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The ASA Celebrates Its 100th Birthday in the Nation’s Birthplace

The City of Brotherly (and sisterly) Love welcomed an onslaught of more than 5000 sociologists to the 2005 American Sociological Association Annual Meeting. The centennial meeting proved to be busy, successful, and historical for being the second largest meeting in ASA history and only the second to top 5,000 registrants. This number is quite an improvement over the 115 attendees at the inaugural ASA meeting.

Not only was the meeting a record-breaker for attendance, but also for being the busiest ASA meeting—measured by the number of sessions. For the first time the number of sessions topped 600. Much of the credit is due to the meeting’s program—developed by President Troy Duster and the 2005 Program Committee—the 2005 ASA Council, session organizers and participants, and the ASA staff.

The eventful meeting and the large attendance would point to a rising significance of sociology but that was the debatable subject of Duster’s theme, “Comparative Perspectives, Competing Explanations: Accounting for the Rising and Declining Significance of Sociology.” The importance of this theme was to reflect, on the centennial of the association, as to what sociology’s role is in society, especially in the current political climate.

The political undertones of the theme were reflected in two of the plenary sessions. The first discussed the important shifts in the political terrain of the nation—most notably a new surge rightward in our major political institutions—in the 21st century. The session, which featured distinguished historian Dan T. Carter, two well-known legal scholars (Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres), and Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, explored what “competing explanations and comparative perspectives” might be brought to bear to better understand these developments. The last plenary on the shifting political terrain featured political analyst Kevin Phillips, author of Wealth and Democracy, and contributions from Patricia Hill Collins and Arlie Hochschild who added a socio-historical context.

As part of the centennial celebration, the 2005 Program Committee created a Subcommittee on the ASA Centennial with ASA Vice President Caroline Persell (New York University) as chair. This subcommittee, in collaboration with the Section on the History of Sociology, selected more than 20 session topics, plus several films, for the 2005 Annual Meeting program to commemorate ASA’s centennial year. These sessions looked at 100 years of various sociology topics such as gender, health policy, and disability, and sociological landmarks through the last 100 years. Also appropriate for the centennial, the local arrangements committee arranged a walking tour of sites W.E.B. DuBois described a full century ago in The Philadelphia Negro.

In addition to the 22 centennial-themed sessions, there were many other “signs” of the centennial such as the series of timeline banners outlining notable events in sociology and the world-at-large. Another centennial highlight was premiere showing of 100 Years of Progress: Presidential Reflections and Lester F. Ward: A Life’s Journey, two new documentary films by Gale Largey, Mansfield University. The 20-minute film, 100 Years of Progress, began with a brief overview of the founding of the American Sociological Society, ASA’s pre-1959 name, acknowledged the organization’s inclusion of applied, action-oriented social reformers as well as pure-theoretical-academic scholars. The documentary continued with glimpses of the sociological thought of each president of the ASA from 1906 to the present. Speaking of presidents, The Lester Ward video chronicled the life and ideas of the first president of this society/association.

The media picked up on the centennial as well. The week of the meeting, The Chronicle of Higher Education featured a series of articles by prominent sociologist reflecting on what they consider to be the discipline’s fortes and failings, their hopes for sociology’s future, and discussing the history of sociology in general. There were at least 15 members of the media in attendance and many more than that covered research from the meeting. Glenn Firebaugh, University of Pennsylvania, and graduate student Laura Tach, Harvard University, were kept especially busy with interviews with the press. Their research on relative income and happiness was picked up by news sources worldwide including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. The research of many others was also featured in the national press, including National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation and Morning Edition, Inside Higher Ed, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor, to name a few.

Thanks to President Troy Duster, the 2005 Program Committee, the many session organizers and presenters, and the ASA staff, the 100th Annual Meeting was a real triumph. While the 2005 meeting will be difficult to surpass, we hope to see even more attendees, groundbreaking research, and excitement at the 2006 meeting in Montreal.