what i’ve learned: three years on asa council

From 2016-2019 I had two positions that have taught me a lot about academic leadership and organizations. I led the process of redeveloping UNC’s General Education curriculum, “IDEAs in Action,” which was approved in April 2019; and I sat on the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) elected Council. These two blog posts are intended to explain some of the things I’ve learned from both of these experiences.

This post will deal with what I’ve learned from three years serving on the ASA council. The previous post dealt with my role leading UNC’s general education curriculum redesign.

My term on Council began as Nancy Kidd was starting her role as Executive Officer, and I served under ASA presidents Michele Lamont, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, and Mary Romero. I was the Council liaison to the Membership Committee; I served on the Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline (FAD) selection committee; and I was on the Awards Committee. Ironically, several of the lessons I outline below are, or ought to be, pretty basic sociological insights about organizations, pluralistic ignorance, and so on. 

The ASA is a large and very diverse organization. I generally think that’s a good thing, but that size, and particularly that diversity, lead to some of the thorniest problems the association faces. It’s diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and geography. It’s diverse in terms of the kind of work its members do (different kinds of academic institutions, different teaching-vs-research loads, different levels of job security, not to mention applied work). It’s diverse in terms of research method and substance. And it’s diverse in political views (yes, really!) and in views of whether and how politics ought to play into sociology.

One effect of that diversity is that virtually nobody feels like ASA represents them adequately. Elite department researchers are irritated at the politics; high-teaching-load faculty are put off by the elite researchers; ethnographers think only statistics count, while quantitative researchers feel marginalized by too many qualitative and theoretical folks particularly in leadership. Science-oriented scholars sniff at the politicization of the discipline, while activists find the scientists naively detached. Scholars of the global south complain that the association is too US-centric, while US inequality and culture scholars think everything’s gone too far global “when there are the same problems at home.” And nobody thinks their group, style, or position is in the majority in the association.

They’re right. All of them. The reason is a form of pluralistic ignorance: ASA is made up of a large number of small groups of sociologists, organized around several important distinctions. Nobody actually is in the majority on each of these. The natural tendency in a situation like this is devolution: proliferating sections, types of activities, and associational services. That’s what ASA has generally done. But the danger is that devolution also feeds fragmentation, which makes people feel more in the minority and makes it less likely that sociologists working on similar questions from different perspectives will actually engage with one another.

I think there are too many sections; it’s too easy to form new ones, and there are too many incentives to do so. I’d rather see us actually have some of the hard conversations among different groups, hashing out the intellectual and stylistic differences so many sociologists feel acutely. Fundamentally, I think we’re too afraid of considered judgment: listening to our different colleagues and making decisions that would help rebuild a common intellectual core to the discipline.

Council members, elected leaders, and ASA staff are smart, dedicated people trying to make the best decisions for the association and the discipline. Council and elected officers get no financial support for the very substantial work they do on behalf of the discipline. Although I disagreed with others with some frequency, I was always really impressed at how seriously everybody took their roles. Given the diversity of the membership discussed above, Council and staff do a pretty good job of considering the many facets and implications of issues, making responsible decisions, and serving the membership’s needs.

ASA is constrained by decisions made over the past decade or two that are not simple to work out. The association bought its office condo at a point when leadership and the Council expected that real estate would be a great investment for the association’s future. It used financing terms that seemed favorable at the time, but that resulted in constraints on what ASA can do financially now. And as a large association, it can’t just make policy on the back of a napkin the way some members might prefer.

Among these constraints, ASA leadership and Council are very aware of the problems surrounding the Sage publishing contract. Proceeds from Sage underwrite a huge portion of the Association’s annual budget, and I think many people recognize that that business model is not sustainable over the long term. The new contract lasts a long time, though (through 2026), so it doesn’t present an immediate threat though I do hope and expect the association will consider alternatives in the coming years.

I know a lot of colleagues think the Sage contract constitutes an ethical violation, since it’s a commercial concern profiting from the free labor of editors, authors, and reviewers. Let me briefly argue that the ethical violation in the ASA case is at least less severe than in purely commercial publication cases, and possibly not a violation at all.

Imagine that a group of intellectuals came together to publish a set of journals for their work, and that that group found they could sell subscriptions to those journals, largely to libraries at their institutions, for enough money to help subsidize the work of their freely-formed, democratically-controlled association. This group carries out sociological work (research, writing, reviewing, editing), and through the sale of the products of that work helps preserve and promote the discipline. Furthermore, much of that work is carried out by relatively high-salary sociologists, and the financial benefits are enjoyed by all members, especially lower-income members (who pay lower dues and registration fees). That seems like a reasonable thing for an academic association to do! Now, does hiring a company (Sage) to help manage that business change the ethics? It might insofar as the company skims a lot of the profits, but I’m not sure ASA would be able to turn the same level of (guaranteed) profit on our collective work over time. I agree, in theory, that sociological research should be broadly available, but I guess I’m not convinced that there are hordes of people who want to consume sociological research but can’t use a local university, college, or public library that subscribes to the journals.

So, while I am concerned about the financial sustainability of the Sage-based business model, I don’t think I consider it a burning ethical concern. We have other more important fish to fry.

Finally: too often issues are raised in isolation when they have important relationships with other issues. For example, should ASA guarantee a section on Indigenous Studies, even if the section doesn’t garner sufficient membership to continue under the regular rules? In isolation, I think many sociologists would agree that it should. But in the context of an annual meeting where nobody feels they have enough attention, such a decision means some other section will have less. Another example: should ASA resist raising dues and conference registration costs because many sociologists have low incomes? Of course–it seems like a no-brainer. But the association also faces budget constraints, a professional staff that deserves better pay in a very expensive city, and burgeoning conference costs. Decisions that seem simple and straightforward–particularly on #soctwitter — usually aren’t, particularly once they’re viewed in the context of other important decisions.

I very much enjoyed my time on Council, and appreciated meeting and working with a great group of colleagues, leaders, and ASA staff.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

8 thoughts on “what i’ve learned: three years on asa council”

  1. Thanks so much for this, Andy, and for your intensive service to the discipline. I know how much work it is, and I appreciate the work that everyone is doing. I’m heartened to hear that the Sage contract problem is now a known issue. In my term on ASA Council (2014-2016), it was not acknowledged as a problem, and I was seen as coming out of left field for raising the idea that revenues from Sage might decrease in the future and put the organization at risk. If anyone thinks that the conversations we have been having via blogs, Twitter, podcast and all have had no effect, that is clearly not the case. If this is acknowledged as the reality now, that is an important step forward.

    I also want to point out that I agree that the ASA’s staff deserve good wages, regular cost-of-living increases, and benefits. However, in the current state of the discipline, this is not going to happen via membership growth. I would argue that neither will it happen via dues increases. I don’t think that at this point there is any elasticity left in dues. When we raise them, membership declines. As journal revenues decline, the ASA faces organizational restructuring and job loss.

    ASA’s considerable stores of wealth could go a long way to easing the transition to a reduced staff, but as you know (but I don’t think this is known widely), these savings are trapped as a guarantee for the mortgage on the DC building we own. So, the building continues to be a large player in these discussions. It is clearly not the investment opportunity that our previous EO had envisioned. In 2016, the amount owed on the mortgage was equal to the assessed value, but perhaps the real estate market has improved since then. At some point, a conversation about the building is absolutely necessary.

    2026 is going to come much quicker than anyone envisions, and if the next Sage contract is going to be far less lucrative, it will be very important to the ASA leadership at that point to have options beyond pink slips. I’m not sure they will if they don’t deal with the building.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tina – you helped me so much as I started on Council to understand the dynamics! I think there has been a significant change in the leadership of the ASA since you were on council, and part of that has resulted in an understanding of the two elephants in the room: the unsustainable Sage contract and the albatross of the office condo. There is long-term work afoot on both fronts to try to deal with the pressures. They’re not simple issues!

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  2. If the Sage contract expires in 2026, “hope and expect the association will consider alternatives in the coming years” is already too little too late, given the organization’s inefficiency.

    Not mentioned: cratering membership, the declining size and influence of the discipline, the replication crisis. Yikes! ASA will wake up one morning soon and realize the big decisions it’s been putting off have been made by other actors in the system, and they won’t likely be the decisions we would have preferred.

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  3. I find this a fair and accurate account of what being on Council was like (I had 3 years as a Council member and 3 as VP) even though I had very different presidents and EO to serve with. Lots of diversity of opinion, but lots of effort to do good for sociology and do well for the members of the association. Fair minded discussion across quite a few deep divisions of views (“my” presidents included Marty Lipset, Jim Coleman, Maureen Hallinan, Amitai Etzioni for example). I also think the Sage contract is not a pact with the devil, though I also support efforts to ADD open access options via SocArXiv by authors rather than their paying the earth to publish in an “open access” journal no one has heard of. I had the privilege of serving my liaison duties with Minority Fellowship Program, and learned a ton about the people doing the selection work and about the Fellows past and present. Section proliferation has been going on AND being deplored for years, which represents the discipline itself IMHO. We love our diversity of methods, interests, perspectives and we want to be a cohesive group in which we “feel at home.”
    I also think you are totally right about everyone feeling like their interests and perspectives are in the minority and getting tetchy about that, rather than recognizing that the intersectionality of interests/perspectives is inevitably going to create such feelings among the many differently constructed majorities. The problem only arises when –as in the past — the different majorities align into a systematic grip on power for a particular set of folks (e.g. white men in elite departments with no interests in looking at race, gender, sexuality, etc as forms of inequality) who felt entitled to run things for everyone else.
    thanks for this nice reflection on your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have no been on council, but am now on the program committee. What has appalled me, and I imagine anyone else who has served on that committee, is that there is a known bad process in creating sessions that has been allowed to continue for decades because each program committee inherits a process that they both loathe and are told they have no power to change. This year we were told that we have to wait while a committee studies the issue. Changes are unlikely before at least 2023.

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    1. In my recollection the process has changed repeatedly and not always for the better. But no lack of experimentation that I know of – what are the changes desired but blocked?

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      1. The list of “regular sessions” is very unbalanced by number of submissions areas get (the multi-year averages of submissions per topic range from 6 to 60), but each topic is assigned one guaranteed session and additional sessions require organizer hustle. Even with the additional sessions, the ratio of submissions to sessions is still extremely variable between topics. There is an attempt to create balance by adding additional topics to a substantive area, but this does not eliminate the imbalance. Additionally, as any given submitter can submit only to one topic, this generates the angst among submitters about which of these finely-sliced topics to submit to, and produces sub-optimal sessions, as related papers are scattered among topics and organizers can’t see the full array of possible papers for pulling together good sessions.

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