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Many Changes Evident Since Sociologists Last Converged on Atlanta

South was welcoming context for latest sociological science convening

by Johanna Ebner, Public Information Office

“Hotlanta” became even hotter August 16-19 with the arrival of a 4,100-strong legion of sociologists and other social scientists to the city. And, the American Sociological Association’s return to the South—since last having convened there 15 years ago—was well worth the wait. The 2003 Annual Meeting of the ASA in Atlanta, GA, was a glowing success, thanks to organizers, participants, and staff.

Then & Now

The last Annual Meeting held in Atlanta was in 1988 when Herbert Gans was president. Much has changed in 15 years. For instance, in 1988 the attendance at the Annual Meeting was a mere 2,700. In 1988 the meeting was held in the Marriott Marquis but in 2003, the meeting filled the newly refurbished Marriott as well as the Hilton Atlanta. Fifteen years ago there were 257 sessions and this year’s 550 sessions, courses, and workshops doubled the offerings. In 1988, DOS (remember this?) was the prevalent PC operating system, but in 2003, sociologists stood in line for a chance to remotely check their local PC’s e-mail via the Internet. What did not change were the groundbreaking nature of presentations on research, the eager participants, and the continued and growing interest in social science research.

President Bielby’s Annual Meeting theme, “The Sociology of Culture,” was an invitation to critically assess how the concept of culture is used across the full range of areas of social inquiry and to take stock of alternative approaches to theory, method, and explanation developed outside of our discipline. This theme successfully permeated the two plenaries, “Taking Measure of Race” (Aug. 16) and “Culture and Political Identities” (Aug. 18).

Ripples from Northern Blackout

While the lights did not go out in Atlanta like they did in New York, Detroit, and Cleveland, the mid-August electrical blackout did have a mild impact on the Annual Meeting. For example, a couple of exhibitors were unable to attend, and a number of registrants, including an awardee, were unable to reschedule a flight to Atlanta for the conference. Troy Duster, New York University, was able to catch a last-minute flight out of New York, and to the plenary session organizers’ relief, walked onto stage during the “Taking Measure of Race” session, just in time to make his presentation.

While plane flight cancellations deterred or prevented some from attending, the meeting was well attended. And although the number of registrants was slightly lower than last year’s Chicago convention, the registration area was busy as usual. This year’s lines were more manageable thanks to many participants having pre-registered. A growing number of participants register using the ever-improving online registration system, helping ASA realize increasing operational efficiencies. As was true for last year’s Annual Meeting, the preliminary program was online in both a searchable format and as a printable PDF file. This markedly increased the ease with which one can search for a particular topic, session, or presenter.

Marxist Marketing

The meeting was a prime opportunity for ASA and its sections to boost their membership numbers. The meeting attracted some 120 more ASA members, pushing the total number of members this year up just over 13,000, a four-year high point. Sections had different tactics to lure people to sign up. An ingenious—and perhaps a bit ironic—marketing tool employed by the Marxist Section was the sale of T-shirts or a free T-shirt with membership (membership and T-shirt were the same price). The ploy helped this section recruit a record number of members (nearly 40)!

The meeting was a time to celebrate and recognize anniversaries and timely issues. For example, 2003 marks the one hundredth anniversary of W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folks. The gathering of sociologists in Atlanta provided an important opportunity to focus on DuBois’ contributions to the discipline. Both the Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Marxist Section organized sessions reflecting on this seminal book. There was also a special session and a regional spotlight focusing on Dubois’ cultural contributions.

Fun & Fundraising

The Minority Fellowship Program (MFP) celebrated its 30th anniversary at the meeting. The program has sponsored more than 350 fellows, with 32 of them in attendance at the meeting. A reception luncheon for the MFP-sponsored fellows featured a presentation by Colwick M. Wilson on his mental health research. Fellows presented their research projects in a panel session and attended a session to learn about various career trajectories and options. The MFP Benefit Reception proved to be a very successful event, raising $3,325 from about 100 contributors. On a related note, the Teaching Enhancement Fund’s “Just Desserts!” brought in about $1,675. Both benefits earned more than they did in 2002. “Thank you” to everyone who contributed.

International Guest

Another timely aspect of the meeting (and one that received much media attention) was the attendance of Egyptian-American sociologist and human rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim who was recently released from an Egyptian prison. His special session, “A Conversation with Saad Eddin Ibrahim,” provided an informal and stimulating opportunity for attendees to hear a socioloigist muse about prospects for peace and democracy in the Middle East. The renowned social activist from the American University in Cairo provided the mostly American ASA audience a rare glimpse into and insights about public attitudes in the Middle East. At the International Scholars Reception following the session, Ibrahim was honored for his significant research contributions and exemplary scholarly leadership in the face of harsh political obstacles.

ASA leveraged Ibrahim’s presence to attract a good deal of media attention from Reuters, Voice of America, Time magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and others. In addition, Ibrahim was interviewed at a local NPR affiliate station during a live call-in show, The Connection, which was very successful and provided world-wide exposure for ASA’s Atlanta gathering. The broadcast audience is estimated to be about 600,000 listeners with additional web casting around the world.

The meeting produced three Atlanta Journal-Constitution articles, two Cincinnati Enquirer articles, a article, a number of radio interviews, and other media hits. Some 14 journalists attended the meeting. While it is becoming increasingly easy for journalists to write stories without physically attending the meeting, many still praise the contacts they make and the research they discover at the meeting.

Awards

The 2003 recipients of ASA’s eight highest awards were honored at the Awards Ceremony, which was presided over by Craig Calhoun, Social Science Research Council. We send our heartiest congratulations to all award winners. (See article on p. 7).

The ceremony closed with Bielby’s original and engaging Presidential Address, “Rock in a Hard Place: Grass-Roots Cultural Production in the Post-Elvis Era,” which examined cultural aspects underlying American young people’s, particularly males’s, formation of rock bands in the post-Elvis and pre-Beatles era. The Honorary Reception, the primary social event of the Annual Meeting, followed the address. The reception is traditionally co-hosted by the ASA and regional sociology departments and those who have ties to the president and awardees. In addition to the 13 listed in the program, sponsors included the University of California-Santa Barbara and Harvard University.

Sociologists not only observe social habits, but they also participate as social creatures, as evidenced by the variety of social events, networking opportunities, special meetings, and informal gatherings that occurred every evening during the Annual Meeting. Events began with the Welcoming Party but other activities included Orientation for First-time Attendees, a Reception for International Scholars, and the Departmental Alumni Night (DAN), which once again featured music by Bielby’s cover band “Thin Vitae” and proved a great opportunity to reconnect with friends and colleagues and reminisce about graduate school days. Also on the schedule were the Community College Faculty Breakfast, a Student Reception, and section receptions.

Sold-out Tours

The tours were once again a huge success, five having sold out before the meeting even began. The tour of Atlanta’s Historically Black Colleges took participants on a visit to the largest consortium of black colleges in the world. These colleges have many noteworthy graduates including Martin Luther King who graduated from Morehouse College with a sociology degree in 1948. Other tours included the Carter Presidential Center, the New Immigrant Community Site Visit, two of the most ambitious “smart growth” projects in Atlanta, and an Atlanta Braves vs. the Arizona Diamondbacks game.

In addition to the tours, Atlanta proved a prime location for social scientists to study and present on everything from desegregation and education to immigration. The regional spotlights focused on central and specific issues such as “Black Movie Fandom in Atlanta, circa 1935” to the more regional issues of “Gentrification in the South” and “Suburbanization in the South.”

Overall the Annual Meeting was a huge success. Thank you, 2003 Program Committee, for a successful meeting. Also, appreciation is extended to all who attended (or who really wanted to attend but were unable to schedule a flight). Be sure to take advantage of pre-registration for next year’s meeting in San Francisco.