July/August 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 6

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The ISA Embraces the Digital World

Michael Burawoy, ISA President


Global Dialogue is ISA’s newsletter-cum-review
which is posted online five times a year in nine
languages. In The publication presents articles
on contemporary events such as the Arab Spring,
tough debates about the meaning of global
sociology, reports on conferences and on
special events of national associations and
research committees.

The International Sociological Association (ISA) was established in 1949 under the auspices of UNESCO. Over the last 60 years it has become ever more inclusive. From a small club of largely Western sociologists it has recruited sociologists from all corners of the globe and incorporated virtually every area of sociology. The association now has 57 National Association members and 55 Research Committees. Membership has risen to more than 5,000, which was also the number of registrants at the Gothenburg Congress in 2010—both figures are record highs. We now have a Sociological Forum for Research Committees that takes place every four years (the next one will be in Buenos Aires in 2012, August 1-4) and a conference for National Associations, also every four years, the last one being in Taipei in 2009 and the next one in 2013. The next ISA World Congress of Sociology will be in Yokohama in 2014. In addition to meetings, we have two flourishing international journals, Current Sociology and International Sociology as well as International Sociology Review of Books.

Even as we expand our activities and draw in new members from all over the planet, we also exclude thousands of sociologists who cannot afford to attend our meetings, which are, after all, very expensive. It is, indeed, an enormous privilege to be able to travel to Gothenburg and stay there for five days—no matter from where one comes. If we are to make any serious claims to inclusiveness we must find other ways of communicating with sociologists with lesser means. One way is to promote national and regional meetings of national and regional associations as well as of Research Committees. We do that all the time but, still, this is not enough.

In order to promote greater inclusiveness, we have launched Digital Worlds, a series of digital projects to attract members across the world. We have developed our own newsletter-cum-review, called Global Dialogue www.isa-sociology.org/global-dialogue/, which appears five times a year in nine languages. In the publication we present articles on contemporary events, such as the Arab Spring, tough debates about the meaning of global sociology, reports on conferences and on special events of national associations and research committees, and summaries of the proceedings of the ISA Executive Committee. It also features interviews with prominent sociologists and includes a history corner and a human rights column. We can produce hard copies in any language, but we make all of the content available electronically and in a fashion that elicits further comments and debate.

Going Digital

Second, we have created a blog called Universities in Crisis www.isa-sociology.org/universities-in-crisis/ now with 60 reports from 37 countries, describing the malaise of individual universities or the extent of national crisis. We have introduced an experimental course on global sociology, called Global Sociology, Live!  Here famous sociologists from all over the world present their views on different aspects of global sociology to an audience of critical students, and the resulting conversation is broadcast to anyone who wishes to watch. It is archived at www.isa-sociology.org/global-sociology-live/. We have begun a new e-journal called ISA eSymposium, aimed especially at young sociologists, which makes articles quickly available online to our members. We are developing sociotube (www.isa-sociology.org/sociotube/) where we plan to make available short videos of the real lives of sociologists to get a better sense of what it means to be a sociologist in, say, Ecuador, Thailand, Japan, Ethiopia, Germany, Ukraine, Brazil, China, Norway, etc. Finally, we plan to build a digital network, linking institutes of public sociology across the planet. We are continually presenting all these projects and their latest entries on our facebook page International Sociological Association (ISA).

The potential of digital worlds is clear, but realizing that potential requires more than producing interesting and exciting materials since such materials do not produce an audience on their own accord. Just because you build it does not mean that people will come in the online world. We are competing with all sorts of other media and websites, not least that of national associations, like the ASA! We plan to experiment with these diverse projects for four years and see which, if any, have been successful. Our goal is to reach international sociologists who would not be able to attend meetings, and it remains to be seen whether those who use these media are the same people who attend the meetings or whether it does bring in a wider audience. A lot depends on who has access to the Internet and the bandwidth with which they have access. We are developing a research project that examines this question of the digital divide, understood as a global phenomenon. We know that in each country there are elites (academic and other) that have access to digital media, but how deep does this access reach among the wider population? We simply don’t know. Although English is increasingly the international lingua franca, it is a problem that most of our media are presently in English only, with the exception of Global Dialogue.

A New Generation

On the production side, our hope is that these digital media will bring on board a new generation of sociologists who will actively participate in creating digital sociologies. Thus, we have teams of young sociologists who translate Global Dialogue into different languages. This new generation becomes a center of recruitment and dissemination, and, in addition, they initiate new projects of their own. We hope the ISA’s Digital Worlds will provide new opportunities for young sociologists to communicate with each other and develop their own innovative sociologies, bringing them from the margin to the center.

For some 10 years now we have offered a PhD laboratory that recruits about 15 PhDs each year to participate in a workshop where they share their ongoing research with senior sociologists. These laboratories last for a week and take place in different countries. The next one will be in South Africa organized by the University of Johannesburg. Indeed, this has been one of our most successful initiatives. Every four years we also hold a worldwide essay competition for junior scholars that brings the best to the World Congress.

Running an international organization is more difficult than a national association, if for one reason only, namely national loyalty is usually stronger than loyalty to an international community. Still, increasing numbers of sociologists identify with a field of knowledge that transcends national boundaries, as suggested by the vitality of so many of our research committees. There is also a growing awareness that the problems the world faces are of a global dimension requiring global solutions. Still, the paradox remains: the ASA has three times the membership of the ISA, and seven times the staff to organize its activities. By virtue of its concentration of resources, U.S. sociology governs so much of world sociology and is the training ground of so many of the leading sociologists in the United States and beyond. For good or evil U.S. sociology continues to dominate the world. Still, this is changing as centers of sociological production emerge in countries such as Brazil, South Africa, India and China. We hope that Digital Worlds will further contribute to decentering the production, consumption, and circulation of sociology, also continuing a long-standing trend in U.S. sociology of heightening sensitivity to its global position.

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