July-August 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 6

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From Mobile to Shanghai: Reflections on my ASA Presidential Year

by Arne L. Kalleberg, ASA President, 2008

The 2008 ASA Presidency has afforded me the unforgettable opportunity and ambassador-like privilege to travel around the United States, China, and other countries, representing the American Sociological Association. This has provided an opening to introduce a wide-ranging audience to the 2008 ASA program theme of “Worlds of Work.” I’ve met a broad and diverse group of sociologists and observed first hand the state of the discipline as it is practiced in a variety of academic departments and in numerous governmental, business, and other non-academic settings.

Thomas Calhoun, Chair, Dept. of Criminal
Justice and Sociology, Jackson State University
(left), and Arne Kalleberg

The January 2008 issue of Footnotes (p. 4) described my visits to the 2007 Mid-South Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Mobile, AL, in October and to the sociology department at Texas A&M University in November. My traveling companion on these trips was Jean H. Shin, Director of the ASA Minority Affairs Program. Jean and I also attended the 2008 Southwestern Social Science Association Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, NV, in March and visited the sociology department at Jackson State University in April. These trips enabled us to meet with faculty, administrators and students from various schools (many of which are Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and to discuss with them strategies for achieving diversity goals among students and faculty. We were particularly impressed by the successes in achieving diversity by the sociology departments at Texas A&M and Jackson State University.

In June, I led a group of academics on an ASA-sponsored tour to China that visited four cities—Beijing, Xi’an, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. We observed some of the vast history and beauty of this country as well as the massive urban development taking place in the capital city of Beijing and the port city of Shanghai, a city that has been transformed from one that had hardly any modern high-rise office towers in 1980 to one that today has more than twice as many as New York City. In our discussions with sociologists at Peking University and Fudan University in Shanghai, we explored questions such as the nature and impact of social and demographic change in China, and the accompanying political, economic, and cultural changes that are taking place.

I also gave talks during the past year at the sociology departments of Vanderbilt University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Washington, and the 2008 Southern Sociological Society Annual Meeting in Richmond, VA. In addition, I lectured on job quality at a conference sponsored by the journal Work, Employment and Society at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in September and co-directed a Social Science Research Council-sponsored workshop in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on “precarious labor” in various Asian countries.

My discussions with colleagues in these various places explored ways in which we might re-think the sociology of work, workers, and the workplace in light of recent changes in the nature of the employment relationship in the past three decades. These issues are central to the 2008 ASA program theme of "Worlds of Work," which highlights the interconnections between work and other social institutions and phenomena such as social stratification and inequality, family, race, gender, age, immigration, political participation, religious behavior, among others.

The State of Sociology

My travels also gave me ample opportunities to consider the role of sociology as a discipline in the 21st century. I’ve formed two main impressions about the state of our discipline.

First, sociology is alive and well and is more vibrant and vital than ever. ASA membership is approaching an all-time high, nearing the record set in the early 1970s. The number of baccalaureate degrees awarded in sociology has increased by 70 percent since the 1990s; the number of master’s degrees has increased by about two-thirds in the last 15 years; and the number of doctorates has increased steadily since 1990.

Back row (left to right): Larry Troy, Michael Thomson, Brent Shea, John Green, Susan Ferguson, Ilkka Arminen, Gerard Duhaime. Front row: Wen Tong, Judy Kalleberg, Shelly Errington, Irene Thomson, Arne Kalleberg, Leo Goodman.

The younger sociologists at the schools I visited seemed excited about sociology, were exciting for me to meet, and were highly motivated to study social phenomena and the social problems of our times. About a hundred people came to Jackson State University in April from nearly a dozen schools in the Deep South to meet with Jean and me during our visit. And about three dozen students and faculty met with our group at Fudan University in Shanghai, despite our visit falling on a holiday, the Dragon Boat festival. Sociology was re-established in China in 1980 and has grown rapidly since then, with about 50 departments now having sociology majors and about 200 universities having some form of sociology department.

My second impression is that a major reason why sociology is so healthy is that it is increasingly relevant and essential to explanations of a growing number of issues and problems faced by societies and nations around the world. We need sociology now more than ever because many of the challenges facing us in the 21st century involve social forces, often in interaction with physical and biological factors.

Accordingly, students sense that they are at the center of social change. This seemed especially true in China, where we met a number of students engaged in practically oriented research that is helping to define strategies that might be effective in changing society. In both the United States and China, I met faculty and students working on important and timely sociological questions related to the increasing precariousness and uncertainty of work; these scholars are studying work in specific places, and linking them to global events. In Las Vegas, we observed the operation of the vast service sector of the economy in hotels, casinos, restaurants, and on the streets. In China, we were struck by the importance of the issue of internal migration, where "floating people" (i.e., not registered for the region/city in which they live and cannot receive government benefits) are forced to work in low-paying, insecure, and other dangerous jobs.

And, on to Boston

Experiences during the past year have underscored my confidence that the 2008 ASA program theme, "Worlds of Work," is extremely timely. Work and employment relations have become increasingly precarious and uncertain, which creates more insecurity among workers. Social, economic and political forces (such as globalization, technological innovation, and the end of welfare) are radically transforming the nature of work in our society, and have led to the growth of dual-earner families, 24/7 work schedules, assaults on unions, and low-wage and often "dead end" jobs. These changes in work and the workforce have, in turn, magnified social problems such as poverty, work-family conflicts, political polarization, religious discord, and racial, ethnic and gender inequality. Many of these issues will figure prominently in the 2008 U.S. presidential election and in the Republican and Democratic conventions that will occur shortly after the ASA meetings.

We will explore these and other related topics at the 2008 ASA meetings in Boston, August 1-4. These meetings should be intellectually stimulating and fun. I look forward to seeing you there! green_small


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