performance management, threshold effects, and asa sections

Every year, the end of September brings a peculiar class of emails from American Sociology Association section chairs and membership committees. ASA sections (e.g. “Economic Sociology,” “Sex and Gender,” etc.) organize much of the activity at the annual meetings. Each section is awarded a certain number of sessions based on the size of its membership on September 30th. If you have 399 members, you get 2 sessions; if you have 400 members, you get 3, and so on. As you would expect, sections routinely scramble in September to try to exceed the next threshold. The form of this scrambling includes offers to subsidize graduate student members (who pay a much smaller amount in dues, but “count” the same towards the session thresholds), book raffles, and even drawings to win coffee with senior scholars. After receiving another such email, I got curious about the effectiveness of these strategies. ASA conveniently posts membership data back to 2009 on its website, and so it’s easy to plop that data into R and produce a quick histogram of year-end membership counts for 2009-2013.*


As expected, we see sharp jumps around major cutoff points: 300, 400, 600, and 800. We see similar trends when looking at publicly traded firms’ earnings data vs. analyst forecasts, or when looking at the size of courses offered by universities trying to game their USNWR ranking (see Espeland and Sauder’s work). So, it seems like all the emails are working – at least, working for the sections trying to get their numbers just above the threshold. Whether or not this particular system is collectively rational I will leave for you all to judge.**

* Thanks to the @ASANews twitter account for the links!
** One clunky but effective solution would be to transition from a pure threshold system to one that awards the final session to each section probabilistically based on how far past the previous threshold it went, with each member being worth about half a percent of a section.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

20 thoughts on “performance management, threshold effects, and asa sections”

  1. Love this. The institutional myth part of this story is that somehow getting that magical fourth or fifth session will contribute to the health of the section in any meaningful sort of way!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This may be a naive question, but isn’t it narrowly rational from the perspective of section organizers and leadership to try and get that extra section?

      Expanding section membership seems like a relative of a prisoner’s dilemma or other arms races, where each party is acting under their own self-interest even though they know it may be bad for the collective.


      1. Sure, it’s rational if you think that having more sessions is a meaningful benefit. My impression from watching this develop over the last five years or so that it’s been more of a contagion – that trying to get the extra session has become something people think sections are supposed to do. I wonder who started it?


      2. Presumably because more sessions means more people can present their work. In an ideal world it is an avenue for dissemination of new or emerging ideas, and allows more people to attend ASA (if presenting is a condition of travel funds). I think people see more sessions==more vibrant and growing section, and getting grad students to join is one way to keep the subfield growing. Whether these actually occur, is an empirical question (or multiple empirical questions)


    2. I think the point is the section sessions is where section members can expect a friendly home for them to present and discuss material of common interest. More sessions means more opportunity to talk about stuff people in the section like to talk about!


  2. Great analysis! My gut feeling is that the proliferation of sections over the past 10 years or so, plus the tendency to belong to multiple sections, makes for this kind of unwieldy situation. I’d rather see fewer sections, more capacity within each, and more ways for sections both to collaborate and to counterbalance one another.


    1. I like the ideas of more section collaborations and fewer sections as a whole. However, for the latter, logistically, I’m unsure how it would work. Sure, we could see something like the Consumers and Consumption section under the Economic Sociology or Global/Transnational, PEWS, and the Development sections under a broader category. However, I think that there were philosophical reasons some split from original sections to form new ones. Having subsections within a single section would not solve the reasons they split off. Also, I’m unsure how this would work – presumably the subsections would have some autonomy, but then what would be the key difference? Pulling the numbers into one large section, then co-sponsoring joint mini conferences and thematic ASA sections?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This creates a perverse incentive to split because of philosophical reasons rather than try to engage in intellectual debate to address those differences. What has resulted is essentially “I’ll take my toys and go play in my own sandbox.”


      2. Mike, I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying that’s my impression and if it is right, will the sections be willing and able to merge? Would people be able to compromise? Just trying to think through logistics


  3. Has anyone been talking about section dues these days? I have not been around long enough to be sure that my impression is correct, but wasn’t it the case that almost all of the section dues went to cover the cost of mailing out a paper newsletter, perhaps with a little left over for an ASA reception and the cost of a few award certificates? Now that we all have electronic communications, it seems to me that sections have more money than they know what to do with, and so we get pre-conferences tacked on to the ASA meetings. While I love hanging with my subfield-specific peeps, I find the extra day or two of conferencing exhausting, but if I skip it, I always miss out on something good.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I heard some discussion of this at ASA – one of the reasons why section receptions have become so common, and expensive, is because sections have budgets they feel obligated to spend.

      Relatedly, I was a bit surprised by how little of dues actually go to the section. If I read this and this correctly, ASA Sections get 5$/member for the first 300 members, and 2$/member afterwards, despite charging 5$ for students and 10$ (base) for non-student members. For a large section (N=1000, say), this means that the majority of dues income goes to ASA, not to the section (estimate half students, half not, total dues = 5*500 + 10*500 = $7500. Total allocation form ASA: 500 + 2*1000 = $2500, or one third of the total.). Can anyone who’s done time as a section treasurer or chair confirm that?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The budget spreadsheet says that the section allocation is calculated at (members*2)+A, where “”A” is determined by the overall membership size: Sections with fewer than 200 members receive a base allocation of $500. Sections with less than 300 members but more than 200 members receive a base allocation of: (# of section members minus 100) multiplied by $5. Sections with more than 300 members receive a base allocation of $1,000. In addition the section receives two dollars from dues of each member. To calculate this amount enter your section’s membership in the dark box above. Use end of year membership numbers for the previous year. This membership report is issued during the first week of October.”

        So, if you have a section of 1000 members, the section would get $3000 of the member fees (1000*2+1000). Still less than half.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Kelly’s account here is correct. Note that if a section charges more than $10 for dues, the section does get to keep all the excess. So a section that raises its dues by $3 doubles the revenue it can use for activities.

        Probably a more accurate estimate of the proportion of a section’s members that are students is 1/3, although it varies a lot by section. But, for a section with 900 members, it would take in ~$7500 at dues if it charged the base level, and would get $2800 of that back to spend, all of which would get sucked up by a quite modest reception if held on-site. I’m not sure if the $4700 taken by ASA in this example is used to pay for the rooms used for section sessions, is simply absorbed into the ASA vortex, or something else. Would be interesting to know.


  4. The expense of receptions is not because sections have more money than they know what to do with, it’s the cost of catering! From the NYC meetings a couple of years ago: $550 to staff a cash bar. Vegetable platters at $25 per person. Cheese and crackers at $27 per person. 50 person minimum order per food item, or the hotel charges an additional $250. Add a 24% service charge to the order. Then, add 8.9% tax, including the service charge.

    At these prices, the costs of holding even a small reception at which the food disappears in the first 10 minutes is easily double the section’s annual allocation from the ASA.

    (Yes, sections can save $250-$300 by sharing a cash bar with another section or by holding a joint reception, but this is peanuts relative to per person food costs. They can go off site, which entails a tradeoff between staying close to the hotel and paying close-to-hotel prices or going further afield and having low attendance. Or, they could NOT hold a reception, but a reception is one of the main ways to engage rank-and-file members and, in some sense, the most tangible return for their dues.)

    Closer to the topic of the original post: I hope Tina will correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that every section is guaranteed a minimum number of sessions, out of an essentially fixed pool of sessions. This means that as sections proliferate — and they never die — the competition for sessions also increases. It also implies that, on average, acceptance rates at weak section’s sessions are higher than acceptance rates at healthy section’s sessions, which doesn’t seem optimal for the discipline.

    The logical solution would be to disband weak sections, meaning those with low and declining membership, perpetually low attendance at events, low submission rates to sessions, etc. But, I can’t blame the elected leadership for wanting to avoid this particular hornet’s nest.


    1. Big ditto on Krippendorf’s point about catering costs at conference hotels. In a section council meeting this last ASA we didn’t have breakfast catered due to a fairly outrageous pricing scheme from hotel catering. This cost seems to be growing in a non-linear fashion over the years (according to our treasurer’s report) and is much worse when the meetings are held in expensive cities.


    2. Those are crazy prices for catering. The sexualities section almost always meets off site, and we get much more for our buck than that.

      As for the minimum number of sessions: yes, that is correct. It’s all laid out in the Sections Manual, which is a pdf that can be downloaded from this page of the ASA website.


      1. I think my catering comment was a red herring in terms of the conversation about the funding split between ASA and the sections. Rather, it was an unrelated gripe about the priorities for sections in spending money (and certainly meeting in Manhattan and SF’s financial district can’t have made finding cheap catering easy). This issue of what sections should be doing with their funds in an era of online newsletters is important, but distinct from the issue of how funds are allocated between ASA and the sections.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. If I’m not mistaken, these membership drives are to get folks to sign up for the remainder of 2014. This means that one can pay their way to help the section get more sessions for the next meeting, but perhaps not actually attend that meeting and benefit from the extra sessions.

    This brings up a larger issue about what ASA membership, meetings, and sections offer to members. And keeping with Dan’s topic, should sections being doing more for their membership? And if so what?


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