asa: a lobbying organization?

I just got the new issue of Footnotes. It fit in well with my attempt to look busy but avoid doing my immediate work. Two pieces were what I would consider “lobbying” or “position-taking” on the part of the organization (excluding a South African Scholar from the US and a letter of protest to the ASA Israel Boycott resolution). And I began to wonder what the implications of this kind of position-taking is for our discipline. My intuition is that it weakens our position both in public policy arenas and in the academy more generally. But rather than make arguments about it, I wonder if anyone has actually looked into this. Anyone out there know of some kind of work done on this questions (it doesn’t have to be about sociology, just organizations in general).

But now to my own uninformed mind. Thinking about the ASA I can’t help but wonder about PAA by contrast. As far as I can tell, PAA takes the approach that it is an information clearinghouse. Want to know something about demographic trends? Ask PAA. They’ll tell you (or tell you about someone who can tell you about it). ASA’s approach, by contrast, is to generate policy statements. Often on issues that no one has asked about.

Let me clear. I generally agree with these statements. I’d actually guess that I’m more “radical” than your average sociologists. Much more so, actually*. But I would like to know what their effect is. I would guess that the effect is actually two:

1.) A direct effect on the actual policy in question. Here the likely effect is probably positive but incredibly small (a guess).

2.) An indirect effect on sociologists in general. Here the likely effect is probably negative and fairly large (again, a guess)

That is, it is hard for me to imagine conditions wherein ASA statements do much in regards to the policy issue they address. However, I would guess that by issuing such statements, the ASA is cutting the legs from sociologists to talk to issues in general. It positions us as politically minded, not scientifically orientated (or better, scholarly) people.

So thinking about the difference between the ASA and PAA, if I’m a policy person I’m inclined to ask PAA about stuff because they have information but I’m unlikely to ask ASA because they have positions. Or put more bluntly, sociologists are thought of as a group of people who have opinions on issues; demographers as people who know stuff about something. Or put even differently, as scholars our currency is knowledge but we keep pretending like it’s political clout.

I don’t want this to be about public sociology. But I am curious about all of this. I bet that my statement above reads as stronger than I wish. And as a “socially committed person” and a “scholar” I would like to be able to combine the two in my professional organization. But I suspect that the sum is less than the parts. Time to re-read my Weber. Speaking of which, did you guys know that Max was in a fraternity in Germany and there he was known for his propensity for sword-fighting and his drinking capacity? And at times, as a scholar, he was known less for his own work, being referred to as, “Marianna’s boy” (Marianna being his wife). That makes me like him more…

* I don’t consider this a credential of any kind, though it is often treated as such by fellow sociologists.

4 thoughts on “asa: a lobbying organization?”

  1. I’m not sure how I feel about lobbying/position-taking in general, but I’m inclined to think that in the two specific cases mentioned, the position taking was warranted, given that they were matters pertinent to academia.


  2. I’m not sure how I feel about lobbying/position-taking in general, but I’m inclined to think that in the two specific cases mentioned, the position taking was warranted, given that they were matters pertinent to academia.


  3. I don’t think that the distinction is actually completely accurate. The PAA actually does quite a bit of lobbying work, through the Public Affairs Committee and performs things like action alerts (including specific recommendations), Congressional testimony and policy briefings.

    I think that the big difference is that the PAA, as an organization, has a much more targeted audience with more specific general interests. Most demographers funding and/or data comes, at least in some part, through funding of public agencies such as the Census Bureau, NSF, NIH and USAID. On the other hand, ASA serves a much larger “public” that makes policy targets much less specific even in an area, such as funding, where we nominally could gain some kind of consensus.

    Now, this somewhat skirts the larger issue that I think that Shamus is getting at. I see a big difference between the kind of policy position saying “We want more money” (i.e. PAA) than “We think this or that policy is social irresponsible” (i.e. ASA). However, just because that is how the two organizations have used the lobbying expertise to this point, I don’t think that it would be impossible one (or both) could change their direction in the future.


  4. i’m going to agree with the general theme here. it’s potentially hazardous but basically justifiable when ASA gets involved in issues with a plausibly proximate professional interest (NSF funding, defending sociologists arrested for their scholarship, and arguably even the affirmative action statement) but it just builds a case for people like david horowitz when we take a gratuitous collective position on something that does not directly impact our professional interests and more often than not has only a tenuous foundation in our research findings (gay marriage statement, the iraq war resolution).


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