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The XVI World Congress of the International Sociological Association, South Africa

by Val Moghadam, UNESCO and Purdue University

The World Congress of Sociology convenes every four years under the auspices of the International Sociological Association (ISA). In July, Durban, South Africa, hosted the 16th World Congress. Among the more than 3,000 participants, American sociologists were well represented— at the plenaries, at the panels organized by the various Research Committees, at the receptions, and (I am told) at the safaris and side trips that took place before, during, and after the congress. And two of us—Michael Burawoy and myself—were elected to the Executive Committee.

The ISA’s administrative center is in Madrid, but the association is run by an Executive Committee including a president, five vice-presidents (for research, publications, national associations, programme, finance and membership), and representatives of National Associations and of Research Committees that are elected, respectively, by the Council of National Associations and the Council of Research Committees (see ISA website:

The ISA was founded in 1949 by UNESCO (my employer for the past two years). Its goal is to represent sociologists everywhere, regardless of their school of thought, academic approaches or ideology, and to advance sociological knowledge throughout the world. Its members come from 109 countries. The ISA is a member of the International Social Science Council, enjoys NGO status in formal associate relations with UNESCO, and has a special consultative status with the United Nation’s Economic and Social Council. Over the years, the ISA has co-published some important scholarly works, such as James A. Beckford’s New Religious Movements and Rapid Social Change, (1986) and its journal International Sociology is highly regarded.

I became a member of the ISA in 1990 and attended the world congresses in Madrid, Bielefeld, and Montréal. I missed the 2002 congress in Brisbane, Australia, but remained active in RC-32, the Research Committee on Women in Societies, which has the most members of the Research Committees. Issues of language and geographic representation have dogged many of the congresses, but Durban set a precedent and a challenge. By convening, for the first time, in an African country, the 16th World Congress raised the African participation rate from 2% to 15%. Some 104 countries were represented, of which 25 were African, making the Durban congress a record-setting event. The Congress was very well organized in other ways, too: the plenary speakers equally represented North and South; and the gender composition of the plenaries was 60% male and 40% female (Ari Sitas, local organizing committee.)

As occurs during every world congress, elections were held during the XVI Congress. Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, then-ASA president, had nominated me as the ASA delegate to the ISA and as a candidate for election to the National Associations Liaison Committee, or NALC (to succeed Douglas Kincaid). An unprecedented 12 persons ran for the position of ISA president, and Michel Wieviorka of France was elected. Five vice-presidents were elected: Arturo Rodriguez Morato, Research Council; Hans Joas, Congress Programme; Devorah Kalekin-Fishman, Publications; Jan Marie Fritz, Finance and Membership; Michael Burawoy, National Associations. (See "Burawoy and Fritz Elected to International Leadership Positions")

Michael Burawoy’s NALC 12 member team consists of representatives from almost all continents. The goals, as laid down by Burawoy, are to (a) try to secure broader participation in the ISA from the National Associations, especially in regions that are underrepresented; (b) promote and facilitate six to 10 Regional Conferences; (c) organize the Conference of National Associations in 2009; and (d) construct a central website for the National Associations, linked to the website of individual National Associations. In just the past month, our first task was to consider applications for membership by the Ethiopian Sociological Association and the Iranian Sociological Association.

One issue that came up in the course of the delegates’ deliberations in Durban was how to handle resolutions that seek to get the ISA to publicly adopt positions on political or social matters of concern. A delegate from Turkey had proposed a resolution calling on all parties to cease hostilities in the Middle East. Past-president Piotr Sztompka pointed out that we lacked procedures to do so, and thus NALC may seek to propose to the ISA Executive Committee procedures for handling such resolutions from the membership in an open, democratic, and civil fashion.

What are some of the issues that this Executive Committee will take on in the next four years? ISA President Wieviorka has suggested eight issues: (1) tackling the persistent question of languages; (2) supporting junior sociologists; (3) enhancing internal democracy; (4) developing connections with professional, regional, and linguistic associations; (5) improving relations and exchanges with other disciplines; (6) initiating “State of the Art” projects; (7) exploring how to involve China in the ISA; and (8) increasing the membership. All this plus planning for the XVII World Congress, in Göteborg, Sweden, in July 2010. It will be a busy four years.