May/June 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 4

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Sociologists Featured at
2013 AAAS Annual Meeting

Roberta Spalter-Roth, ASA Research on the Discipline and Profession and
Jean H. Shin, ASA Minority Affairs Program

Sociologists were a small but visible part of the 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting, which took place February 14–18 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, MA. Three types of activities reflected this visibility: first was a plenary address, the second a research symposium, and the third included two section and committee meetings. At the meeting, seven sociologists were elected as AAAS Fellows by the on Social, Economic, and Political Sciences (Section K) (for more information, see the January 2013 issue of Footnotes

Plenary on Robots

Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle.  Photo: Atlantic Photography

The first, and most visible of the activities was a plenary address by Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Turkle, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, spoke on “The Robotic Moment: What Do We Forget When We Talk to Machines?” According to Turkle, people may start to see robots and similar devices as an answer for the problems of comfort, conversation, and care. In her view, our relationships with robots may be remaking human values and human connections in ways that we should examine more carefully. This is especially true in the realms of child care and elder care, where people have concluded that robots will be necessary to make up for a lack of suitable teachers and elder care workers. In some cases, administrators may believe that robots will be safer and more efficient in these jobs than unreliable, messy, chaotic human beings. In contrast to the robots and computer toys of the 1980s and 1990s, today’s newer machines often present themselves as having feelings, emotions, and interior mental states, along with the human-like intelligence found in prior versions. They may also be causing the very same people to forget how to have conversations and to understand and care for one another across generations. (To see a full video of Turkle’s AAAS plenary lecture as well as any of the other plenaries at the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting, visit

Promoting Minorities

The work of a number of sociologists was displayed at a three-hour symposium within the AAAS Education and Human Resources track, titled “Overcoming Dualisms and Promoting Minority Inclusion in Science Networks and Pipelines.” This session, organized by ASA’s Roberta Spalter-Roth, included participation by sociologists Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (Duke University), Denise Segura and Laura Romo (University of California-Santa Barbara), Crystal Bedley and Patricia Roos (Rutgers University), Shiri Noy (Indiana University). and Rashawn Ray (University of Maryland), Jean H. Shin (ASA), and Patricia E. White, Sociology Program Officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Collectively, the presentations suggested that without navigating a series of dualisms, minority scholars are often excluded from professional networks, holistic mentoring, and access to resources necessary for retention, productivity, and promotion.

According to presenters, there are three dualisms that minority scholars must navigate in order to succeed in white-dominated departments: navigating the nor-mative structure of the department versus everyday practices that may reflect racism; the labeling of race/ethnic-based scholarship as subjec-tive in contrast to the norm of objectivity; and resource distribu-tion based on universalistic versus particularistic criteria.

According to presenters, there are three dualisms that minority scholars must navigate in order to succeed in white-dominated departments: navigating the normative structure of the department versus everyday practices that may reflect racism; the labeling of race/ethnic-based scholarship as subjective in contrast to the norm of objectivity; and resource distribution based on universalistic versus particularistic criteria. In order to navigate these dualisms, minority scholars appear to need two types of mentoring—instrumental and supportive, and homogeneous as well as heterogeneous networks. The studies presented by the panel members, not only analyzed data and tested hypotheses concerning dualisms, but presented also intervention-oriented strategies to navigate them.

The Business Side of Things

Third, sociologists were represented at two important AAAS section and committee meetings. The business meeting of the AAAS Section K was led by sociologists Craig Calhoun (retiring chair) and Richard O. Lempert (secretary) and involved open discussions of several topics of special relevance to social science disciplines. The most notable discussion topics were the relative lack of Science editorial board members from the social sciences, the response by the wider social science community to U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) proposed end of federal funding for social science, the impact of upcoming restrictions on travel for federal employees, and a review of AAAS rules on human subjects concerns and the procedures of Institutional Review Boards.

At the business meeting of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, Margaret Weigers Vitullo, ASA, and Jessica Wyndham, AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, presented their ongoing work on the relationship between human rights concerns and scientific research and discourse. Specifically, the work of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program (SHRP) focuses on Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Article 15 requires states to 1) recognize the right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications; 2) conserve, develop, and diffuse science; 3) respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research; and 4) recognize the benefits of international contacts and cooperation in the scientific field. As a program devoted to mobilizing science and scientists to advance human rights, SHRP is committed to promoting Article 15 and engaging scientists in that effort.

Sally T. Hillsman, ASA Executive Officer and 2011 AAAS Fellow, said “The visible and significant role of sociologists at the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting is proof of the discipline’s position as a contributor to the STEM research community moving forward. I am optimistic that ASA will continue to partner with AAAS through its advancement of cutting-edge sociological research and that of the social and behavioral sciences more broadly.” By submitting ideas for paper sessions and symposia for future AAAS meetings, sociologists can contribute to a greater advancement of sociology as a scientific discipline. 


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