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Sociologists Gather “Down Under” for ISA

by A. Douglas Kincaid
Florida International University

Sociologists from 81 countries convened in Brisbane, Australia, for the XV World Congress of the International Sociological Association (ISA) during July 7-13, 2002. As promised by the local organizers, participants were treated to a week of perfect weather, an Australian barbecue reception, and several other cultural events, as well as hundreds of panels, symposia, and other presentation sessions.

The opening ceremony on Sunday evening featured a variety of dance and musical performances based on traditional Australian themes. Following the entertainment, ISA President Alberto Martinelli delivered his presidential address on the topic of “Markets, Governments, Communities, and Global Governance.” Taking as his premise that the advance of global economic interdependence and social interconnectedness requires a rethinking of basic sociological perspectives, Martinelli proposed that the classical distinction among markets, states, and communities as integrative mechanisms in modern societies be applied to contemporary transnational institutions in order to evaluate the possibilities for peaceful integration and democratic governance. Thus he examined transnational corporations, international organizations and regimes, supranational political unions, transnational social movements, and epistemic communities for their varied impacts on world order. Martinelli concluded with a call for social science to contribute to a project of global governance based on principles of democratic accountability, individual and community empowerment, and the “contextual” universalism of science. His paper is available on the web at http://203.94.129.73/docs/p6274.rtf.

Martinelli was succeeded in his role as ISA president by the renowned Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka, who was elected president for 2002-06 at the ISA business meeting. Unlike associations such as the American Sociological Association, in which officers are elected by the membership as a whole, ISA elects its officers and the executive committee through a body of delegates from the ISA’s constituent national associations, research committees (the equivalent of ASA sections), and outgoing officers. This process ensures that sociologists from countries with small numbers of ISA members can be just as readily elected to ISA posts as those from the largest countries, and results in lively campaigns among competing candidates.

In his acceptance speech, Sztompka said that he would stress three elements of the ISA’s mission—to promote academic excellence, to broaden the pool of sociologists engaged in education, and to mobilize varied resources (national, regional, linguistic, and the like) to enrich the practice of sociology. Other ISA officers elected at the Brisbane meeting included:

  • Ann Denis (Canada), vice president for the research council;
  • Sujata Patel (India), vice president for the national associations;
  • Ari Sitas (South Africa), vice president for the 2006 program;
  • Susan McDaniel (Canada), vice president for publications; and
  • Bert Klandermans (Netherlands), vice president for finance and membership.

Model of Diversity

The new ISA executive committee is a model of international diversity, with 18 countries represented among the 16 elected members and six officers of the association. Doug Kincaid (Florida International University), who serves as the ASA’s official representative to the ISA, was the only U.S. sociologist elected to the executive committee.

One highlight of the Congress came at a presidential session on the last day, when Neil Smelser (University of California-Berkeley) was awarded the ISA’s first Mattei Dogan Foundation Prize for a distinguished career in sociology. In his acceptance speech, Smelser offered a thoughtful synthesis of the approaches of comparative analysis, interdisciplinarity, and internationalization in sociology. Seeking to navigate between the opposing shoals of naïve positivism and anti-scientific relativism, he advocated a comparative research strategy based on (1) “systematizing contexts,” by which he referred to the need for multiple, context-sensitive measures for given variables; (2) a commitment to working across disciplinary boundaries as the necessary means to achieve such measures; and (3) a collaborative enterprise among scholars across national and cultural boundaries as the only project form within which broadly valid and reliable social scientific knowledge is likely to be achieved. Smelser concluded by arguing that the achievement of such knowledge will be an extremely long-term proposition, confronting as it does the obstacles of ethnocentrist scientific beliefs, geographically skewed training, and parochial organizational infrastructures, but that ultimately it is both possible and desirable.

Like many of the national associations that are ISA affiliates, the ASA sponsored a panel at the ISA meetings. Titled “The Internationalization of American Sociology: A Centennial Challenge for the ASA in 2005 and Beyond,” the session was designed to generate discussion around issues and possible strategies for an international component in the ASA’s centennial celebration in 2005. Panelists included Craig Calhoun (Social Science Research Council and ASA Council member), who spoke on the ambiguous international legacy of American sociological research and the persistent national orientation of sociology worldwide, even as global trends have allowed for a more collaborative model of scholarship; Doug Kincaid, who argued that sociological education in the United States is lagging in recognizing the importance of an international perspective; Sally Hillsman (ASA Executive Officer), who surveyed the range of institutional linkages between American sociology and its counterparts; and Immanuel Wallerstein (Yale University and ISA Past-President), whose critique was encapsulated in the observation that American sociologists are not more provincial than their counterparts abroad but fool themselves into thinking that they are less so. Following the presentations, a lively discussion with the audience ensued, touching on issues such as the cultural influence of American sociological textbooks used abroad, the emergence of regional sociologies, and the intellectual impact of the international career trajectories that take many foreign sociologists through U.S. institutions. Arne Kalleberg (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and ASA Secretary) chaired the session.

The final registration total for the Brisbane congress was 2,830. The largest delegations were from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and Japan, but as might be expected, attendance from Asian and Pacific island countries was especially noteworthy, topping 350 participants. The next ISA congress will be held in Durban, South Africa, July 23-29, 2006, and will be hosted by the South African Sociological Association. For more information about the ISA, see the website at www.ucm.es/info/isa/.

Kincaid is Vice Provost for International Studies at Florida International University and can be reached at kincaidd@fiu.edu.