December 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 9

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First "Sociological Forum" of the International Sociological Association

Barcelona, September 5 — This fall the International Sociological Association (ISA), which has a long history of organizing the quadrennial World Congress of Sociology conferences, launched an innovation intended to invigorate the ISA and build increased visibility for this 59-year-old Madrid-based organization. Designed to make ISA a more indispensable player in advancing sociology transnationally, the innovation consists of a new kind of conference organized by the ISA Research Council, which represents the 55 Research Committees, two Working Groups, and four Thematic Groups that comprise ISA.


The first ISA Forum on Sociology in
Barcelona, Spain, drew some 2,500 attendees
for some 2,700 paper presentations.

Dubbed the "ISA Forum of Sociology," the idea of this new annual meeting, explained Vice-President of the ISA Research Council (RC) Arturo Morato (Universidad de Barcelona, Spain), is to "gather and redefine the traditionally organized quadrennial ISA Research Council conference and the interim conferences of Research Committees." This quadrennial Research Council event "combines two kinds of programs: A general program conceived as a dialogue between RCs and made up of the papers presented by the RCs’ delegates to the Research Council conference, and the parallel programs of the RCs, which are organized by the latter’s leadership," Morato said.

Under the theme of "Sociological Research and Public Debate," the inaugural 2008 Forum, held in Barcelona, included thematic programs organized by the RCs—ranging in subject area interest from economics to mental health and illness. There were also Working Groups and Joint Sessions at the meeting, which together with the nearly 2,700 paper presentations attracted some 2,500 actual attendees. See for a statistical breakdown of the countries represented by the attendees.

The United States had the third-largest number of registrants (249 total) for the Forum, behind the United Kingdom and Spain. Another indicator of U.S. engagement in ISA is the fact that the ISA leadership currently includes two former ASA leaders: Valentine Moghadam, Purdue University, and Michael Burawoy, University of California-Berkeley.

The on-going scientific activities of the ISA are decentralized in RCs, Working Groups and Thematic Groups, each focusing on a well-established specialty area within sociology. These groups bring together scholars who wish to pursue comparative research on a transnational basis, and they constitute basic networks of scientific research, intellectual debate and professional exchange. The Forum is intended to provide a new opportunity of transversal dialogue and contact between RCs.


Plenary sessions delivered at the Forum included those by ISA President Michel Wieviorka Professor and Director of Studies at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences, who had attended the ASA 2008 meeting in Boston (see September/October 2008 Footnotes p. 1, 5). At ISA he spoke generally about the place of sociology in social science’s service to human society and stated that it is time to reflect collectively as a discipline on our discipline’s role in providing a research base and new understanding of the actors and society itself in social and political conflicts. "In a word," he summarized, "yesterday’s engagement by the discipline was political, but today, it has become truly sociological." Below is a small sampling of other plenary presenations.

Alberto Martinelli, University of Milan, delivered a plenary presentation, titled "Sociology in Political Practice and Public Discourse," in which he stated that social science should take an active role in public discourse, interacting with its different publics, and not shy away from this arena. To do otherwise, he said is to make sociology irrelevant. He cautioned of the imperative to properly insulate the discipline by keeping a safe distance from both "common sense" and public discourse so as to protect the discipline from losing its autonomy of judgment. "Sociological science" and "sociology as political practice" are two distinct forms of action, which cannot be blended, he emphasized.

Saskia Sassen, University of Chicago, delivered a plenary address, titled "Deciphering Political Possibilities for National States and Citizens in a Global Economy," in which she said that "corporate economic globalization contains conditions that can enable nation-based actors, whether states or citizens, to participate in governing global institutions and processes and to engage in global politics to a far greater extent than is commonly assumed." A major implication she said, is that "both states and citizens can fight for global aims using national instruments rather than having to wait for a global state to act on its own," a likelihood she labeled as improbable.

Two conditions enable this possibility, she indicated, and both mostly have been overlooked. "One is that national states are far more significant for the development of the global corporate economy, including the global trading system, than the notion of a weakened state allows us to see. If states are critical to global projects, then political action should also focus on reorienting the international work of national states [toward] pursuit of social justice in ... institutional settings and contesting the power of major economic global corporate actors." The second condition "is a key feature of the current period: the multiplication of partial, often highly specialized, cross-border assemblages of bits of national territory, authority, and rights that are getting dislodged from national settings. Some of these assemblages function as familiar regimes for governing a growing range of global processes, including trade and finance. But others are emergent spaces for political action, notably spaces where those confined to the nation-state (citizens) or those who are immobile (because of poverty or political vulnerability) can actually engage in global politics." Her presentation focused on the latter in terms of emerging cross-border assemblages of territory, authority, and rights in a larger theoretical-political exploration of the limits of power and the complexities of powerlessness.

A plenary presentation by John Urry, Lancaster University, addressing the sociology and climate change theme examined contradictions of the past century in capitalism’s shifts in relation to major changes relating to the contemporary natural conditions of life on earth. "These shifts involve moving from low carbon to high carbon economies/societies, from societies of discipline to societies of control, and more recently from specialized and differentiated zones of consumption to mobile, de-differentiated consumptions of excess." Sociological analysis is central to examining high carbon societies and climate change, he maintained.

Michael Burawoy, University of California-Berkley, delivered an address, "Another Sociology Is Necessary," to close the meeting in a plenary session titled "Sociological Intervention in Public Debate." He presciently discussed "[a] third wave of marketization [that] has been sweeping the world, destroying the ramparts laboriously erected to defend society against the first and second waves of the 19th and 20th centuries," just before this fall’s fall of global financial markets. But at the time, Burawoy mentioned decimation of labor rights first won in Western 19th-century labor movements and the atrophy of social rights guaranteed by states against marketization in the last century. Burawoy described a process whereby the "global world" is now being leveled in a third-wave marketization, which is extending commodification to new realms, including every nook of nature. (The global financial collapse that has ensued since Burawoy’s closing may be an indicator that capitalistic economies are not sufficiently robust to endure the new financial habitats generated by the commodification of virtually everything.)

ASA Participation

Three ASA staff represented the Association at the ISA Forum and made paper presentations. Roberta Spalter-Roth, Director of ASA’s Research and Development Department, presented "Sociologists in Research, Applied, and Policy Settings: Closing the Status Gap" in a Joint Session of RC 26 (Clinical Sociology) and RC 46 (Sociotechnics and Sociological Practice) organized by Jan Fritz, University of Cincinatti.

Lee Herring, ASA’s Director of Pubilc Affairs, and Margaret Weigers Vitullo, Director of ASA’s Professional and Academic Affairs Program, jointly presented a paper under the auspieces of RC 04 (Sociology of Education). The session, chaired by A. Gary Dworkin (University of Houston-Texas), was titled "Accountability for and by Whom? Standards for and by Whom?: Determining Standards." Herring and Vitullo’s paper was titled "A critical examination of the Spellings Commission push for accountability in U.S. higher education."

For more information on the ISA Forum, visit green_small


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