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Public Sociologists Broke Records in San Francisco

Nearly 5,600 registrants shared in the richness of sociology at the 99th Annual Meeting

The 2004 American Sociological Association 99th Annual Meeting in the city by the bay was an overwhelming success. “Thank you” to the more than 5,560 registrants for making this year’s meeting in San Francisco the most well attended meeting in ASA’s history!

This was the first time that the number of Annual Meeting registrants was more than 5,000. Not only were the total number of attendees one for the record books, but the number of pre-registrants and the number of session participants (4,625) set new records as well. While some of those numbers can be attributed to the allure of San Francisco, much of the credit is due to the meeting’s fuller-than-usual (i.e., overflowing) program—developed by President Michael Burawoy and the 2004 Program Committee—the 2004 ASA Council, session organizers and participants, and the ASA staff.

Most Populous, “Third-busiest” Meeting

With San Francisco’s cool summer weather (quite a surprise for international visitors and some ASA staff), the multiplicity of culture, the wonderful cuisine, and the progressive nature of this city, it is no wonder that the record for the most attendees at an Annual Meeting before 2004 was also established in San Francisco (in 1998, with 4,986 registrants). For those whose busy meeting schedules and the abundance of other tempting sessions left them lamenting that they never made it to Alcatraz or even out of the meeting hotels, it was not hard to believe that this was the third busiest ASA meeting—measured by the number of sessions—with only the 2000 Washington, DC, meeting and the 2003 Atlanta meeting having featured more sessions.

Despite the lure of the Golden Gate Park, China Town, or wine country, the Annual Meeting sessions remained packed to the very end of the entire four meeting days. Some would argue, “too packed.” This was especially true at the Featured Speakers sessions (see more below), but was also evident at plenary sessions, thematic sessions, regular sessions, poster sessions, and roundtables, and of course the receptions. Old friends mingled at the Departmental Alumni Night, new friends were made at the Student Reception, and more than a good cause was celebrated at the Minority Fellowship Program Benefit Reception and the Just Desserts! Teaching Enhancement Fundraiser.

Still Debating “Public Sociology”

President Michael Burawoy’s Annual Meeting theme, “Public Sociology,” was evident throughout the meeting. The 60 thematic sessions, which were the culmination of special and thematic sessions, ran the gamut from the history of public sociology to the women’s movement and the Civil Rights Movement and from labor movements and globalization to values and family policy. This year, Burawoy proved that public sociology is more than a term used in August. He spent the year speaking at regional and state associations and also elsewhere across the globe. Others contributed to a Public Sociology column in Footnotes. While this theme remains a contested one, it is not an idle one. (For example, Footnotes featured vicious public forum debates (July/August 2002, April 2004, July/August 2004) on the merits of public sociology, and the October 1, 2004, Chronicle of Higher Education letters to the editor section featured three sociologists’ responses to Burawoy’s well-timed August 13 Chronicle opinion piece on public sociology.)

“This year’s meeting in San Francisco was very stimulating, and absolutely more meaningful than some other years’,” said meeting participant Eri Fujieda from the University of Wisconsin-Superior. “The theme ‘public sociologies’ should continue to influence our work. I don’t think I am an exception in thinking in this way.”

Ford Foundation Support

Attendees may have noticed a number of individuals with yellow ribbons hanging from their nametags. Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, with then Ford Vice-President Melvin Oliver’s assistance, and efforts of the 2004 Program Committee, the annual meeting presented extraordinary opportunities for networking among, sharing with, and learning from international sociologists. The Ford grant funded the participation of 25 of the world’s most renowned sociologists and public intellectuals. These international scholars presented at seven panels on the distinctive features of national public sociologists and the issues they research. These sessions highlighted Asia, Latin America, Africa, Middle East, and the Post-Soviet world, as well, of course, as the United States. These scholars made an invaluable contribution to the Public Sociology theme. Much appreciation is due to Professors Melissa Wilde and Elizabeth Armstrong, both of Indiana University-Bloomington, and University of California-Berkeley doctoral student Michelle Williams, all of whom assisted the scholars in navigating the conference, including the International Scholars Reception, and their own presentations.

Financial support was also provided by the Berkeley Institute of International Studies and the Mellon Programs for Latin American Sociology at the sociology departments of the University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Los Angeles, and University of Texas-Austin, including support for the attendance of Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Standing-room Only

For the first time in ASA history, the conference was kicked off and ended with plenary sessions, each of which drew overwhelming crowds. The opening plenary, which National Public Radio’s Forum show featured during a one-hour program as the meeting was about to begin, was “W.E.B. Du Bois: Lessons for the 21st Century.” It featured Aldon Morris, Northwestern University; Patricia Hill Collins, University of Cincinnati; Gerald Horne, University of Houston; and Manning Marable, Columbia University. They discussed Du Bois’ life and his career as a public sociologist.

The closing plenary featured sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former two-term President of Brazil and Brown University Professor, and Paul Krugman, Princeton University economist and New York Times editorialist, speaking about “The Future of Neoliberalism.” Between were two other luminary plenaries. In keeping with the international theme, “Speaking to Powers: A Global Conversation,” featured John Galtung, Transcend, An International Peace and Development Organization; Paul E. Starr, Princeton University; and Alain Touraine, Écoles des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (France). Also, “Speaking to Publics: Limits and Possibilities,” featuring Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed; William Julius Wilson, Harvard University; Frances Fox Piven, City University of New York; and Eric Wanner, Russell Sage Foundation. They discussed which public audience sociologists should address.

Plenary Sessions Galore

In addition to the International Public Sociology panels and the Plenary Sessions featuring Krugman and Cardoso, the ASA Annual Meeting featured public addresses by public intellectuals. Attendees heard from some of today’s most provocative speakers including Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Arundhati Roy, public intellectual and author of The God of Small Things. These speeches were open to the general public and drew standing-room-only attendance. In fact, despite being held in the largest ballrooms in the Hilton, there was overflow outside of the ballroom. Public interest was also evident by virtue of C-SPAN Book TV having filmed and broadcast Roy’s address several times during August. Other media that aired the session include Democracy Now radio. ASA continually updates information on the website ( about the availability of plenary speech text and DVD videos, and readers can also watch future Footnotes issues for information on how to order DVDs of these speeches. For a copy of the Arundhati Roy speech text, see,
. And, for more information on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals referred to in Mary Robinson’s speech, see

The Featured Speakers were not the only speakers receiving rave reviews and large crowds. The Awards Ceremony and Michael Burawoy’s Presidential speech, “For Public Sociology,” also attracted huge crowds. His address was one part speech and another part performance, something not to be missed (and will not have to be as soon as the DVD is available). In his address, Burawoy outlined his 11 essential points about public sociology.

“I have never seen a sociologist speak this way before, and I wish I would have just one professor in my life who presents sociology in such an enchanting way,” commented Werner Reichmann, a student at the University of Graz, regarding Burawoy’s speech. Reichmann went on to commend the high regard in which graduate students are held, saying, “Burawoy titled us [graduate students] ‘the capital for the future’ and all participants in the sessions really respected me even though everyone could see I’m a young graduate student with a little bit of nervous vibrancy in my presentation. I’ve never experienced such equality between students and established sociologists.”

Carrying on the role of public sociologists outside of the conference, the Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) showed its support for the protesting union hotel workers at the San Francisco Hilton by assisting with their protests concerning their contracts. This blended easily with the progressive nature of San Francisco, where community organizing is a way of life for the residents not just for the visiting academics.

Invigoration to Continue in 2005

As the presidential gavel passed to Troy Duster, New York University and ASA 2005 President, ASA Meetings Director Janet Astner and her staff received high praise from ASA leadership at the early-morning ASA Business Meeting for a smoothly run and highly successful meeting. “The bar is set very high for us for the upcoming Philadelphia meeting,” said ASA Executive Officer Sally Hillsman, “but our 2005 centennial meeting will also be a ‘natural’ draw for the engaged sociological community. We are looking forward to 2005 for what promises to be another in a succession of invigorating meetings.”

Speaking of Philadelphia, before you can say “ASA Centennial Meeting,” the 2005 Annual Meeting will be in full swing. President Duster’s Planning Committee has already crafted an outstanding program on “Comparative Perspectives, Competing Explanations: Accounting for the Rising and Declining Significance of Sociology,” when we all come together again next August. For more information see