American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
July/August 2016

Vantage Point: Important ASA Committee Work Most Members Don’t See

Sally T. Hillman, Executive Officer of ASA

Sally T. Hillsman, ASA Executive Officer

Sally T. Hillsman, ASA Executive Officer


All ASA governance bodies and programs try to be as transparent as possible in the work they do on behalf of the Association membership and the discipline, and, for the most part, they succeed. With the exception of activities that involve the competitive selection of officers, editors, and awardees, ASA’s committees and other Association activities are open to all members and their work is reported in Footnotes or on our website. (Even the “executive session” meetings that aren’t open to all are conducted by elected or appointed ASA members who regularly rotate to give other members an opportunity to serve.)

By the decision of our members, One Association activity however, is not transparent. It is the work of the Association to address allegations of unethical professional conduct by ASA members. For them to be effective, our members voted to keep these activities of the Association confidential.

ASA Code of Professional Conduct

ASA has had a Code of Ethics since 1971, which we started developing, not without controversy, in the 1960s. 1 As a scholarly society, we were early in establishing formal guiding principles and standards of professional conduct for our discipline (see While the initial focus of our code was ethical behavior in the conduct of research, the code has been revised by the membership over time to encompass a wider range of professional behaviors, including standards on teaching, publishing, employment practices, and the relationships among sociologists and between sociologists and others. The standards deal only with professional conduct, of course, such as plagiarism, authorship, confidentiality, and conflicts of interest as well as decision making in the workplace, harassment, public communication, non-discrimination, and non-exploitation. Currently, the ASA code is undergoing examination by a committee of members to see what should be updated. The full membership will be engaged in discussions of and a final vote on the proposed changes in the next year or two.

ASA Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE)

While shared standards are clearly important in their own right and have the power of collective norms, sociologists are particularly aware of the extent to which standards of conduct can be and are breached in the world of real behavior. Our discipline studies the social world in which structural inequalities of power are pervasive and important. Professor/student, senior/junior scholar, employer/employee, researcher/subject of research and so on are widespread and legitimate differentials of power among sociologists in their professional lives. Unless there are mechanisms to resolve disputes and enforce standards of conduct, not just among professional peers but also when they involve those who are not peers, ethical conduct can be easily ignored when it is convenient. Such professional misconduct is often out of sight of colleagues and difficult to resolve, and challenges can often damage professional reputations unnecessarily.

Confronting alleged ethical violations and the harms they can do requires mechanisms that are completely confidential through which professionals at any level of experience can confidently discuss a specific circumstance in detail. This is necessary in order to explore whether a breach of ethics has actually occurred, determine what means are available to informally resolve the disputes or harms that have resulted, and, as needed, obtain a credible, formal determination of ethical violation and an enforceable sanction that can mitigate a harm and do so in a way that is not necessarily public.

In 1997 ASA members created the ASA Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE) as a permanent body required by the ASA Bylaws and simultaneously approved the COPE Policies and Procedures to guide its activities.

Why should a disciplinary society handle ethical inquiries rather than leave them to academic departments, universities or other employers, or courts? This hardly needs explanation to sociologists. These organizations are very useful for some types of complaints and allegations, and COPE defers to them in handling complaints of professional misconduct that also come to them, but these organizations and institutions are largely places of public dispute resolution and they lie outside the control of the discipline itself.

One of the core social dimensions of a “profession” that is articulated in the sociological literature is that they try to secure independence by being self-regulating. Many do this by having and enforcing their own standards of professional conduct as do the legal, medical, and religious professions. All professions like their independence and tend to, at a minimum, get annoyed and typically resist when the government interferes. (Some recent examples are the banking and investing “professionals.”) Desire for professional independence is why some sociologists rejected the idea of federally imposed and enforced standards for the conduct of research with human subjects in the 1960s and 1970s and some sociologists still do not like the Common Rule even when they must adhere to it. ASA created its first disciplinary code of ethics in the 1960s and 1970s in the spirit of maintaining sociologists’ professional independence through self-regulation.

What does the ASA COPE do and how does it do it?

The public side. The committee, whose members are nominated by the Committee on Committees (COC) and approved by Council, plays many important roles that are highly visible. It has an educative function that it carries out by sponsoring workshops on ethical issues at the Annual Meetings and in other disciplinary venues. It often focuses on new areas of professional work which raise new ethical challenges (e.g., big data, Internet research). COPE advises other scholarly societies (and not just those in sociology) on how professional societies can become more “self-regulating” and many have used all or some of ASA’s code and policies and procedures in developing their own standards. When asked, COPE will offer a general interpretation of what a specific standard in the ASA code is intended to mean because, at some level, all standards whether normative or legal need “interpretation” of the so-called “black letter.”

The formal confidential side. While there is a public side of COPE, there is also the confidential side of COPE’s work. COPE officially adjudicates very few complaints; that is how it should be if professional self-regulation is working. When it does make a determination of professional misconduct, COPE has sanctions that are private—an educative letter to the sociologist who has engaged in misconduct including stipulated conditions to redress harms that the misconduct has caused (e.g., adding the name of a scholar who was denied authorship to a published paper; signing an agreement to allow a graduate student to independently use data he or she collected under a professor’s grant). It can deny someone Association privileges of membership such as appointment to editorial boards, receipt of honorific awards or small grants, without going public. While COPE can also write a public reprimand or publicly terminate someone’s membership for a period of time, it does so rarely. Its policies favor confidential procedures and non-public sanctions in order to resolve ethical issues without unnecessary damage to professional reputations. There are appeal procedures available to members found to have engaged in ethical misconduct that ensure appropriate oversight of COPE by the elected leadership of the Association; again, however, they are rarely invoked as one would expect in a profession that appears to be effectively self-regulating.

The informal confidential side. A key dimension of the COPE Policies and Procedures that the membership has approved as consonant with professional self-regulation is the goal of informal resolution of complaints. Informal means are preferred, and COPE uses ASA members who have served on COPE and been involved in the development of the code as mediators when this approach appears useful. Recently several potentially serious ethical matters concerning who “owns” particular data or can use specific data in solo-authored publications have been resolved, and in a timely fashion, using mediation.

The role of the ASA Executive Officer (or designee). The COPE procedures provide an important role for the Executive Officer or his/her designee. The EO (or designee) responds to all initial contacts from people who want to discuss an issue they believe involves ethical misconduct. The existence of a call and its content are completely confidential. The EO/designee is a neutral party who can help callers clarify what the key issues are and identify means of resolution the callers might use to resolve the issues on their own. This is typically done over several, often long, calls. If a caller decides to make a formal complaint to COPE, the EO/designee as a neutral party can help the complainant clarify how the alleged behavior relates to one or, more likely, multiple standards in the code. The COPE process of resolving such a formal complaint—including alerting the ASA member whose professional behavior has been challenged, seeking resolution by informal means, and, if unsuccessful, moving the case forward to an investigation and determination by COPE—again remains confidential at least until COPE decides to impose a public sanction.

What has been my experience with this process since I became the ASA Executive Officer in 2002? It has been personally engaging and intellectually challenging; a significant learning experience and a chance for creative problem-solving; frustrating and satisfying. I estimate that I have handled just under 20 calls a year (somewhat over one a month); totaling over two hundred and under three hundred initial conversations and more follow-up calls over my 14 years. Less than a handful of these calls (with fingers left over) have gone to a full COPE investigation and resolution. Many callers are grateful for the opportunity to have a thoughtful and confidential conversation or set of conversations and for the help considering a variety of potential strategies for resolution; they either develop an approach to solving the problem themselves or with the help of others in their professional network and/or don’t call back. Others move forward and, through the COPE processes, engage in a mediated and confidential communication with the person whose behavior they consider problematic. Most often, informal resolutions result.

What do these COPE-related experiences suggest to me?

Primarily that sociology is capable of self-regulation of important types of professional behavior that are very hard to address through other fora. By providing members of the discipline with confidential and potentially effective means of addressing complaints about collegial misconduct—real or perceived, COPE provides a way for people to raise issues they have with members’ conduct. It is not surprising that many of the calls that I get, as well as many of those that are informally or formally resolved, involve complainants who are not the peers of those whose conduct they challenge. A smaller number of the calls I get are from academic or professional leaders who are involved with a student or junior colleague who has been or may be harmed by the problematic conduct by someone outside their senior sociologist’s own professional circle. What can be done? COPE provides a structured vehicle for approaching the problem and finding a solution.

It is not the number of complaints that matters, although they are not insignificant. What matters is that the profession of sociology acknowledges that professional misconduct exists at many levels, that it can be harmful even when the matter appears small, and that its professional association cares enough about comity among colleagues to put effort into resolving ethical conflicts in a confidential and professional manner. ASA members have endorsed this approach to professional self-regulation, support its maintenance, and also use it. But they don’t talk much about it when they do.


  1. Thomas L. VanValey and Sally T. Hillsman, “The Code of Ethics of the American Sociological Association”, Ethics in the Practice of Sociology, Swiss Sociological Association, Bulletin 132, October 2007.