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The Executive Officer’s Column

Support for the Human Rights of Sociologists—Its Continuing Relevance

As sociologists and citizens, we have all been preoccupied by the senseless events of September 11th that took the lives and devastated the worlds of so many. Elsewhere in this issue of Footnotes, we include in their own voice sociologists’ reflections on the tragedy and aftermath of these suicide terrorist missions. During this time, those in sociology and other learned fields have reaffirmed their resolve to produce social knowledge and to use the power of education to foster its constructive use.

Many of us found the well-known words of President Roosevelt in the wake of the horrific bombing at Pearl Harbor—“Yesterday, . . . a date which will live in infamy”—to have renewed meaning 60 years later. From every walk of life and well beyond our own borders, individuals and organizations are seeking to find their path to move ahead at a time of both infamy and new challenge. Yet, in the midst of the shock and disbelief that shroud our daily routines and interactions, it is hard to pick up the pieces of where we were before this tragic date. One significant strand occupying the agenda of the ASA up through the Annual Meeting in August remains as germane now as it was then: how best to promote openness of scholarship throughout the world and to urge a more resolute posture by the United States government in support of that important goal.

On August 20, during the Annual Meeting, the ASA released a resolution passed by the ASA Council calling on the State Department to take more assertive and proactive action in defense of U.S. scholars conducting responsible scientific research in other countries. While gratified by the releases of Li Shaomin, Gao Zhan, and Qin Guangguang, the ASA leadership said that these actions are by no means the solution to the underlying problems. Many other social scientists remain incarcerated, such as the Egyptian-American research and human rights and democracy advocate Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim and several of his colleagues. As Council and its leadership saw it, the threats to sociological and other social science research have not receded. If anything, they have grown.

The recent events in New York and Washington underscore the need for deeper knowledge and scientific study of social processes, social movements, and societies around the globe. Such work needs to be valued, and we also need fulsome training (including in language, history, and culture) to pursue our sociological work. Equally as important, and fundamental to the ASA Council resolution in August, is that sound social science requires that societies be studied free from government constraints. As then President Douglas Massey and Vice President Richard Alba put it, “with sufficient independence to make their workings transparent.” Council also emphasized that social scientists must be able to disseminate their data and findings without restriction.

In commenting on this resolution in August, President Massey noted that sociologists are perhaps more at risk than scientists in other arenas because the issues they study inevitably touch on the distribution of power and resources in society and the methods they use frequently involve contact with ordinary citizens, as in surveys or observational studies. He reported that ASA Council was gravely concerned about challenges to academic freedom and the increasing numbers of U.S. scholars who are being detained abroad in the course of their work.

Repression wherever it occurs not only limits what we know but also dulls the senses of everyone to know it. Since September 11th, across sectors of society, public officials; heads of foundations, corporations, and non-profit organizations; and leaders of academic institutions are urging that we recognize that the fight against terrorism requires a multi-faceted, sustained approach. To that end, it is essential to have visible public policy that both values scholarly knowledge and affirmatively supports its open production and dissemination. Essentially over this past year, ASA Council has been aggressively urging that positive steps be taken to alter the climate for open inquiry, not just that the U.S. government be willing to act when confronted with egregious cases. As we look to the long-term, Council’s words are even more compelling than before.——Felice J. Levine

On August 20, the American Sociological Association released the following resolution duly moved and unanimously adopted by its Council.

Whereas over recent years, sociologists and other social scientists have increasingly been arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for activities relating to their scientific and scholarly work;

whereas the academic freedom of social scientists, and especially sociologists in China, Egypt, and other countries has been severely threatened; and

whereas the convictions of sociologists and other scientists are certain to have a chilling effect on other scholarly investigations, be it therefore resolved that the American Sociological Association urges the U.S. Department of State to take a vigorous stand on behalf of all scholars whose human rights and liberties are threatened or violated, and to speak out assertively in support of academic freedom.

The ASA calls upon the State Department to go beyond merely working behind the scenes to secure the release and departure of social scientists once they are jailed. It is imperative that the State Department protects foreign-born scientists who are naturalized citizens or permanent U.S. residents with the same vigor it would apply on behalf of U.S.-born citizens; that it asserts and defends the values of free scientific investigation of human society, both for its intrinsic worth and for its ultimately positive consequences for the nations under study; that it does not stand passively by while academic freedoms are systematically repressed abroad, and that it must not itself act to curb research and thereby become a tacit participant in repressing those freedoms.