. Well-known research projects conducted under the auspices of the Centre include ‘Hawking Activities and their Social and Economic Implications in Hong Kong’, ‘Fertility Attitudes and Behaviour in Hong Kong’, ‘Social Causes of Violent Crimes among Young Offenders in Hong Kong’, ‘The Development and Social Life in the Kwun Tong New Town’ and ‘Corruption and its Control in Hong Kong’.
Faculty members of the Department have always been interested in social changes in China. For example, a field study of the organization and social life of several communes was conducted in 1976- 77, and a book based on the findings was published. Furthermore, since the early 1980s, through the arrangements made by Prof. Fei Xiaotong and Prof. C.K. Yang, faculty members of the Department have delivered numerous lectures in major academic institutions such as Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, Fudan University in Shanghai and Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, as contributions to the re-establishment of sociology in mainland China.
In 1982, the Social Research Centre was restructured and incorporated into the Institute of Social Studies, under which were the Centre for Hong Kong Studies and the Centre for Contemporary Asian Studies. In 1990, the Institute and its two centres became the multidisciplinary Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies (HKIAPS), with Prof. Rance P.L. Lee as Chairman of the Management Committee until 2009. Sociology faculty members have been involved in many strategic research projects in the Institute, such as ‘Political Development and Political Culture in Hong Kong’, ‘Social Indicators and Social Development’, ‘Gender Research’, ‘Civil Society’, ‘Chinese Family Studies’ and ‘Changes in South China’. In 2008, two of these programmes were established as centres of the HKIAPS under the directorship of our faculty members, namely, the Centre for Chinese Family Studies (with Prof. K. F. Ting as first Director and now directed by Prof. Y.Y. Tong) and the Centre for Civil Society Studies (directed by Prof. K.M. Chan till November 2014). Centre for Civil Society Studies was renamed to Centre for Social Innovation Studies in 2015. The Pearl River Delta Social Research Centre (PRDSRC) was established between October 2011 and July 2017. The Research Centre on Migration and Mobility was established in June 2016. In June 2018, our Department and the School of Public Policy and Administration of Xi’an Jiaotong University established the CUHK-Xi’an Jiaotong University Joint Research Centre on Migration and Prof. Yuying Tong is the Co-Director. In 2021, the Research Centre on Migration and Mobility was expanded to include research clusters on the interplay of population health, social inequality, and population dynamics. The Centre was therefore renamed as the Centre for Population Research (CPR), with Prof. Tony Tam and Y.Y. Tong as the founding Director and Executive Director, respectively. The expanded scope of the new CPR has created strong synergy with the new Computational Social Science initiative (CSS@CUHK) of the Faculty of Social Science. As a key champion of this new initiative, Prof T. Tam was appointed as the inaugural Co-director of the Computational Social Science Laboratory (CSSL) and the CSS PhD Fellowship Scheme.
The University Grants Committee had conducted periodic Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) since 1993. In RAE 2020, 72% of our representative research publications were rated as at least internationally excellent with regard to originality and significance. In fact, 25% of all our representative research publications were rated as world leading. These ratings put us, together with the Department of Economics, substantially ahead of all other departments/schools within the Faculty of Social Science.
At present, the Department has an undergraduate student body of 196, plus 4 MPhil students and 33 PhD students. In recent years, the department has attracted diverse international students from Europe, the U.S., Asia, and Africa (such as the Italy, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Russia, the Philippines, and Ethiopia). At the same time, to support the Faculty’s new initiative CSS@CUHK, the Department has launched a new CSS Concentration for doctoral fellows admitted through the CSS PhD Fellowship Scheme.
Graduates of the Department develop their careers in various educational institutions, industrial and commercial enterprises, mass media, social service agencies and government departments in Hong Kong. Quite a number of them are working abroad in the USA, Canada, Australia, UK and other overseas countries. The Department introduced the MA in Sociology in 2005-06 (an MSSc in Applied Social Research was also offered from 2005 to 2009). This is a taught programme offering sociological training to people working in the community who are interested in studying sociology for a Master’s degree.
Over the years, the Department has admitted a number of students from mainland China for doctoral studies. Some of them have graduated and returned to the mainland to teach at major institutions such as Peking University, Fudan University, Shanghai University, Wuhan University, Sun Yat-sen University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Moreover, under the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation, a training program had been organized between 1995 and 2003. Under this programme, each year six young sociology teachers from sociology departments in major universities on the mainland came to our department for one semester to improve their professional knowledge on a particular course.
The Department currently has an international full-time teaching staff, including two Americans, one German, and one Korean. In addition, the Department has 4 Emeritus Professors, 4 Professors (by courtesy), 2 Honorary Adjunct Professors from Princeton and Stanford, 1 Adjunct Associate Professor, and 5 Adjunct Assistant Professors in the Department. Most of the faculty members share the goal of planting sociology on Chinese soil. The aspiration of the Department is to not only contribute to the globalization of sociology but also become highly relevant, at both theoretical and practical levels, to the social life of Chinese people in Hong Kong and elsewhere.