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The Importance of State and Regional Associations
Douglas Hartmann, University of Minnesota and 2015–16 President, Midwest Sociological Society
Many sociologists—especially those, like me, who spend the bulk of their time in Research I institutions—think of regional and state associations as the minor leagues of the discipline. As with any stereotype, there is some truth to this perception. The executive officers of these organizations aren’t necessarily the most famous scholars, and the meetings they host don’t usually attract the big-name keynotes or high-end speakers. However, having spent the better part of the past two decades in organizations like the Midwest Sociological Society (MSS) and the Sociologists of Minnesota, I think this tendency to minimize state and regional associations is both unfortunate and, to use the baseball analogy once again, a bit off-base.
For starters, state and regional organizations are the actual face, interface, and home base of many sociologists, particularly those without the wherewithal to cover hefty annual memberships or attend national meetings in expensive cities just as fall classes get started. The annual meetings of these organizations, usually held in the fall and spring of the academic cycle, are where these scholars present their work and stay abreast of new research and thinking in the field, where they reconnect with old colleagues and meet new collaborators, where they get teaching tips, and where they process the institutional forces transforming the worlds in which they live, work, and study.
And these groups are incredibly diverse and democratic. In both membership and leadership, they include tenured professors as well as new assistants, long suffering adjuncts, and up-and-coming PhD candidates, sociologists from large state schools, smaller liberal arts institutions, community colleges; and even some high school instructors (several state organizations over the past decade have targeted this few but proud crew). In addition, at regional meetings I’ve met more applied sociologists in these groups than any other scholarly context. Moreover, in the MSS, where I currently serve as President, upwards of one-third of our membership in any given year comes from outside of our official nine-state footprint, and almost half of those active members are students. Many find these communities incredibly supportive, and organizers and leaders work hard to ensure that the gatherings are warm and hospitable. (No nametag-gazing here!). I daresay that regional and state associations comprise and serve the broadest, most representative cross-section of the field. And these rank-and-file folks, in my experience at least, are true believers in sociology. Not caught up in doctrinal disputes and less invested in the staid status politics of the academy, these are sociologists who believe in the grand, ambitious traditions of the field, who love nothing more than spreading the gospel of sociology’s imaginative and empirical power.
Regional meetings and state organizations also tend to have unique points of emphasis in the context of the field writ large. For example, the MSS has a long tradition of and commitment to innovative teaching and learning, and our annual meetings typically have as many sessions about curriculum, pedagogy, and the student experience as about research, theory, and methodology. And there is no doubt that state and regional associations are an integral point of entry and training ground for the next generation of sociologists (although this contribution tends to be overlooked or even looked down upon, rather than celebrated). Also, sociologists in these organizations are incredibly committed to social action and community engagement. It was not accidental, in my view, that Michael Burawoy honed his pitch for public sociology while making the rounds of the various state and regional associations in the year leading up to his ASA Presidency a decade ago. Indeed, I chose the theme “Sociology and Its Publics: The Next Generation” for the 2015 MSS meetings because I knew that the call of public duty is of utmost importance for our members. What I was gratified (though not surprised) to see was that speaker after speaker talked about public engagement as the key to the continued revitalization and renewal of sociology itself, self-consciously positioning themselves—quite rightly, in my view—on the cutting edge of the discipline.
Contributions and Opportunities
There are administrative and organizational contributions here as well. For example, when funding got tight a few years back, regional and other affiliated sociological associations stepped in to help fund the ASA’s Minority Fellowship Program. Also, I know that many of my colleagues find that more locally oriented associations offer easier, more immediate, and more fulfilling opportunities for leadership than national and international groups. And we cannot overlook the journals. In a time when article publishing has become incredibly specialized and often cutthroat, society publications such as Sociological Forum (the Eastern’s), Sociological Perspectives (PSA), the brand new Social Currents (the Southern’s), and The Sociological Quarterly (MSS) provide established, high-quality venues for the production and dissemination of the most basic, general, and crucial knowledge we have to offer.
For all these reasons, I think it is incumbent upon all of us who care about sociology to recognize state and regional sociology associations as far more than a training ground or mid-market outpost. Indeed, I prefer to think of these organizations, the meetings they host, and the journals they publish as part of a large, federated system, each playing a distinctive and irreducible role in sustaining that notoriously big, multifaceted, and sometimes conflicted enterprise we know as sociology.
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