Section on Aging and the Lifecourse Logo

Printer Friendly Version Of American Sociological Association: Future of Research Groups
on Section of Aging and the Lifecourse

Roundtables and Research Groups

On the Future of Research Groups

David Ekerdt, Past Chair
July 2003

Research Groups (formerly Research Committees) have been part of the Section's activities since 1990. In the past few years, however, they have been a source of confusion to Section officers-a perennial "problem." Few have difficulty with the idea of Research Groups. Rather, the confusion seems to arise from two sources: (a) the discontinuity of oversight for this activity when the section's leadership continually changes, and (b) ASA's new online submission system for the annual meeting, which is not friendly to the Research Group form. Every year lately the question arises anew, what do we do with the Research Groups?

As a way to resolve this annual perplexity, let me describe some history from our Newsletters and Annual Meeting minutes, and then propose some solutions.

Some history

In the late 1980's, John Williamson proposed that the Section host "Research Committees" as another way for people to engage in the Section, the annual meeting, and their substantive specialty. Modeled on similar committees in other organizations, he imagined them as meeting in conjunction with the Section's Roundtable session:

These committees will be a variation on the typical roundtable in that an effort will be made to introduce some year-to-year continuity. It will be a place where those doing research in a particular area can get together on an annual basis to discuss their current activities, important recent developments in the area, and needed research. With a little luck these meetings will eventually lead to exhanges of papers between ASA meetings as well as collaboration on research, articles, and in grant proposal preparation. (April 1989 Newsletter)

By August 1989, five groups had organized themselves into committees, and Council appointed John and Anne Foner as the Committee on Research Committees. Five committees (out of six) met during the August 1990 ASA meeting, but they met a day after Section day, having been scheduled on the program with "Other Groups." Council decided that henceforth the committees could meet during the Section's refereed Roundtable session.

Thus the pattern was set. By December of each year, the chairs or organizers of the committees would signal to the coordinator(s) of the committees that they would like to meet during the Section Roundtable session in August. When the Roundtable session was made up in early spring, the research committees would be added. The coordinators of this activity (initially John Williamson and Anne Foner, later Betty Mutran, Eliza Pavalko, and perhaps others) ok'd the formation of new committees. Sampling the years, 8 groups met in 1994, 9 in 1996, and 8 in 1999. In 1994, the Section began calling them "Research Groups" rather than Committees.

It should also be said that there has always been an awkwardness about the coresidence of the refereed Roundtables (being composed from individual submissions) and the prepackaged RGs. One might find adjacent Roundtables and RGs addressing the same theme, say, retirement or gender or caregiving. Does one format absorb the natural audience of the other? Where some might see redundancy, others have seen the session room as a marketplace of ideas-the more the merrier.

The Section newsletter regularly described the individual Research Groups (RGs), repeating this basic introduction:

"In many cases, the Research Group meeting at the Section's Roundtable session is an informal discussion of (a) what research those present are doing or planning, (b) recent books and articles of interest, (c) ideas for possible funding sources, and (d) where the cutting edge is and what research needs to be done next. With some of the committees, formal papers are presented; with others the session is more an informal discussion. In some cases, those present exchange drafts of papers for comment between meetings. We hope that eventually some participants will co-author articles, books, and grant proposals. Each group has a great deal of autonomy with respect to what actually goes on at and between meetings." (October 1994 Newsletter)

Note the key features of this activity: A Section-appointed coordinator who oversees the integrity of the groups and publicizes them; groups conducting themselves with informality and autonomy; RG participants enjoying the advantage of their name in the program; and an annual-meeting planning format that permits the Section to insert the RGs into the Roundtable session.

However, things have changed over the last couple of years. First, there has been no Section-appointed coordinator. As a result, the Roundtable organizers (two Section Council members in their first year) managed the addition of the RGs to the program on an ad hoc basis, not really knowing a viable RG from a weak RG, and sometimes not knowing whom in the RG to contact. In 2000-2002, 5 or 6 RGs met, but only 3 of them met in all 3 years.

Second, ASA has phased in an online submission system for every individual contribution bidding to appear on the annual meeting program, and it was fully functional in 2003. Gone are the days when the Roundtable organizers typed up their table listing (including RGs) and mailed it in. Because our Section's Roundtables are "refereed" in ASA's parlance, ASA will only countenance an individual's submission of a formal paper as a way to enter the session listing. I talked with ASA's Janet Astner about this and she was firm: No phantom papers.

On the most recent round, I devised a strategy with the Roundtable organizers, Dale Dannefer and Karl Pillemer. Dale and Karl would contact the RG chairs in late 2002 to ask them if they were organizing toward a meeting in August 2003. The RG chairs were to tell their members (and we gave this information to the entire section, too) to submit a full or partial "paper" through the online submission system with a phrase in the title that would signal it as an RG contribution. The RG chair would meanwhile advise Dale and Karl what would be coming. The organizers would group the proper RG submissions together, appoint the RG chair as the "presider" of the session, and include it with the package of regular Section Roundtables.

Sound complicated? Well it was, and the strategy was only a partial success. On one hand, 5 RGs are on the program for August 2003. On the other hand, Dale and Karl were constantly feeling their way. They had incomplete information about who the RG chairs were (despite several of them being listed on our Section website), they weren't sure whether this or that submission was meant for an RG, etc. Can RG participants merely submit extended abstracts? And what should Dale and Karl do if someone proposes an entirely new RG? (No one did.)

We can't keep doing this year after year.

Proposed for discussion

We need to discuss a hierarchy of questions:

Should the Section continue to sponsor, host, and affirm the value of RGs? Re-read the two indented paragraphs earlier in this message. Is this activity worthwhile? If yes, how can the Section ensure continuity and coordination? Should the RGs continue to meet with the Section's Refereed Roundtables? If not then, when?

If we decide to continue the RGs-and I think our Section is unique in having them-there must be a Coordinator or Coordinating Committee. We can't keep asking the incoming Section Chair and Council members to learn about the RGs on the fly. The Coordinator would do five things: (1) maintain contact with the RG chairs, encourage them, and gain some sense of the viability of each RG; (2) advise interested persons about how to start a new RG; also, dissolve moribund RGs; (3) advise RGs what they have to do to meet during the ASA annual meeting, and advise the Section's annual meeting planners how to accommodate the RGs; (4) publicize the RGs through the Section Newsletter and website; (5) report annually to Council.

The Coordinator could be could be a Section Chair's appointment for a two or three-year term (we have other such appointments). The role could also be filled by one or two of the Council members in their second and third years. These Council members would already have had the advantage of organizing the Roundtables and so will be familiar with the RGs.

Assuming Section support of RGs and assuming a Coordinator, let me suggest three possible scenarios for the future:

A. RGs do not meet with the Section's refereed Roundtables. That is, the Section has them scheduled with "Other Groups" during the ASA annual meeting. Advantages: avoids the online submission rigmarole, restores some of the "informality and autonomy" of the gathering. Disadvantages: session participants will not be listed in the annual meeting program, scheduling will depend on ASA room availability, which may not be convenient.

B. RGs meet with the Section Roundtables, as we have done since 1990. Advantages: RGs are more visible, participants have a program listing, meeting time is more convenient. Disadvantage: because of online submission, steers the RGs toward paper-presenting and away from the autonomy and informality they have enjoyed. And it will be a continuing challenge to manage the RG form on the Procrustean bed of the ASA online submission system. Our subterfuges will need further refinement.

C. Suspend the RGs for 2004, and reconstitute them for the 2005 meeting. After the annual meeting in August 2003, we take a year to catch our breath. Lacking consensus about when the RGs should meet (with the Roundtables or not), lacking a sufficient number of viable RGs, or lacking committed and energetic coordination for 2004, we take more time to rebuild this activity.

What do you think?

The members of Section Council will discuss this matter at their meeting in August. I will also raise it in the Section Newsletter over the summer, and bring it to the Business Meeting on Section day. There is simply not enough time on any of these occasions to review the background and options and entertain a full discussion.

I would welcome comments from any Section member about any aspect of the RGs, their past and future. Your comments will help Council refine their discussion in August, 2004. Direct your comments to David Ekerdt at I'd also be happy to talk with you on the phone; use e-mail to suggest a time to confer.