What do you think would help make ASA a more vibrant, effective association? This question was at the heart of the survey of current and former members of the association fielded by the ASA Task Force on Membership, which received more than 2,500 responses. As part of their work, the Task Force also conducted an external benchmarking study, a study of 11 years of administrative membership data, 5 focus groups, a wiki survey, and 12 follow up interviews. The Task Force’s report details the findings from these efforts and makes 10 recommendations for specific, feasible steps the ASA can take to improve the association.
At their most recent meeting, ASA Council unanimously approved each of the Task Force’s recommendations. While implementation has already begun on some of the recommendations, others will take time to come to full fruition. Task Force Co-Chair James McKeever described the report as “ASA’s blueprint for change for years to come.”
The Task Force
Between 2007 and 2017 the ASA experienced a 22 percent decline in membership. In response, ASA Council established a Task Force charged with investigating the many possible internal and external reasons for the decline and identifying ways to improve the situation. The Task Force was co-chaired by A. James McKeever (Pierce College) and Olav Sorenson (Yale University). Other Task Force members included: Michelle Madsen Camacho (University of San Diego), Obie Clayton (Clark Atlantic University), Jerry A. Jacobs (University of Pennsylvania), Julia McQuillan (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), Andrew J. Perrin (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), Diogo Lemieszek Pinheiro (University of North Georgia), Stephen A. Ressler (Callyo), Wendy D. Roth (University of Pennsylvania), and Florencia Torche (Stanford University).
Andrew Perrin was motivated to serve because “I think it’s important to make sure sociology has a healthy, strong national association.” And, Roth commented, “I thought it was an interesting puzzle to try to understand why the membership of ASA was declining, and whether this was related to larger trends in professional associations or university funding, or if there were things specific to ASA that were driving it. I personally get a lot from my involvement in ASA and feel I’ve benefitted from it professionally, so I wanted to help out in whatever ways I could.” Pinheiro shares that “At the time [I volunteered], I was a faculty member at a teaching-oriented, public HBCU and I was the only one there who was an ASA member. It felt important to be a voice for precisely the type of institution that tends to be underrepresented within ASA membership.” McKeever volunteered for the Task Force “because I believe in the ASA. It was the ASA’s Minority Fellowship Program that helped me finish graduate school and introduced me to many of the amazing friends and colleagues I have today. I feel that ASA is a critical part of the professional sociology landscape.”
And now, at the conclusion of the Task Force’s work, McKeever reflects on the endeavor: “I really appreciated the respectful and collaborative environment of all the Task Force members. It was one of the best experiences I have had working with others in similar circumstances.” Sorenson added, “The Task Force has been sociology at its best, social scientists using mixed methods to triangulate in on a set of probable causes and to brainstorm some potential solutions. It has also been confidence inspiring to see the deep talent and commitment of the ASA staff.”
A Framework for Change
The findings from the Task Force’s benchmarking analysis make clear that, as a scholarly association, ASA is not alone in experiencing membership decline. Having collected 10 years of membership data from 22 scholarly societies, the Task Force was able to identify a pattern of declining membership across all the discipline-specific associations studied. In contrast, cross-disciplinary societies saw steady increases in membership. Regional and other sub-disciplinary sociological association membership numbers largely held steady.
The findings from the group’s full analysis of data identified three key areas in which the association can and will productively improve its work: community, cost, and value.
Community. For many respondents, the ASA is a place where they feel welcomed and where they feel they can learn and grow. For others, however, there is little or no sense of belonging or connection associated with ASA as an organization. The Task Force made three recommendations to respond to this issue. First, establish new organizational affinity groups, called “Communities,” to provide expanded opportunities for members to network, access professional development, and take on leadership roles. Communities might be initiated by sociologists working in similar professional contexts, such as those in practice settings and in community colleges, or by those with shared identity backgrounds, such as Indigenous Peoples/Native Nations, first-generation and working-class sociologists, sociologists with disabilities, sociologists who share a racial/ethnic identity, or LGBTQ sociologists. Second, the Task Force called for ASA to provide new tools for sections, communities, and their individual members to communicate with each other and become engaged with the association throughout the year. The third recommendation was to rethink the Annual Meeting and undertake a variety of initiatives to create a more welcoming and beneficial experience for attendees. As a short-term pilot initiative for the Annual Meeting in 2020, Council approved the Task Force’s recommendation to remove institutional affiliation from name badges.
Cost. Findings from across the Task Force’s empirical analysis suggest that cost has played a critical role in ASA’s membership decline. Among survey respondents who were not members in 2018, 68 percent listed cost among their top five reasons for not renewing. For some sociologists, this may be related to the cost of membership in real dollars, as well as to changes in the professional development expenses employers will cover. In response, the Task Force recommended undertaking a comprehensive review of the membership dues and meeting registration fee structure to increase affordability for members who need it. In the short term, Council approved two temporary cost-relief initiatives. In 2020, part-time contingent faculty members will be able to join ASA for $56 and will be eligible for a 25% discount on Annual Meeting registration. In addition, in 2020, first-time ASA members and individuals who have not been a member of ASA since 2015 or earlier will receive a free section membership when they join. Other recommendations related to cost called for increasing the variety of cities where the Annual Meeting is held with an eye toward making the meeting more affordable for members with limited funding. Another recommendation is moving to an anniversary-based membership year, so that no matter when a person joins ASA they will receive 12 months of benefits. Because the January 1 start date for the membership year is specified in the association’s bylaws, moving to a rolling membership year will require approval from the full membership before it can be implemented.
Value. The Task Force defined value as the importance, worth, or usefulness of membership in the ASA. When asked “Relative to what you paid in membership dues, how would you rate the value you received from your ASA membership?” 50 percent of the survey respondents said that the value was less than the cost of membership. The Task Force developed four recommendations designed to increase the value of membership. They included providing year-round professional development opportunities; expanding public engagement efforts, including media outreach and outreach to policy makers; refining the Annual Meeting submission and review process to be more responsive to the needs and preferences of sociologists; and increasing channels for two-way communications between ASA and its members, including ongoing opportunities for members to provide feedback.
Optimism for the Future
The results of the Task Force’s work provide a clear picture of the factors behind ASA’s membership decline and strategy for the association’s work moving forward. Task Force member Pinheiro commented, “The Task Force, by its very nature, helps give a broader voice to sociologists as to what the organization should be. And a more inclusive ASA is important not just for the association itself, but for the entire discipline.” Co-chair McKeever indicated that “[t]he ASA needed to take a deep look at itself, its culture, and its future. I feel the Task Force was an opportunity for such self-reflection.”
The Task Force recommendations set the stage for lasting, structural change that will contribute to making ASA a more inclusive, affordable, and responsive organization. It will help ASA set priorities, focus energy and resources, strengthen operations, and help assure that all parts of the association are working toward common goals. It also sets the stage for ongoing data collection and the establishment of benchmarks to help Council monitor and evaluate the success of the recommended initiatives and adjust as needed. In this sense, the report can function as a sociologically informed strategic plan for the association’s efforts to improve the membership experience.
Co-chair Sorenson concludes: “There has been a lot of speculation about why ASA membership has been declining but it has been just that, speculation. Coming up with solutions required a much better understanding of the issues. Even if the recommendations do not lead to membership growth, the changes recommended in the report will nevertheless help to ensure that the organization better serves its members. At the very least, I would expect to see increased satisfaction with and commitment to the organization.”
ASA Is Listening
As part of its report, the Task Force on Membership recommended further inquiry on ASA Annual Meeting location selection and Annual Meeting submission processes. We know these are important issues and want to ensure that our approaches reflect your interests. Members should have received an email with further information and a link to share their views on these topics. We are listening! Please take a few minutes to respond.