April 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 4

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The PROSE Awards: Calling Sociologists!

James M. Jasper, CUNY Graduate Center

Sociologists avidly submit their publications for ASA awards and section awards, but few have even heard of the PROSE Awards of the Association of American Publishers. This is the big trade association for publishers—the ASA of publishing—and the PROSE Awards are for professional and scholarly excellence. To editors and anyone in the world of publishing, these awards matter.

But not to sociologists, apparently. There are dozens of submissions in the history or politics category each year, but only 10 or 12 in "sociology and social work." And many of these are not really sociology or social work: they are books on public health, geography, social-scientific methods, and others that don’t fit into one of the other PROSE categories. In submitting their books, publishers seem to see sociology as a catch-all category. I have been on the panel of judges for two years, and I have had trouble endorsing more than two sociology books each year. It was embarrassing.

This past January, when I arrived at the two-day meeting, having read my handful of sociology books, I soon learned why my submissions seemed so skimpy. By the end of the first day, books by sociologists had won the prizes in history, law and criminal justice, theology and religious studies, and philosophy (honorable mention). By the end of the second day, the sociology winner—Janice Perlman’s Favela—had gone on to win the prize for the best book in the social sciences. I felt better.

Can’t be Labeled

The dispersal of sociology books across categories seems to reflect strengths and weaknesses in our discipline. On the positive side, sociology touches on many different aspects of human life, bringing creativity to a number of other disciplines. Sometimes that reach is also its weakness. It is hard to identify sociology as a discipline with a core message. (A book by an economist, in contrast, almost inevitably has a predictable view of the world.) If the publishers who nominate books for PROSE awards have trouble keeping sociology straight, university administrators allocating resources across departments often have the same problem. Classics departments have a clear body of literature that they study; whereas sociologists study almost everything. Nor do we any longer have a clear point of view in studying all that we do.

And we are not one of those disciplines that care very much about prose style. In working toward my short list for the sociology prize, for instance, I was initially drawn to a book on PTSD better written than any of the other entries. Then I realized its author was a newspaper reporter, which explains its punchy prose. In the end, I rejected it because it did not make a scholarly contribution. But I was dejected to compare its style to that of most of the other entries. Of course, Perlman is not currently an academic sociologist, either.

My fellow panelists are mostly editors, and it is interesting to watch them discuss books. We try to balance many virtues in picking the winners, not only their scholarly content but their appeal to readers and their beauty as physical objects. In some cases we do judge books by their covers. The book that won our overall prize this year, the Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, contained beautiful maps representing massive sets of historical data on the Atlantic slave trade. Even sociologists would have trouble beating that. But I encourage them to try; ask your editor to nominate your book by the November deadline (see www.proseawards.com/ ).

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