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.