Teaching in the Department began in 1966 with just three staff members: Professor Murray Groves, an Australian social anthropologist who was appointed the first Chair of Sociology, Mrs Daisy Seah as secretary and a peon. One hundred and fifty students enrolled for three courses. The students were highly motivated and were not deterred by the staffing constraints. A number of full-time lecturers were hired but the staff remained at about half a dozen. The Department's first home was on the top floor of the Manasseh Meyer Building located at the Upper Quadrangle of the University's Bukit Timah campus. This was also the site where the Department's (and the University's) first weekly seminars were held.
One problem that hampered teaching was the lack of sociological material on Malaya and Singapore. The collection of data fell upon the members of the staff and students. Riaz Hassan and Joseph Tamney compiled a reader on Singapore, Analysis of an Asian Society: Singapore from the works of authors from the University. The students' Sociology Society produced the South-East Asian Journal of Sociology that was a scholarly journal for both local and refereed international contributors. Even though it only ran three issues, it was the forebear of the by now internationally established Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science that is based in the Department and published by Times Academic Press.
This period was one of expansion for the Department including its move to larger quarters at House Number Eleven in the Bukit Timah campus. The Department began to build an indigenous research base and to focus the teaching on Singapore and Southeast Asia. The Working Paper Series was set up as a means to encourage members of the Department to write and present their research findings. it was also regarded as a means to establish the academic standing of the Department by providing the intellectual stimulation needed to take advantage of the multiracial environment of a growing metropolis. Urban sociology and ethnic relations became central themes of both teaching and research in the Department. The Research Seminar that was begun some years was formalised. There was active participation in the seminar from outside the Department as such activities were elsewhere in the University. Postgraduate research was emphasised with an expansion of the Department's postgraduate programme to offer a doctoral degree in addition to the existing Master's degree. The Department continued to expand as both sociologists and anthropologists were recruited from the wider region, and its own graduates began to return with PhDs from abroad.
When the Department moved to Kent Ridge campus in 1981 it had 23 full-time teaching staff. It is presently one of the largest departments in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences with 30 full-time teaching staff. The research activities of the Department have become varied over the years. Although primarily focused on Singapore, some staff members have always had research interests in other countries of the region. During this period the Department also emphasised multidisciplinary research. In more recent years a considerable amount of research interest has been shown in the area of applied sociology. Since the 1994-95 academic year, with the introduction of the modular system, the Department has introduced a host of new courses reflecting both its regional focus and applied orientation. Many of the staff continue to work in close collaboration with various governmental departments and international bodies.
At the beginning of the new century, the Department remained sensitive to the new demands and challenges posed by rapid modernization of Singapore society. It engaged in some larger scale, multidisciplinary research projects. Several of these had a demographic focus: the "Comparative Study of Health and Aging in Asia", undertaken together with the University of Michigan, USA, and funded by the US National Institute of Aging; and a study on " Transitions in Health, Wealth, and Welfare of Elderly Singaporeans: 1995-1999", sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Department of Sociology, in collaboration with the Ministry of Community Development and the University of Michigan. The launching of this research project brought Singapore on par with major studies on ageing in the United States such as the Health and Retirement Survey. A third concerned "Late Marriage and Low Fertility in Singapore: Insights from a Socio-Cultural Perspective" and was funded by the NUS University Research Committee. A number of comparative projects sought to enhance understandings of political, economic and social conditions in the region, for instance those on "Ethnicity, Migration, and the Nation-state in Southeast and East Asia", which compared concepts of ethnicity, and the conditions of migrants, in Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan; ASEAN Regional Identities; Cultural Values and Asian Regional Identities; Cultural Values and Asian Entrepreneurship: A Cross-Cultural Comparison; and East Asian Modernization and Modernity. In 2002, a team from the Department completed the First World Values Survey in Singapore, a project which emphasized cross-national comparisons of social change and value shifts as well as reflects the Department initiative in social indicators research.
Today, the Department is continuing to develop its core research programmes organized in four clusters: Anthropology; Comparative Historical Sociology; Family, Demography and Inequality; and Urban, Mobility and Cultural Studies.