September/October 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 7

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Sociologists Explore Real Utopias in an Annual Meeting Filled With Firsts 

Daniel Fowler, ASA Media Relations

For the third time in its history and the first time since 1971, the American Sociological Association held its Annual Meeting in Denver, CO, this August.

“It had been a long time since we were last in Denver, so it was great to be back,” said ASA Executive Officer Sally T. Hillsman. “The Mile High City welcomed us with open arms, and the enthusiasm of our members was reflected in the meeting attendance.”

erik olin wright

ASA President ASA Erik Olin Wright delivering his Presidential Address.

Nearly 5,200 sociologists attended, and, for the first time, any individual with Internet access was able to watch a webcast in real time of the meeting’s three plenary sessions—on equality, democracy, and sustainability—as well as the ASA Awards Ceremony and Presidential Address. ASA also provided transcriptions of those forums for delivery to mobile devices and tablets. Viewers could also access the transcriptions from the live webcasts.

In other technological firsts for the ASA, the Annual Meeting had its own web-based mobile application, which included an interactive floor plan, access to the live streaming of plenaries, and the full program. In the Exhibit Hall, there was a booth, dubbed “The Hub,” which offered “social media 101” tutorials.

Perhaps the most important first for the ASA was making WiFi freely accessible in all of the meeting rooms, which helped spark active social media discussions throughout the meeting.

“Our members are increasingly tech savvy and we know it is important to keep up with the times,” Hillsman said. “We are constantly looking for ways to bring innovation to our meetings and to improve the experience for our members.”

More Meeting Firsts

Centered around the theme, “Real Utopias: Emancipatory Projects, Institutional Designs, Possible Futures,” the meeting featured 569 sessions and 3,235 papers covering such timely topics as health and health care, the 2012 presidential election, the “Occupy” movement, the recession, same-sex marriage, education, bullying, war, religion, immigration, sex, race, relationships, crime, families, politics, technology, poverty, the workplace, and many others.

“Sociologists are good at identifying the ways in which existing social structures and institutions generate harms that obstruct human flourishing,” said 2012 ASA President Erik Olin Wright. “We generally give less systematic attention to the alternatives that would substantially make the world a better place. The idea of real utopias is a way thinking about alternatives that take seriously emanipatory ideals as well as the pragmatic problems of the design of viable institutions.”

In another example of innovation, Wright developed and introduced a new type of session specifically for the meeting: the Real Utopia Proposal Session. Each of the 22 Real Utopia Proposal Sessions revolved around one real utopian design to address an important social issue. The text of the proposals were posted online before the meeting for interested parties to review. At the beginning of each session, the proposal for that forum was briefly summarized before discussion involving the audience ensued. Proposal sessions covered topics including unconditional basic income, a democratic media system, work-family reconciliation policies and gender equality, the public university, and productive democracy.

“Our members are increasingly tech savvy and we know it is important to keep up with the times,” Hillsman said. “We are constantly looking for ways to bring innovation to our meetings and to improve the experience for our members. We believe we accomplished that this year.”

—Sally T. Hillsman, ASA Executive Officer

“The point of exploring real utopias is to think rigorously about alternative institutions, not simply in terms of the ideals for better world, but of the actual design of institutions that would embody those ideals,” Wright said. “The real utopia proposal sessions were a way of giving that idea substance. I also wanted to experiment with the design of the sessions themselves in a way that would maximize dialogue and participation.”

Wright also discussed real utopias on August 18 during his Presidential Address, “Transforming Capitalism through Real Utopias,” which followed the ASA Awards Ceremony. After Wright’s remarks, meeting attendees had the opportunity to congratulate Wright and the award winners at the Honorary Reception.

In another Annual Meeting first, attendees were invited to the “Utopia Reel: An Evening of Dancing and Music-making” on August 19. The social event featured a jam session headlined by Wright on his fiddle, a square dance party, and a DJ playing dance music. Jam session attendees received complimentary Kazoos.

exhibit hall

The 2012 ASA Annual Meeting Exhibit Hall

Coverage of the Meeting by the Media

Sociologists were not the only ones who took an interest in the Annual Meeting. Nine reporters—including journalists from Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and LiveScience—and two media relations specialists attended the conference. More impressive was the amount of media coverage research presented at the meeting received nationwide and internationally.

A study by Jason Houle, University of Wisconsin-Madison, was the subject of articles in more than 130 media outlets, according to a Google News search. The study found that young adults from middle income families are more likely to rack up student loan debt—and in greater amounts—than students from both lower and higher income backgrounds.

“I was somewhat surprised at the amount of coverage the paper received—I’ve had some experience with studies reaching the press before, but this study in particular seemed to generate much more interest in the press,” said Houle. “It was nice to see work on what I consider a pressing issue be represented in the media. It was a great experience to translate my research findings to laypeople and the media, and I hope that once the paper is published I can make a larger impact by engaging the study findings with policy makers and practitioners.”

Another study on the relationship between marriage and alcohol was the subject of articles in more than 120 media outlets, according to a Google News search. The study was by Corinne Reczek, University of Cincinnati; Tetyana Pudrovska, Pennsylvania State University; Deborah Carr, Rutgers University; and Debra Umberson, University of Texas-Austin.

mfp cohor 39

MFP Cohort 39 as they are being introduced at the
MFP Benefit Reception.

“Horror stories about talking with reporters can make this form of public sociology daunting and fear-filled,” Reczek said. “While it is true reporters don’t always get the findings and implications quite right, I do think sociology has much to offer the broader public. I’m now using these news stories in my undergraduate sociology classes to show that sociology really is relevant to them.”

A study, “Social Status, Binge Drinking, and Social Satisfaction among College Students,” co-authored by Carolyn Hsu, Colgate University, also received significant media attention. The study was the subject of articles in more than 110 media outlets.

“Since this was our first experience with national media attention, my co-author Landon Reid and I discovered that it is very challenging to communicate complexity and nuance to reporters who want to write attention-grabbing copy,” Hsu said. “Despite some cringe-inducing headlines, this has been a good opportunity to engage new audiences with information and scientific results that they would not otherwise encounter. We are now connected in conversation not only with other scholars, but with administrators, counselors, and students seeking better ways to reduce binge drinking on campus.”

In addition to press releases on the Houle, Reczek, and Hsu studies, the ASA Public Affairs and Public Information Department oversaw the production and distribution of a wide range of press releases about research presented at the Annual Meeting and responded to dozens of media inquiries.

Examples of the numerous U.S. based media outlets that published articles on research from the Annual Meeting included: the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, The Miami Herald,,,, Yahoo!News,,, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, U.S. News and World Report, Glamour, Huffington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many others. International media outlets include Canada’s Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Winnipeg Free Press, Ottawa Sun, and Edmonton Sun; England’s Telegraph, Daily Mail, Press Association, Daily Mirror, and London Evening Standard; and Spain’s El Confidencial, Scotland’s Scotsman, and a variety of others.

Looking Ahead

While it might be hard to believe, given that the 2012 Annual Meeting wrapped up only a few weeks ago, planning for the 2013 Annual Meeting, from August 10-13 in New York City, is well underway. Cecilia L. Ridgeway, who officially succeeded Erik Olin Wright as ASA president at the end of the 2012 meeting, and the 2013 Program Committee are hard at work developing a dynamic program around the theme, “Interrogating Inequality: Linking Micro and Macro.” ASA will post the call for papers on the Association website ( on October 30, and will launch the online paper submission tool on December 7. See you in New York City!


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