Sunday, August 17, 2014

Making sense of the ASA

The annual meeting of the American Sociological Association is taking place in San Francisco this week, and it is a tsunami of ideas, methodologies, research strategies, sections, and fields of study. Begin with the program: it is vast. Over five thousand names are listed in the index as presenters, discussants, and chairs; there are 600 sessions, numerous "tables" for smaller presentations, and an endless stream of "authors meet critics." And so many of the books, papers, talks, and discussions seem worth reading and thinking about.

But that poses a difficult problem: no one can possibly read all the books, think about all the methods, consider all the fascinating questions and problems raised. So how are we to think of the role of this annual meeting? Is it an effective way of bringing the profession together, nationally and internationally, senior and junior? Or is it more like a super-sized hardware store where you pretty much need to know what you need before you enter the door, or you will be lost among the nail guns, paints, nuts and bolts, plumbing equipment, and sand paper that confront you? Can we think of the ASA annual meeting as a place for genuine "browsing", where specialists can get exposed to innovative and unfamiliar thinking from other parts of the profession? Or is it a place where the Bourdieusians, the quants, the ethnographically inclined, and the historical comparativists largely keep to themselves, like a segmented social media flow? (One person tunes into the DemocracyNow flow with its associated twitter feeds and followers while the other gets her news from the firehouse of Fox and its online choirs.) Or in other words, does the ASA feed segment into the subdisciplines and their groups of practitioners, so that everyone gets more of what he or she already knows very well?

How would a real student of the discipline of sociology begin to make sense of this vast slice of the mosaic of the discipline? What does Andrew Abbott think? (He's here -- he could be asked.) One possibility is to look at the situation historically. Take the programs of the past ten years and see how they have changed, in a variety of ways: topics, status composition of the panels, gender and race composition of the presenters, heterodox and orthodox approaches to the methodology of sociology, etc. This could be done. We might be able to produce a number of frequency graphs -- the fall and rise of Marxism, the rise of feminist sociology, the frequency of mention of the emotions in titles and abstracts, ... 

Another approach might be to look at the program as the expression of the "field" of the extended discipline of sociology as a field of power and prestige (a sort of Bourdieusian approach). Here we might abstract from content and ask the question, what can we infer about power in the discipline by inspecting the program? What features do the officers and executives of the association have? Do a small number of research institutions seem to play a disproportionate role in decision making and the selection of topics (Berkeley, Yale, Michigan)? Here again questions of gender, race, status, and privilege come into the picture. 

We might also consider the question of the absolute size of the program -- the 4+ days and 600 sessions that were included. Is this a good size for the profession as a whole -- if so, why so? Does it give career opportunities for younger scholars, to help them get their work into the thought space of the more senior practitioners? Does it serve the intellectual goal of broadening the intellectual scope of the discipline and its practitioners? Is the jumbo size of the meeting really about the association's need to put together an annual meeting that is a big success in terms of attendance and revenue? What would invalidate the notion of reducing the program to 2+ days and 300 sessions, with only 2000+ presenters? Would this be seen as a retreat of the significance and health of "sociology" within American research universities?

Finally, what might be possible by way of mapping the knowledge, research, and theory represented by this ocean of research? It seems possible to do this, but it would be a daunting task. The most general possibility is to create a database of all sessions, papers, presenters, and books, and code each entry by several properties. For individuals the characteristics might include affiliation, rank, gender, and race/ethnicity/nationality. (If we could add the individual's PhD institution that would be useful as well.) For papers and books the characteristics might include: author [linked to author entry], topic, primary references, method, ASA section. Topic codes would need to be hierarchical -- perhaps something like this: "race / segregation / urban core poverty / Chicago".

With such a database we could pose a number of interesting descriptive questions: 

What topics and methods are most frequent? 
What is the distribution of contributors by gender and race? 
What is the representation of senior high-prestige researchers relative to junior middle-prestige researchers? 

We might also imagine representing this body of data in terms of network maps. We could present a network graph of papers linked by topics, which would presumably create a number of clusters of papers organized by affinity of research themes. This map might well provide a different outline of the "continents" of the ASA, relative to the mapping by sections of the organization. (That is, there may be many papers addressing race from different methodological points of view and deriving from different research traditions.)

In short, it seems that the annual meeting of a large discipline like sociology, political science, or psychology can potentially provide the basis for some very interesting analysis of how the discipline works and changes within the field of academic life.

(Here is a partial remedy for the problem of audience self-selection: make random, unannounced and surprising substitutions on the program at the last minute. Several hundred people came to an early-morning session on "Bourdieu, culture, and empirical research" expecting to hear Loic Wacquant -- a sympathetic practitioner of Bourdieu's sociology -- and found instead the substitute personage of Michael Burawoy, a sympathetic but orthogonal reader of Bourdieu. Burawoy offered a lively reconsideration of Bourdieu's framework in relation to that of Marxist historical materialism and theory of class. His central thrust was the difference in the ways that Bourdieu, Gramsci, and Marx think about class consciousness. Who, when, and how are the social participants who can come to understand the conditions of their domination? I very much enjoyed his presentation, not least because it was a surprise.)

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