Our list of influential women in sociology features those who have been highly cited and searched online over the last 10 years. They include a broad group of academics and practitioners who specialize in areas like feminist theory, ethnography, transnational human migration, and more.
Sociology is the study of the complex systems that compose human life, including families, communities, and societies. An advanced degree in sociology will provide you with the instruction, experience, and hands-on education required to conduct research and analyze data in an array of real-world settings. Sociology is a data-driven field where masters learn how to conduct research, study populations, and understand how these populations are impacted by factors like geography, race, economics, and more. Earning a master’s degree in sociology could qualify you for an array of leadership and research roles in social services, public health, education, policy analysis, and much more.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities in this field are comparatively scarce. With just 3000 working professionals today identifying as sociologists and only an additional 100 positions projected to open over the next decade, sociology is growing at a far slower rate than average. That said, in 2016, over half the Master’s Degrees awarded in Sociology were given to women. Moreover, opportunities do abound in related fields. For instance, as of 2020, more than 13,000 working professionals identified as post-secondary sociology educators.
Women interested in advancing in this field benefit from strong advocacy through groups like the Sociologists for Women in Society, a nonprofit professional feminist organization that supports academic research and publication, professional development, and activism. Other consequential organizations include the Association of Black Sociologists, which advocates for the interests of Black sociologists and Black people locally and globally with a particular focus on improving the quality of sociological research, teaching and service, and the American Sociological Association, which is the leading national professional membership association for sociologists.
The list below highlights women who have made critical contributions to education, research, policy, and activism within the broader field of sociology. Topping the list is Patricia Hill Collins, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park and the first African-American woman (and 100th person overall) to serve as the President of the American Sociological Association. She is included here for her groundbreaking work on intersectionality. Other prominent scholars on our list include Chandra Talpade Mohanty, the Distinguished Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Sociology, and the Cultural Foundations of Education and Dean’s Professor of the Humanities at Syracuse University, Gail Dines, professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts, and Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University.
American sociologist Patrician Hill Collins currently holds the title of University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She previously was a professor of the University of Cincinnati (where she was also head of the Department of African-American Studies). Collins also holds the distinction of being the 100th president of the American Sociological Association, the first African-American woman to do so. Collins completed her BA in sociology at Brandeis University in 1965, her MA in social science education at Harvard in 1970, and her PhD at Brandeis in 1984.
Collins is known for her work in the intersection of factors such as race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and national origin affect our perceptions of selves and others, as well as opportunities and barriers, and approach better known as intersectionality. In particular, Collins has placed a great deal of focus on how these various factors affect the status and lives of Black people in America. Though Collins did not coin the term “intersectionality” (that can be traced to Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of our most influential figures in law), her work has done a great deal to advance the idea as a critical tool, and explore how it can be implemented to better understand social issues and inequity.
Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. She earned a B.A. from Michigan State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D at Harvard University. She went on to become the first female sociologist to achieve tenure at Harvard University.
A scholar of historical institutionalism, comparative sociology, and political science, she has studied the phenomena of social revolutions and impacts on social policy and engagement. Her best known work is States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. Her book Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award for best political science book in 2003. Four years later, she received one of the most prestigious awards for political science in the world – the Johan Skytte Prize.
Saskia Sassen is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and Centennial Visiting Professor for the London School of Economics. Born in 1947 in The Hague, Netherlands, she grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her father was a Nazi journalist and a member of the Waffen SS. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D from the University of Notre Dame and an additional master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Poitiers.
A recognized expert in urban sociology, Sassen is credited with coining the term, “global city” used to describe a population center integral to a larger global economic network. Weaving variables of inequality, gendering, and digitization through her study of urban politics, she has investigated the phenomena of transnational human migration, globalization, immigration, and denationalization.
She has written numerous books, such as The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization, and Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. For her significant accomplishments and scholarship in the field, she was honored with the Prince of Asturius Award in Social Sciences in 2013. She is a member and former chair of the Committee on Global Thought. The French government also recognized her as a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres.
Sherry Turkle is a noted expert on the interactions between humans and technology. She earned a B.A. in Social Studies from Radcliffe College and her Ph.D in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University. Her career has been spent examining the advancement of technologies and the changes in human social behavior that have resulted.
She has written numerous books about humans and technology, including The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit and Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The Second Self is a highly regarded work about how technology is changing how humans think. In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle suggests that technology is often a means of escaping reality, and as we escape reality, we drift further from genuine human interaction.
Nancy Fraser is a critic of contemporary liberal feminism and identity politics. She is the Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science and professor of philosophy at The New School. She earned her B.A. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr and her Ph.D in philosophy from the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Her work on the conceptions of justice and injustice have led her to the conclusion that justice can be viewed in two ways: distributive justice (related to equitable distribution of resources), and justice of recognition (related to recognition of identity). Likewise, injustice can be viewed as either maldistribution or misrecognition. In her view, society’s recent preoccupation with the injustice of misrecognition has diverted attention and resources from the ongoing problems of maldistribution.
Fraser has been International Research Chair in Social Justice for Collège d’études mondiales in Paris, a visiting professor in women’s rights for University of Cambridge and Senior fellow for the Center for Advanced Studies, “Justitia Amplificata,” in Frankfurt. She is president of the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division. In 2018, she was honored with the Nessim Habif World Prize by The Graduate Institute, the Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship by the Havens Center for Social Justice at the University of Wisconsin, and the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur.
Canadian-born Michèle Lamont currently holds the title of Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard University, as well as Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She has also held professorial positions at the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University, and visiting roles at a variety of international institutions. Beyond being a professor, Lamont served as the 108th President of the American Sociological Association from 2016-2017, chair to the Council for European Studies from 2006-2009, and co-director of the Co-director of the Successful Societies Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Lamont completed her BA and MA in political theory in 1979 at the University of Ottawa, and her Ph.D. from the University of Paris in 1983.
Lamont is a cultural and comparative sociologist and her work is primarily focused on issues of inequality and social hierarchy. In particular, Lamont has focused on how racism and stigma emerge from and also inform inequality in social systems. Lamont argues for a theory of boundaries, in which society is defined by symbolic boundaries (conceptual distinctions of groups and members) and social boundaries (social differences defined by inequality of social opportunities). These ideas have been influential in understanding race relations and inequality in American and European societies.
Top row, left to right: Patricia Hill Collins, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Malala Yousafzai, Shafi Goldwasser, Jennifer Doudna, Fabiola Gianotti, Michiko Kakutani, Lauren Underwood.
Bottom row, left to right: Fei-Fei Li, Esther Duflo, Kathy Reichs, Nancy Fraser, Brené Brown, Judith Curry, Jill Lepore, Zaha Hadid.