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Why I Value the ASA Meetings
As universities increasingly operate within a competitive economic environment in which their financial support has become precarious and the public’s concern over the increasing cost of higher education has understandably come to the notice of political leaders, there is no question that discussions of money and funding have attained a seemingly permanent place on faculty meeting agendas. We still fulfill our responsibilities as teachers, researchers, and university citizens but do so cognizant of the reality that sociological knowledge and the pursuit of that knowledge through research are not necessarily consistent with the goals and purposes of university deans and other administrators.
This observation is less a complaint about the increasing proletarianization of the professoriate, but more a paean to our own professional tribe, the American Sociological Association. The recently completed meetings held in San Francisco, like those in New York, Denver, Las Vegas, and down to the first ASA meetings I attended in 1973, have been occasions of renewal, inspiration, and reaffirmation of our professional identities and sense of commitment to the joint and diverse enterprise of sociology.
There are many reasons to attend these annual affairs, some of which are personal and practical. I view the meetings as comprising several tiers that rise from the workaday foundation of job interviews, meetings with editors and publishers, seminars on grant writing, or workshops on getting published. From this essential, career-relevant foundation, the meetings expand to include a second level of social and sociologically relevant opportunities to share ideas with friends, former teachers, old colleagues, and new acquaintances; present one’s papers; listen to related presentations; visit book exhibits; or simply share thoughts and arguments with others over a beer.
This is important, enjoyable, and essential to the life of our discipline and our own development as professional sociologists. There is a third level to our August (but not overly august) meetings, which consists of the plenary sessions and presidential panels on issues like inequality, real utopias, public sociology and so on that serve to reinforce and re-energize the intrinsic concepts of sociology at the heart of the discipline ever since its founding era. The difference between the first and third tiers of these meetings are the sublime and mundane poles of our get-togethers, one of which is necessary for our careers while the other inspires and sustains those careers.
The highlight of the meetings for me is the Sunday Awards Ceremony and Presidential Address that begins with "In Remembrance," a recognition of colleagues who have passed away, followed by the bestowing of awards. I particularly enjoy learning about the work of the recipients of the Dissertation Award and the Distinguished Book Award. Every year I continue to be gratified by the difficult, important work being undertaken by graduate students and impressed by the judgment shown by the committees who do so much work to identify the eventual recipients.
Although these sessions that begin at 4:30 and last until 6:30 or 7:00 do ask much of the audience’s patience, discipline, and focus (knowing that the reception is being set up next door), the presidential address often meets and exceeds our hope for intellectual nourishment. Unlike Erving Goffman who famously noted that he found these presidential addresses to be embarrassing, I like them. Despite our notorious differences and separation into over 50 separate sections, the presidential address will almost always delve into a topic of interest to most, if not all, in attendance. President Lareau’s presentation of her follow-up research to her well known book, Unequal Childhoods, continued the tradition of excellent addresses established earlier by, among others, Matilda W. Riley, Herbert Gans, William Gamson, Michael Burawoy, Erik O. Wright, and Cecilia Ridgway.
None of us, I am guessing, decided to become a sociologist because we wanted to prepare a grant budget, or sit in a faculty meeting in which the department head relays the wishes of the provost that we lure students who will bring in more money. I would guess that our decision to become sociologists had more to do with our interest in social influence, the structure and culture of social groups, and—perhaps most of all—our wish to use the knowledge gained through our research as leverage in some way to better the world. For me, the beauty and value of our annual meetings is that they not only remind us of why we chose sociology, but also serve to encourage us to try to know more of how the world works and, perhaps, to change it as well.
James J. Dowd, University of Georgia
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