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Public Forum

There’s the ASA, But Where’s the Sociology?
The recent abuse of the ASA resolutions process and the political drift it betrays in the ASA are indicative of a sad development in contemporary U.S. sociology. Irrespective of its non-scientific theme, the resolution on the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution was presented to the members of the ASA in the most offensive manner. When the members of the ASA were first notified about the resolution, they were at once alerted to the fact that the ASA Council had already “voiced unanimous, strong support for this resolution.” Although the resolution was presented as “member-initiated,” it was in fact ASA President Burawoy who first initiated the idea in March 2004 when he emailed the chairs and chairs-elect of the ASA sections on Sex and Gender, Sexualities, and Family and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Caucus upon discussion of the issue with the ASA Council. (Although a constitutional issue was raised, the Sociology of Law section was not informed.) Even in presenting the resolution, the ASA President and Council violated procedures of democratic governance, acting as some mighty politburo which feels that the “full membership should have the opportunity to express itself” only after the Council made sure to express itself on a resolution it had instigated.

The ASA leadership’s blatant disregard for democratic principles is further evident from the fact that the Council decided to ask an additional opinion question although no petition on this issue was forwarded. Purportedly, the Council “recognized” that “some” members might hold additionally relevant opinions on the legislative aspects of the matter addressed in the resolution. “Anticipating this might be an issue in the future,” the Council offers no justification for these speculative statements and even claims to know what will be on the ASA members’ minds in years yet to come! Most troublesome, the Council unilaterally decided to delve into our minds on an issue that is not related to our work as ASA members. The ASA Council has been perverting our Association’s governance from a government by the people to a government for the people.

Irrespective of its legitimacy, the resolutions process was not preceded by any debate. The ideal of democracy is not met merely by voting, but more profoundly relates to having open discussions on the issues that are involved. That requires a whole lot more than quickly putting up a link on the ASA Public Forum. As John Dewey reminded us, “Majority rule, just as majority rule, is as foolish as its critics charge it with being... The means by which a majority rule comes to be a majority is the more important thing: antecedent debate, modification of views to meet the opinions of majorities.” But in the ASA there is little or no debate allowed. Worse yet, judging from some of the private emails I have received, there are several people in the ASA—especially graduate students—who are afraid to speak out publicly for fear of retaliation. As the ASA police is already here, I cannot entirely blame them.

The negative consequences of resolutions that are contrary to the very mission of the ASA can at best only be ironic—for science and morality alike. The non-sociological drift in the ASA entails a corruption of sociology to further a particularistic political agenda. President Burawoy is clear about his political intentions (Burawoy 2003). By organizing only thematic panels and inviting activists to the ASA meeting, he seeks to bring in “critical winds” related to justice and rights. Proudly, he proclaims that the ASA has “ventured into political debates” on several issues and “waded even further into politics with an anti-(Iraq) war resolution” (p.13). Politics indeed! Ironically, such a stance involves a more than unfortunate approach to morality that purports to resolve important ethical and political questions by means of (the authority) of science, thereby perverting the deeply human aspects of moral concerns and eroding the pluralistic nature of contemporary morality.

I hope that fellow sociologists in the ASA will respond to these issues and will have the courage to think and act. The ASA meetings in San Francisco may be a great opportunity to voice our concerns, whether in the form of debate, protest, acts of civil disobedience, or by any other means necessary. The ASA police will be watching, but our cause is just. Sociologists in the ASA, unite and take over!

ASA Family Section Announcements, March 2004 (containing Burawoy’s letter). Available online at:

Burawoy, Michael. 2003 “South Africanizing U.S. Sociology.” From the Left, Newsletter of the ASA Marxist Sociology Section, 24(3):1,12-13. Available online at:

Social Forces. 2004. Essays on public sociology by Michael Burawoy, David Brady, Charles Tittle, and Francois Nielsen. Social Forces 82(4), in press. Available online at:

Mathieu Deflem, University of South Carolina

Democracy in Question: Reply to Deflem
Mathieu Deflem raises three important issues about ASA’s associational politics and internal democracy—the ASA process of arriving at member resolutions, the politics of the ASA, and the organization of annual meetings.

In response to President Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) was quick off the mark with an oppositional, science-based resolution. It was then that I received a number of inquiries from sociologists asking whether ASA was going to put forward its own statement. I engaged our elected leadership—the 20 members of Council—in discussions, and we decided to consult with the chairs and chairs-elect of the ASA sections on sexualities, family, sex and gender, and with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered sociology caucus. We sought their input on three possible actions: a member resolution, an open forum at the 2004 meeting, and a task force. The section leaders consulted their members and, following protracted discussion, a member resolution emerged, which quickly garnered signatures from 3% of the ASA membership—the threshold for an official member resolution to move forward. Council is constitutionally obliged to respond by either endorsing member resolutions or not, but if not, it must submit the resolution to a member vote.

Council unanimously supported the resolution, but, because of the resolution’s great importance, Council also decided to put it to the vote of the entire membership. Anticipating other legislative initiatives, we also asked members whether they were for or against any laws against same-sex marriage. We also launched a public debate on the ASA website. Since then, the membership passed the resolution with a 75% majority and rejected legal bans on same-sex marriage with a 79% majority. This then is the chronology of events—judge for yourself whether they represent the working of a “police state.”

Deflem raised a related question: Should ASA make resolutions of this “kind”? Unlike some professional associations (e.g., economics and political science associations), the ASA membership is not constitutionally barred from making resolutions that go beyond immediate disciplinary interests. Defense of professional interest is a limited but crucial associational politics, and we do it when we defend research that is threatened (e.g., when Congress threatened to defund research on human sexual behavior) or when we defend the rights of sociologists to practice sociology (e.g., defense of the imprisoned Egyptian sociologist Saad Ibrahim). But there is a second type of associational politics—the politics of policy intervention. Here the ASA, for example, has deployed a vast body of research in its official 2003 statement on race to declare that racial discrimination exists, and that it has social origins and social consequences. ASA’s amicus brief in the 2003 Bollinger v. Grutter Supreme Court case, also drew on such research. A third, more controversial, type of associational politics makes public a majoritarian support for (or rejection of) resolutions that are informed by particular or general sociological research. The same-sex marriage and the anti-Iraq-war resolutions are examples. Here the body of evidence may be more ambiguous than in policy resolutions. The association becomes a public itself and acts as an organ of civil society. A fourth type of associational politics, upon which all other associational politics depend, is internal debate and discussion. We must vigorously defend this internal democracy—and here I completely agree with Deflem—if we are to have a vibrant discipline responsive to diverse interests. Perhaps we can do better in this regard, and Council, I’m sure, would be interested in proposals to deepen our internal democracy.

Deflem’s third issue is the organization of the Annual Meeting—the one time we gather to discuss collectively and openly matters of common and uncommon interest. When I stood for President of the ASA, I used my personal statement to outline my commitment to public sociology (in its global context). I took my election as a mandate to organize the 2004 meeting around the theme of public sociologies. I chose a Program Committee that would help generate an exciting meeting, and we chose an array of distinguished speakers to stimulate debate about sociology’s place in the wider society. The Ford Foundation agreed to fund a series of panels on public sociology in Latin America, the Middle East, East Asia, Africa, and the PostSoviet world. Members showed their enthusiasm in submitting a multitude of session proposals on public sociology that were most efficiently grouped into thematic rather than special sessions. Paper submissions to regular sessions have nearly doubled, suggesting, again, a keen interest in the theme of public sociology. All along I have done my best to encourage open debate about sociology’s place in the world, and I hope it will continue in San Francisco and beyond.

Michael Burawoy, University of California-Berkeley

Were We Right? Assessing the Merits of ASA’s Anti-War Resolution
A year ago, Sociologists Without Borders1(SWB) sponsored an ASA member resolution against the U.S. coalition-led intervention in Iraq. The ASA membership voted on the matter, and the resolution passed by a 2-to-1 margin. Since that time, 11,000 Iraqis2 and more than 800 Americans have died in Iraq, and it is not clear that the world is more secure from terrorism. As social scientists, we must keep a tally of events to improve our analyses and tailor our policies to fit the data. Thus, we summarize here facts that have emerged over the past year to assess the member resolution’s significance.

First, Iraq was not an “imminent threat” to the world order. The administration’s claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was based on faulty intelligence3, a selective reading of available intelligence, and uninformed and/or incompetent presidential advisors who had determined long before September 11 that the United States would go to war with Iraq4, buttressed by the now-discredited Iraqi expatriate Ahmed Chalabi, head of the CIA-funded Iraqi National Congress.5

Second, when WMD did not materialize, the rationale for the invasion was changed to that of deposing an evil despot, hardly a good argument, as there are too many despots in the world and many have been supported by nations leading the Iraq intervention.

Third, this intervention seems to have weakened international rule, as the League of Arab Nations was sidestepped and the United Nations governance was for the most part ignored. And now that the intervention is clearly becoming a serious problem, President Bush has called upon the U.N. and many of the nations that opposed the intervention a year ago) to come to its rescue.

Fourth, President Bush’s doctrine of “preemptive strike” is a threat to international rule and democracy. It is a violation of the U.N. Charter and of the Geneva Conventions, and international law only recognizes the right to self-defense in the face of imminent attack. Now that the United States has set a precedent, what will prevent other nations from invoking this doctrine to “defend” themselves from nations they regard as threatening?

Fifth, the United States is now openly using assassination of political leaders as a tool in this “War against Terror.”6 Furthermore, the recent scandal over the use of torture by American soldiers has created a monumental problem of legitimacy. These practices are legitimizing similar behavior from other states (e.g., Israel) and creating a very dangerous precedent.

Sixth, the coalition and the U.S. media have labeled “terrorist” most forms of resistance to oppression in the world system. Thus today the national liberation struggles of Palestinians, Irish, and many other peoples are equated with the religious fundamentalism of Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization.

Seventh, the United States now seeks singular superpower control of the entire world. The White House’s September 17, 2002, official policy statement makes this clear: “The United States of America is fighting a war against terrorism of global reach.... We must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from ever aspiring to a larger regional or global rule.”7

Eighth, the way the war is being conducted has caused Al Qaeda and its allies, as well as Iraqis resistance, to attack “soft targets,” causing Iraqis themselves to pay a heavier human toll, as attacks are directed at crowds, police officers, and even Mosques.

Ninth, it is doubtful that the transfer of power to Iraqis at the end of June will help advance democracy in the country. Despite the (late) U.N. participation in this process, few observers believe that Iraq will become a sovereign state while over 140,000 American and British troops in the country.

We know that a third of those who voted on this resolution believed that ASA ought not to have taken a position on this matter . Some have doubts about making official ASA statements on this or any “political” matter. In contrast, SWB contends that as sociologists, our primary orientation by training and temperament is the security of peoples. We believe that the US-led invasion of Iraq put in peril the security of millions of civilians and destabilized regional and national alignments. The cost of this war is not only the polarization of the world, but also the waste of vital financial resources for reducing poverty and expanding educational and other opportunities—the sorts of things that sociologists care about.

Sociologists are losing out in the marketplace of ideas in part because of our misplaced concern about intervening in public controversies. Hence, if only for self-preservation, sociology ought to aspire to have a more serious public engagement. Alternatively, sociology could risk the fate of dinosaurs and become a discipline of concern only to archeologists.

Notes 1 See the Sociologists Without Borders website at
2 The U.S. Central Command does not count civilian casualties. The best estimate available is by the Iraq Body Count Project (, which is based on reported deaths and is likely to severely underestimate casualties.
3Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq (Parthenon, 2004).
4James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans (Viking, 2004); Richard A. Clark, Against All Enemies (Free Press, 2004); John Prados, Hoodwinked: The Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (The New Press, 2004).
5Chalabi has a record of dubious dealings in a variety of affairs. For example, after heading the Petra Bank in Jordan, he left the country abruptly in 1989. In 1992 he was convicted in absentia for embezzlement, fraud, and currency-trading irregularities and sentenced to 22 years of hard labor. Recently, the CIA stopped paying money to the Chalabi-led Iraqi National Congress for their “services” and accused him of spying for Iran.
6For reasons why one cannot fight against a military tactic (whether terrorism or low-intensity conflict or anything else), see George Packer, “A Democratic World,” The New Yorker, Feb. 16-23, 2004, pp. 100-108.
7See the White House website at, pages 11, 32.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Texas A&M University, and Keri Iyall Smith, Stonehill College