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State of the State Sociology Societies

National Council of State Sociological Associations provides overview

The first of five articles in a series on the State of the State Sociological Socieities.

by Kenneth C. Land, Duke University

As President of the National Council of State Sociological Associations, it is my pleasure to bring together four brief essays on the state of state sociological association that are based on presentations in the “State Sociological Associations: Issues and Opportunities” session at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, Georgia.

Catherine Harris and Michael Wise perform a great service to all of us in their efforts to periodically survey the state associations to assess their strength and viability. In their essay, “A Quick Look at Grassroots Sociology: Updating the State of the State Associations,” Harris and Wise compare their recent survey data with their 1998 study. The trends are not up for most state associations and are definitely down in some cases. Given that these associations represent the only source of professional affiliation and contact for some sociologists, this loss of vitality is a source of concern.

One of the more successful state sociology associations in recent years has been the North Carolina State Sociological Association. In his essay, “How to Maintain a Positive Cash Flow in a Sluggish Economy without Becoming the Next ENRON,” Robert Wortham builds on his experience as a recent President of this association to devise a David Letterman-style “Top Ten” list of things a state association can do to generate interest, participation, support, and cash flow. This essay is a “keeper,” a treasure trove of advice and counsel for those who seek to foster state association development.

The third essay, “Sociology Out Front,” by Ron Wimberly, presents another list, this time a list of things that state associations can help sociologists to do. With a focus on these functions at the local level, Wimberly suggests that state associations can go to the “local fronts” in states and communities across the country and help them to be more effective.

In the fourth essay, Monte Bute critiques the oligarchical elitism of the ASA, argues for a sociological scholarship aimed at the “well-informed citizen” that is nourished in state sociological associations, and invites more participation in these associations by members of the faculties of research universities. In sum, these essays show who the state sociology associations are, what they can and should do, and how to pay for it. I have four remarks to add to what is said in these essays.

First, the important niches that state associations can fill need to be recognized. The ASA estimates that there are two to three times as many professional sociologists in the United States as the roughly 13,000 members of the ASA. Many of these sociologists are enthusiastic about the discipline and benefit from the social contacts and intellectual stimulation of participation in annual meetings of a state association to maintain and improve their professional competencies, as they often do not have an opportunity to participate in the meetings of national and regional sociology associations.

Second, state sociology associations are preeminently episodic organizations. They typically do not have permanent physical executive offices or even executive officers. For much of the year, their organizational structures, officers, and councils often are latent and come to life each year primarily to organize and hold an annual meeting or conference. It is during the episodes of these meetings that the state associations exist in social and physical form.

Third, state sociology associations are prototypes of what some sociologists study—voluntary associations. With minimal annual membership dues, no permanent executive office, no permanent executive officer or staff, and only episodic gatherings centered around an annual meeting, the viability and vitality of state associations rests solidly on the willingness of members to volunteer their time, talents, energies, and financial resources to make an association work. Specifically, in order for a state sociology association to function well, there must be a core group (of probably at least a dozen or two) of “champions” among its membership who believe in the importance of the state association and what it is doing and who are willing to devote the time and energy necessary to organize its episodic existence and to maintain the linkages (e.g., membership lists/directories, websites, treasuries, journals) that hold the association together in the intervals between annual meetings.

Fourth, as is evident in Wortham’s top ten list (see article in this series on p. 8), the participation of members of the sociology faculties of the “major” universities in a state is important for the success of a state association. These often are the departments offering graduate degrees in sociology within a state. Faculty members from such departments usually have access to resources (e.g., for technical computing assistance to build or maintain a website or to create and print a directory of members) and funds that can be used to facilitate the programs of a state association. Some of my best friends are members of such departments. They need to recognize their importance to the viability of state associations and to the professional development of the fellow sociologists these associations can reach. Then they need to lend some of their time and energy to strengthening the state associations. Harris and Wise cite this participation as key to the success of state associations.