A Quick Look at Grassroots Sociology
An updating of the survey of the state of the state associations
The fourth of five articles in a series on the State of the State Sociological Societies.
by Catherine T. Harris, Wake Forest University, and Michael Wise,
Appalachian State University
In 1998, we published “Grassroots Sociology and the Future of the Discipline,” a study of the state sociological associations, in the winter issue of The American Sociologist (Vol. 29, pp. 29–47). The intent of our survey was to ascertain the structure, activities, cares, and concerns of 26 state associations representing 32 states. Our concern was the niche occupied by the state association in the overall sociological enterprise as it bridged the gap between the larger national and regional organizations and sociologists in the trenches who are teaching, researching, and applying their skills and knowledge.
At the time of our 1998 report, we were generally optimistic about the unique potentials of these associations for identifying and reacting to emerging problems for the discipline. Now, five years later, there are some changes emerging that give us cause for concern.
As preparation for this follow-up study, we contacted the officers of all the state associations listed in the 2002/03 ASA Directory of Aligned Organizations (see also www.asanet.org/governance/aligned.html). Our purpose in this preliminary survey was to determine the perceptions among these state association officers of their relationship to regional, national, and other state associations. Of particular interest was the perception of and knowledge about the National Council of State Sociological Associations (NCSSA). This latter association meets concurrently with the ASA and seeks to be supportive of state associations by providing a forum for issues and concerns (see www.statesociologicalassociations.org/).
Summary of Findings
There were 26 associations in our 1998 report, including DC, Ohio, and New England. Each of these associations is now listed by the ASA under “Regional Associations” (Ohio has become the North Central regional association). Of the current 25 identifiable state associations, 16 have web sites, but some have been inactive for up to five years.
At least six state associations are having organization troubles. One from the southern region has tried mightily for a number of years to establish a full-fledged association but has yet to generate sufficient support among its universities. A second southern state admits to being in some disarray but still has a contact person. One organization from the midwest is reduced to a single contact person, an organizer from its 1996 program. A neighboring association, though active, reports its organization as “weak.” One formerly active western association is no longer listed in the ASA directory. A second western state has formally disbanded, although it still lists a contact person. One formerly active state association has not met for a while, has lost its web manager, but appears to have some individuals interested in reviving the association.
West of Oklahoma, the only active association is California where meetings are held in the north and south of the state in alternate years. Geographically, state associations seem to be concentrated in the south, the midwest, and central states. The large western states with low population density appear not to have active state associations.
The distribution of officers listed in the ASA directory and website suggests that where state associations are thriving, as indicated by the representation of officers, there is active support from the “big” universities. Where they are struggling, by the same indicator, support from the larger institutions is lacking.
Responses to our preliminary survey indicated that respondents felt that the ASA and regional associations were important to them. Relationships to other related in-state associations were, however, seen as relatively less important as were relationships to other state sociological associations. There are, however, several state sociological associations (e.g., Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois) that have a tradition of joint meetings. Alabama and Mississippi have long combined resources, as have North and South Dakota. The former Ohio Sociological Association—now the North Central Sociological Association—crosses several boundaries encompassing Eastern Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, Western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
State associations’ participation with the NCSSA, the ASA, and regional associations was not strong. Some respondents had heard of the NCSSA and could recall having been contacted by the Council. No respondent had, however, ever attended a meeting of NCSSA. About half of the respondents had attended meetings or workshops related to state associations at a regional level. Most had heard from the ASA about the annual meeting of Allied and Aligned Associations, but again, few had ever attended.
As part of their own programs, a number of state associations had availed themselves of ASA speakers, consultants and grant opportunities. Their evaluations of these resources were, however, mixed. Some felt that the ASA speakers and consultants were quite effective, but others felt they were not. One state association reported asking the NCSSA for help in revitalizing its organization. Their “core” members had asked the ASA for help but discovered that their problem was not something the ASA is structured to deal with.
Ideas for Invigoration
Respondents noted several areas in which the regional and national sociological associations could provide assistance to the state associations. For one, they suggested that the regional and national associations become more active in assisting the establishment of state associations. Second, respondents were interested in broader communication among state, regional, and national associations. Specifically, they cited announcements about meetings, news about other state associations, and ideas about teaching, practice, and research. Finally, they noted a need for assistance with various program activities. These included workshops, speakers, dealing with different clientele and dealing with organizational maintenance. All state associations wish to be responsive to a variety of members including students, highs school and community college teachers as well as the traditional college and university faculty. With respect to organizational maintenance, respondents cited needs related to recruitment of members, organizing conferences, developing websites, applying for tax-exempt status, and generally strategies and techniques for strengthening their organization.
The state association serves the sociologist in the trenches. It is in many ways the “trip wire” signaling problems that ultimately affect the larger organizations. It serves to integrate sociologists from all academic levels and those in applied positions. Given its importance to the sociological endeavor, its importance in identifying emerging problems for the discipline, it seems clear that the support of and coordination with regional and national associations is important. At the present, it is clear that we, as sociologists, do not adequately integrate our various organizational levels and risk failure to take full advantage of what each layer can uniquely offer.