American Sociological Association

Sociology in Action: Harry Perlstadt

Harry Perlstadt, Michigan State University, worked with the American Lung Association advising on organizational issues. ASA asked Perlstadt about that work:

What is the mission of the organization? The American Lung Association is the leading organization working to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease through education, advocacy and research.

Could you describe the project ? I was on the organizational task force that was assessing the structure of the association, which was in the process of changing from a federation of eight regions and a national office to a single nationwide organization. The task force wanted to know how similar or different the regions and national office were terms of organizational structure.

What sociological knowledge and/or skills did you use? I was a student of Peter Blau and was familiar with his work on organizational structure. I asked for and received data on the number of full time personnel (size), hierarchical levels, divisions and sections (shape of pyramid), number of employees who report to a manager or supervisor (span of control) and clerical and supervisory ratios (administration). I analyzed the data and I made a presentation to the ALA National Board of Directors. Although I had only nine points (eight regions and the national office), the data plotted out a curve as size increases. This was similar to curves reported by Blau and colleagues within the same sector or industry. 

How did you connect with the American Lung Association? I was at a public health meeting and the person next to me mentioned that she had to evaluate a self-help smoking cessation program for the Michigan Lung Association. I agreed to help design the questionnaire and analyze the data. I became a member of its smoking or health committee and worked my way up the organization. Over the years, I have helped revise regional and national bylaws, served on the national strategic planning committee and the national scientific advisory committee. I am currently finishing my second three-year term on the national board of directors.

Duration of the project? It took about six weeks.

Is there anything else you would like to share about this work? As a sociologist, I brought a singular perspective to the organization. As someone who conducted program evaluations, I did point out problems and proposed solutions. Nevertheless, I learned not to be overbearing and insistent if the group did not accept my views. Overall, it has been a personally rewarding experience and I have felt appreciated for my skills and knowledge.