homeprev issuesexecpublic affairsSTAFFASA home

Why Did Sociologists Go to Atlanta? Who Is Going to San Francisco?

A survey of attendees’ motivations for attending ASA annual meetings

by Roberta Spalter-Roth and William Erskine, Research and Development Department

“In an era when much of our communication with colleagues is done through cyberspace, we often forget about the human connections that are made at the Annual Meeting, the serendipitous conversations that provide new insights into one’s teaching and research program, and the simple joy of swapping stories over coffee with special friends,” wrote ASA Past-President Bill Bielby in his invitation to the 2003 Annual ASA meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Did sociologists go to the Atlanta to see old friends or for some other reason? Who went to the Atlanta meeting and why? Who intends to go to the 2004 Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California? Why do some people choose not to attend the meeting? This article attempts to answer these questions based on our most recent annual follow-up survey of Annual Meeting attendees.

About 60 percent of ASA Annual Meeting attendees who responded to a follow-up survey were regular members, and about 35 percent were student members, with the remainder being emeritus or associate members (see Figure 1). A higher number of 45- to 54-year-olds attended than would have been expected, based on their prevalence among ASA members. For many in this age cohort, these post-tenure to mid-career years are characterized by scholarly productivity, mentoring students, and giving service to the profession. Hence they have a variety of reasons to attend the meetings.

Giving a Paper

Among the survey response options, “Giving a Paper” was the most frequently cited “Very Important” reason given by both regular and student members who attended the Annual Meeting, reflecting the scholarly productivity that was visible at the 550 thematic, special, and regular sessions. More than half of the regular members and more than 60 percent of the student members reported contributing to the scholarly discourse that occurred in Atlanta (see Figure 2). Part of the high rate of productivity witnessed at the annual meeting may be the result of institutional rules, however. More than 80 percent of those who received funding from their institutions to attend the meetings were required to present papers. Students came as a result of a “stick and a carrot.” While often required to present papers in order to obtain funding, they were encouraged to attend the meetings by faculty members in their departments in order to learn their craft, develop networks, and meet colleagues in their specialty areas. For some students, presenting papers was also likely to be linked to being on the job market. The likelihood of paper presentation among regular members decreased with age.

“Networking”—an activity leading to career enhancement, as opposed to the “simple joy” of seeing friends—is the second most frequently cited reason for attending the Atlanta meeting. Students did not appear to have the luxury of going beyond networking to see friends, perhaps because they were on the job market, and perhaps because they do not yet have as many collegial friends outside their universities.

In contrast to student members, about 30 percent of regular ASA members said that “Friends Attending” was a primary reason for attending the meeting, making a distinction between professional networks and friendships. It is the post-45-year-old members who appear to agree most with Bielby and purposely come to the meetings to see “special friends” as well as network with colleagues. They are also likely to participate in association volunteer activities such as attending committee meetings.

Once at the Annual Meeting, about 9 out of 10 attendees went to ASA section day activities, including panels, roundtables, business meetings, and receptions, regardless of whether they were regular members or student members (see Figure 3). Fewer than half as many attended plenary sessions as attended section sessions. Respondents suggested that ASA meetings are large and busy, with a lot of “scurrying around,” while participation in section activities provided a contrasting feeling of intimate community. Though in slightly different order of preference, students and regular members alike visited exhibits or the ASA bookstore, or attended roundtable sessions outside their sections.


The modal group (66 percent) of those in Atlanta was satisfied with the events and services they attended or used. More than one-quarter (27 percent) were very satisfied; only 6 percent were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. Do these high rates of satisfaction translate into continued meeting attendance?

To answer this, we look to who is going to the 2004 Annual meeting in California and why. Almost half (45 percent) of those who attended the Atlanta meeting said that they would definitely come to San Francisco, and another 42 percent said that they would probably come. About the same share of regular members and of students expect to go to the 2004 Annual Meeting as went to the 2003 Annual Meeting. Those who were “very satisfied” with the Atlanta meeting are the most likely to say that they will definitely go to San Francisco.

Why Not?

The 12 percent who said that they probably or definitely would not attend the 2004 meeting gave three related reasons. The major reason was cost. The second reason, related to the first, was cutbacks in department travel funds as a result of state or institutional cutbacks, and the third reason, related to the first two, was that accepted papers are required for funding, and next year’s paper had not been written or accepted. Finally, there is a small group that just does not like California.

Methods and Winners

These findings derive from a survey conducted shortly after the annual meeting that requested information on membership status, factors that influenced the decision to attend, sources of support for meeting attendance, uses of the ASA Annual Meeting website, housing during the meeting, and satisfaction with events and activities. Carried out jointly by the ASA and Info Source at Marriott International, the response rate was 42 percent for a total of 1,616 respondents (high, we are told, for surveys of this type). To encourage response, ASA selected three winners from the respondents who would have their annual meeting fees waived in 2004. The winners were Dana M. Britton an Associate Professor of Sociology at Kansas State University, Danielle Kane, a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, and Danielle Lavin-Loucks, an Assistant Professor of Crime and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Texas-Dallas.