December 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 9

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ASA President Trip to Mid-South Sociological Association Meeting

Erik Olin Wright, ASA President


Erik Olin Wright and Göran Therborn in front
of Little Rock Central High School.

One of the activities of ASA presidents—if interested—is to participate in regional sociological association meetings. The ASA also facilitates presidents visiting under-resourced universities to give talks and discuss the Association with circles of students and faculty. My first trip as ASA President was to attend the Mid-South Sociological Association annual meeting in Little Rock in October. With me on this trip was Göran Therborn, a distinguished Swedish sociologist teaching at Cambridge University in England, who had been lecturing at the University of Wisconsin in the days before the Mid-South Meeting. While in Little Rock, I visited Philander Smith College, a historically black liberal arts college. As things developed, Göran and I also spent a few hours at the Occupy Little Rock encampment where we were asked to lead a discussion around our perspectives on social justice and the occupy movement.

The Mid-South Sociological Association Meeting

The “Mid” in Mid-South refers to the middle states along the east/west axis of the South—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and other southern states to their north. It is the smallest of the regional sociological associations in the United States, but has held an annual meeting since its founding in 1974. Because of its location, it is the association with the closest ties to sociologists working in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The meeting was lively, serious, and intellectually engaging.

At the conference I led a session, titled “A Conversation with ASA President Erik Olin Wright: Diversity in American Sociology, the ASA, Real Utopias, and Anything-else-you-want-to-discuss.” I began the discussion with some brief remarks about my changing relation to the discipline of sociology. Here is part of what I said:

When I entered sociology in 1971 I had no real commitment to sociology. I chose sociology because of all of the social science disciplines I saw it as the least disciplined, the least concerned with policing its boundaries, and the most permissive of fringe perspectives. Over the course of the four decades since then I have seen sociology become more open, more tolerant of its quirky corners, and more pluralistic in its views of methods and topics. While tensions sometimes still surface, most sociologists value the diversity of theoretical orientations in the discipline as well as the diversity of methods. This deepening of a fairly robust pluralism is an accomplishment, not just the result of some kind of intellectual drift or indifference. And, I think, the ASA as an organization is one of the reasons this has happened

I then went on to talk a little about the Real Utopias theme for the 2012 ASA conference and why I thought this was an important agenda for sociological research. What followed was an engaged discussion over a wide range of issues, including the difficulty in some departments of maintaining pluralism, the problem of sustaining the core values of sociology given pressures on sociology programs to show that sociology leads to employment, and the issue of cultural relativism in my discussion of human flourishing and real utopias.

Philander Smith College

Philander Smith College, a small predominantly black liberal arts college, was founded in 1877. Like many HBCUs since the end of legal segregation in the South, it has faced increasing challenges in recruiting its student body and sustaining a sense of purpose, given the opportunities for African American students to attend historically white institutions. In 2007, the college engaged in a serious process of rethinking its core mission as an academic institution. Its mission now states: “To graduate academically accomplished students, grounded as advocates for social justice, determined to change the world for the better,” with the school motto:“Think Justice.” When I learned of this mission statement, I contacted the newly appointed director of the college’s social justice initiative, Joseph Jones, told him that I would be in Little Rock for the Mid-South meetings and offered to come to the college and lead an informal discussion on Real Utopias and social justice. Jean Shin, ASA Director of Minority Affairs, accompanied me.

I began by commenting to the faculty and students in attendance on how extraordinary I thought it was that their college had adopted a mission statement anchored in a commitment to social justice, and while this was my first visit to Little Rock, it held a salient place in my heart because of the desegregation struggle at Central High School in 1957. I was 10 at the time, living in Lawrence, KS. The Central High battles were the first events of the Civil Rights era about which I have direct memories, not just from later reading, but from seeing it on television at the time.

The exchange with students and faculty at the college was extremely interesting for me, and I think useful for them as well. I explained how the idea of Real Utopias was a distinctive way of engaging issues of social justice, different from talking about desirable policy reforms. Both begin with the diagnosis and critique of existing structures and institutions, identifying the ways in which they cause harms, but differ in their approach to the problem of alternatives. The analysis of policy reform looks at the current situation and asks what kinds of changes can we pursue that would improve things, given the social and political constraints we face. The study of Real Utopias asks what the destination we want get to is. It then seeks achievable transformations that move us in that direction. The students and faculty at the meeting raised many issues, including a discussion of the Occupy Wall Street movement and how it seemed to exclude participation from minorities and poor people, the problem of community activists and protesters taking seriously inclusiveness, the political opposition to Obama’s jobs programs and what would really work to create jobs, and many other things.

Afterwards, Jones took Shin and me on a tour of the campus, ending up at the offices of the Social Justice initiative, adorned with photos of the iconic figures of social justice movements from the South and around the world. The actual implementation of the social justice mission is still in its very early stages and it remains to be seen how deeply this can be translated into the academic life of the college. The idea is for social justice not to be a “topic” confined to a few special courses, but a theme that becomes integral throughout the curriculum.

Occupy Little Rock


Wright speaking at the
Occupy Little Rock site.

The last session of the Mid-South conference was devoted to a lecture by Therborn on “Dynamics of (In)Equalities: The South and the Rest.” The organizer of the conference, Mark Konty, had issued a press release inviting anyone from the Little Rock community to attend. About eight people with the Occupy Little Rock encampment came. The lecture was an exploration of both the specificities of the problem of inequality within the South and a discussion of broader trends in equality in the world as a whole. Afterwards, the “Occupy” attendees invited Göran and me to visit the encampment and attend their General Assembly.

After visiting Little Rock Central High School and its adjoining museum (now a national historic site) and the Clinton Presidential library, we went to the Occupy Little Rock encampment. It was previously located in front of the Clinton Library, but the activists had been unable to get a permit for that location so the city proposed a location across the freeway from the library. The encampment was small, perhaps 15 or so tents and around 30-40 people. Handmade signs adorned the perimeter: Dinner was being prepared and smoke was rising from a portable fire pit surrounded by lawn chairs. A white board listed lectures and discussions in the upcoming week. Soon, Göran and I were ushered over to the meeting area. The audience consisted of scruffy young people, but also men and women in their 50s and 60s.

I spoke about how the idea of real utopia connected to the spirit of the Occupy Movement, and then briefly elaborated what I think of as the three tasks of any systematic account of emancipatory possibilities: the diagnosis and critique of the world as it is, envisioning viable alternatives that embody emancipatory ideals, and developing a theory of transformation for how to get from here to there. Göran talked about the massive irresponsibility of financial elites in gambling recklessly with financial resources and the global character of the new waves of protest against “casino capitalism.” The discussion that followed focused on the issue of the goals of the occupy movement. I was asked what I thought of the idea of abolishing the Fed, a topic of heated debate within the Occupy Little Rock encampment. I suggested that the demand should not be “abolish the Fed” but “democratize the Fed”make it accountable to the people. Of course this also requires democratizing democracy: if Congress is subordinated to wealthy elites, then it is not enough to make the Fed accountable to Congress. This lead to the broader question of democracy as a political goal. Two values, I argued, continuously animate American politics— freedom and democracy. Conservatives anchor their politics in freedom. The anchor for critics of the right wing should be deepening democracy. With democracy as the anchor then “freedom” can be re-appropriated by the protesters: a robust democracy is the necessary condition for meaningful freedom. After an almost two-hour discussion, the forum came to a close.

A film crew from a local TV station was there and asked to interview me. They seemed impressed that the President of the American Sociological Association was in Little Rock leading a discussion on democracy and social change with the participants of Occupy Little Rock. 

For a more extended version of this article, see Wright’s website at

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