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The ASA has existed for more than a century, but the venerable history of the Association cannot blind us to the importance of understanding the current—and often changing—needs of sociologists, as well as the factors that lead them to make decisions about where to invest their limited time and resources. As part of our ongoing work to align ASA activities and benefits with members’ interests and needs, we recently conducted a small survey of former members of the ASA who had not renewed their membership in the past two years. We asked about the things that led them to join the ASA in the past, which benefits of membership they viewed as the most useful during the years they were members, and what led them not to renew their membership. I share these results with you now because you, as members of ASA, are its “owners.” ASA members, through direct action and through the actions of the elected and appointed Association Officers, have created the current structure and services of ASA and will decide its future direction.
The non-renewing members of the ASA who received the survey had been members for at least three consecutive years prior to dropping their membership. We asked them to rate nine possible reasons for joining ranging from 1 (not relevant to their decision to join) to 5 (extremely relevant to their decision to join). The three reasons for joining that received the highest mean ratings among the nine were:
Clearly the Annual Meeting plays a central role in the life of Association members. The Annual Meeting provides a valuable forum for sharing current sociological research and findings, networking with other sociologists including those from outside the United States, and building professional knowledge and skills. The meeting also provides a chance to reconnect with colleagues and friends and explore wonderful cities. (The governance of the Association also depends upon the hours of hard work elected and appointed members put in during the Annual Meeting to committees that guide our publication program, determine award winners, make ASA policy, and many other tasks that enrich the discipline. We hope members find these contributions satisfying as well.) Members, of course, receive a substantial discount on Annual Meeting registration, and thus it is not surprising that membership numbers rise during the early summer months each year.
Professional identity or prestige was the second-most highly rated reason for joining ASA. It is a privilege to be a sociologist! And the ASA is indeed a prestigious organization as a result of its members’ contributions to the discipline in the areas of teaching, research, and applied sociology. Founded nearly 110 years ago, it is largest and most influential professional association for the discipline of sociology in the world. Sociological research has demonstrated the ways in which academic prestige is linked to both quality of work and positions within networks of association and social exchange. Membership in the ASA and presenting at its Annual Meetings is a way of demonstrating the value of one’s professional contributions and helps establish a position within a prestigious disciplinary network.
Section membership was the third-most highly rated reason for joining the ASA. This was not surprising because total section memberships have continued to steadily grow over the last 10 years and that upward trend continues even when there are small dips in total ASA membership. At the end of 2013 there were a total of 28,410 section memberships, up from 21,366 in 2004. While the ASA as a whole has more than 13,000 members, the average section has fewer than 550 members. Sections might be compared to close-knit scholarly neighborhoods within a larger disciplinary community—they are where relatively small groups of like-minded sociologists can exchange ideas, build relationships, and advance a particular facet of sociological knowledge. They are a key way to connect professionally and intellectually at the Annual Meeting with colleagues working in similar areas, to explore new areas of scholarship, and to gain organizational experience that can translate into running for an elected ASA office or being appointed to an ASA committee.
The former members were also asked to rate the usefulness of ASA benefits or services. In this case they were asked to rate eleven items using a Likert scale. The three benefits that were seen as the most useful were:
ASA publishes nine journals, which are complemented by four additional journals published under the direction of individual ASA sections. The creation of a tenth journal—which will cover all disciplinary areas and be open access—was recently announced. (ASA is currently inviting applications for the journal’s inaugural editor, see page 4.) Journal articles are the coin of the realm in the sociological knowledge economy, and having access to them is essential for successful professional activity in that economy.
Membership in sections, while the third-rated reason for joining, was viewed as the second most-useful benefit of ASA membership. Research has shown that Association membership is related to social capital, professional satisfaction, and even increasing levels of trust and social activism beyond the organization itself (Stolle 2001). The relatively small membership communities in ASA sections may be particularly effective sites for this type of exchange and growth. Section Listservs and newsletters often provide vibrant intellectual debate, discussion, and support.
We were pleased that Footnotes was ranked as the third-most useful benefit of ASA membership. The Association’s newsletter, published nine times a year, provides readable and engaging information about trends in higher education and the discipline, updates on scientific policy, and news about members, sections, and the Association itself.
Keeping in mind that the survey we have been discussing was of former ASA members, why haven’t they renewed their membership? Open-ended responses to a question about the reasons for not renewing revolved around four key issues: professional life stage, place of employment, economics, and plans to attend the Annual Meeting.
More than a quarter of the respondents to our survey of non-renewing members were retired and many of the responses from these individuals suggest that they saw ASA membership as not fully relatable to their current needs and interests. We hope this is changing. ASA Council recently affirmed the importance of serving sociologists in retirement by voting to establish the ASA Opportunities in Retirement Network (ASAORN), which builds on similar activities in the regional sociological societies. In the beginning of May the group’s Listserv went live, generating so much discussion and excitement among ASA members that it surpassed the lists’ initial per-day limit for postings!
Other responses suggested that former members who were working in applied and professional settings saw ASA membership as less relevant. The ASA mission statement explicitly states that the Association serves researchers and practitioners in applied settings, as well as faculty working in colleges and universities. But we know that meeting this part of our mission has not been easy to achieve. I have been a member of the ASA continuously since my graduate school days and also spent the majority of my career in non-academic professional research positions. The Sociological Practice and Public Sociology Section maintains solid membership numbers, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects faster than average growth in graduate-level jobs related to sociological practice through 2022. At this year’s Annual Meeting, the theme of the Director of Graduate Studies Conference is “Preparing Graduate Students for Multiple Career Outcomes: Vision Mission and Implementation.” It focuses directly on the importance of including both academic sociology and sociological practice in graduate training. ASA hopes that as graduate departments of sociology look in depth at this issue, the Association will be able to work with them to make progress in how we respond to the needs of sociologists working in applied and/or professional research settings. But we know we need to be more creative.
The cost of membership was also mentioned as a reason for not renewing ASA membership. The ongoing impact of the Great Recession combined with startling reductions in state-level investments in higher education have left many colleges and universities facing real financial challenges. Sociology departments and research grants are becoming less and less able to provide funds for professional memberships and travel. There is no question that many sociologists and their families make difficult decisions about where to spend their personal income. It is an understatement to say that for some former members, ASA membership may not be the most important item in their budget. But for others, it might be worth considering the value of membership relative to regular non-essential purchases.
Seventy percent of the non-renewing ASA members responded positively when asked if they planned to renew their membership in the future. This ties back to Annual Meeting participation being a key reason for people joining the Association, and it reflects what we refer to as “membership churn” or the practice of some members dropping ASA membership during those years when they do not plan to attend the Annual Meeting. This is particularly important because the survey also showed—as discussed above—that the discounted registration fee for attending the Annual Meeting was NOT among the top three most useful benefits of membership. Access to journals, participation in sections, and Footnotes are all persistent benefits of membership that do not depend on whether a member attends the Annual Meeting in a given year. They reflect a sociologist’s identification with the discipline and desire to maintain active engagement in it. In fact, it may be particularly important to maintain ASA membership during years when it is not possible for a member to attend the Annual Meeting in order to maintain connection to crucial professional networks and support intellectual growth.
As you reflect on the findings presented here I welcome your thoughts on the reasons you joined the ASA, the value of ASA membership, and, in particular, specific ways we could work together to more fully support all of our members. Please send your comments to email@example.com.
Stolle, Dietland. 2001. “Clubs and Congregations: The Benefits of Joining an Association” in Trust in Society, edited by Karen S. Cook. New York: Russell Sage.
Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.