The New Politics of Community
The Subject and Practice
of Community Explored
ASA Annual Meeting
by Jackie Cooper, ASA Public Information Office
The American Sociological Association’s 104th Annual Meeting brought 5,500 sociologists to San Francisco in early August not only to study the idea of community, but also to strengthen the discipline’s sense of community.
Leveraging the meeting’s theme, "The New Politics of Community," ASA President Patricia Hill Collins introduced the idea of reframing community as a political construct and sought to generate scholarship and discussion surrounding changing and contradictory understandings of community.
"Change" as Oxymoron
ASA President Patricia Hill Collins, University of
Maryland, giving her presidential address on
"The New Politics of Community."
Collins suggested that reframing community as a political construct might shed light on the "changing same" of social inequality and help sociologists explore social justice initiatives to address disparities.
"I suspect that as long as social inequalities persist, perhaps in ever-evolving constellations of the changing same, new people with a passion for social justice will emerge who use community in innovative and imaginative ways," Collins said in her address. "They will care, and so should we."
A few of these passionate activists took the stage during the meeting’s opening plenary session, "Building Excellent, Diverse, and Just Communities: A Conversation Among Artists, Academics, and Activists." Seemingly disparate speakers, they were all assembled for their role as "thinkers and doers" surrounding issues of community and social justice.
During the session, Charlotte Bunch (Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University) said that she became an activist for women’s human rights because she wanted to "be good" and sought adventure and change. Another panelist, feminist and scholar Amina Mama (Mills College), had the opposite reason for becoming an activist—she said she was "bad" and didn’t want to follow the social norms of women in her native Nigeria. Both women discussed the importance of community-building for those involved in social justice work.
"Community often comes from unexpected places," said Bunch. Mama underscored the importance of having friends when you challenge the status quo.
The Political Side
The plenaries turned from personal to political with a session on "Why Obama Won" and "Bringing Communities Back In: Setting a New Policy Agenda."
The "Why Obama Won (and What that Says about Democracy and Change in America)" plenary headlined a mini-symposium on the sociological significance of President Barack Obama. Plenary panelists included Melissa V. Harris-Lacewell (Princeton University), Peter Levine (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), Jose Zapata Calderon (Pitzer College), and Lawrence D. Bobo (Harvard University). The panelists examined important factors associated with change: new forms of political engagement by youth and other populations; new ways of organizing democratic institutions that reflect a changing, heterogeneous American population; and the seeming commitment to community service thought to be associated with the revitalization of democratic institutions.
The final plenary of the conference featured panelists Bernice A. Pescosolido (Indiana University), Robert J. Sampson (Harvard University), and Steven L. Gortmaker (Harvard University), examining how making the concept of community more central to sociological thinking might catalyze new avenues of investigation for public policy. The session focused on areas of public policy where incorporating ideas about community could have a major impact.
In the Media Limelight
In addition to the plenary sessions, the meeting featured nearly 500 regular paper presentation sessions across a variety of sociological subfields and interest areas. Research presented during the meeting garnered national media attention, including two articles in USA Today and coverage in U.S. News & World Report, TIME magazine, MSNBC.com, and other national outlets.
Local and international newspapers ran stories about sociological research presented during the meeting, including Canada’s Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; the German news magazine Focus; and here in the United States, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Journal Constitution, and many others.
Meeting content generated considerable attention on Twitter as well. As "PhillyNerd" tweeted, "Following #ASA09 on twitter is almost like being there…" Twitter users posted their session notes, general observations about the conference, photos from conference meet-ups, and other short remarks using the meeting hashtag, #ASA09. Contexts magazine aggregated these tweets at contexts.org/asa, so anyone online—not just Twitter users—can view the discussion.
The sociological community building is expected to continue next year at the 105th ASA Annual Meeting August 14-17, 2010, in Atlanta. ASA President Evelyn Nakano Glenn (University of California-Berkeley) and the 2010 Program Committee are busy building an exciting program surrounding the theme, "Toward a Sociology of Citizenship: Inclusion, Participation, and Rights." The Call for Papers will be posted on the ASA website at the end of October, and the online paper submission site will open early December. See you in Atlanta!