The American Sociological Association is collapsing and its organization is a perpetual stagnation machine

I am at the end of a three-year term as an elected member of the American Sociological Association (ASA) Committee on Publications, during which time, despite some efforts, I achieved none of the goals in my platform. I would like to say I learned a lot or whatever, but I didn’t. I enjoyed the time spent with colleagues at the meetings (and we did some rubber stamping and selecting editors, which someone had to do), but beyond that it was a waste of time. Here are some reflections.

First, some observations about sociology as a discipline, then about the ASA generally, and then about the situation with the Committee on Publications.

Sociology

Sociology has occupied a rapidly declining presence in US higher education for two decades. The percentage of bachelor’s, masters, and PhD degrees that were awarded in sociology peaked at the end of the last century:

soc degree share

Looking just at the number of PhDs awarded, you can see that among the social sciences, since the 2009 recession (scaled to 0 on this figure), sociology is one of the social sciences disciplines that has slipped, while psychology, economics, business, and political science have grown (along with STEM disciplines).

phds relative to 2009

The American Sociological Association

So, sociology as an academic discipline is in decline. But how is ASA doing — is it fair for me to say “collapsing” in the title of this post? The shrinking of the discipline puts a structural squeeze on the association. In order to maintain its organizational dimensions it would need a growing share of the sociology milieu. The prospects for that seem dim.

On the plus side, the association publishes several prominent journals, which were the ostensible subject of our work on the publications committee. Metrics differ, but two ASA journals are in the top ten sociology journals by five-year citation impact factor in Web of Science (American Sociological Review and Sociology of Education [the list is here]). In the Google Scholar ranking of journals by h5-index, which uses different subject criteria, only one (ASR) is in the top 20 of sociology journals, ranking 20th out of the combined top 100 from economics, social science general, sociology, anthropology, and political science  (the list is here). In terms of high-impact research, among the top 100 most cited Web of Science sociology papers published in 2017 (an arbitrarily chosen recent year), seven were published in ASA journals (five in American Sociological Review [the list is here]). The 2020 Almetric Top 100 papers, those gaining the most attention in the year (from sources including news media and social media), includes 35 from humanities and social sciences, none of which were published by ASA (although several are by sociologists). So ASA is prominent but not close to dominant within sociology, which is similarly situated within the social sciences. In terms of publications, you can’t say ASA is “collapsing.” (Plus, in 2019 ASA reported $3 million in revenue from publications, 43 percent of its total non-investment income.)

But in terms of membership, the association is leading the way in the discipline’s decline. The number of members in the association fell 24 percent from 2007 to 2019, before nosediving a further 16 percent last year. Relative to the number of PhDs completing their degrees, as one scale indicator, membership has fallen 42 percent since 2007 — from 26 paying members per PhD awarded to 15. Here are the trends:

asa membership

Clearly, the organization is in a serious long-term decline with regard to membership. How will an organization of sociologists, including organizational sociologists, react to such an organizational problem? Task force! A task force on membership was indeed seated in 2017, and two years later issued their report and recommendations. To begin with, the task force reported that ASA’s membership decline is steeper than that seen by 11 other unnamed disciplinary societies:

discsocmem

They further reported that only 36 percent of members surveyed consider the value of belonging to ASA equal to or greater than the cost, while 48 percent said it was overpriced. Further, 69 percent of members who didn’t renew listed cost of membership as an important reason, by far — very far — the most important factor, according to their analysis. Remarkably, given this finding, the report literally doesn’t say what the member dues or meeting registration fees are. Annual dues, incidentally, increased dramatically in 2013, and now range from $51 for unemployed members to $368 for those with incomes over $150,000 per year, apparently averaging $176 per member (based on the number of members and membership revenue declared in the audit reports).

Not surprisingly, then, although they did recommend “a comprehensive review of our membership dues and meeting registration fee structures,” they had no specific recommendations about member costs. Instead they recommended: Create new ways for sociologists to create subgroups within the association, “rethink the Annual Meeting and develop a variety of initiatives, both large and small,” remove institutional affiliations from name badges and make the first names bigger, give a free section membership to new members (~$10 value), anniversary- instead of calendar-based annual pricing, hold the meeting in a wider “variety of cities,” more professional development (mechanism unspecified), more public engagement, change the paper deadline a couple of weeks and consider other changes to paper submission, and provide more opportunities for member feedback. Every recommendation was unanimously approved by the association’s elected council. The following year membership fell another 16 percent, with some unknown portion of the drop attributable to the pandemic and the canceled annual meeting.

With regard to the membership crisis, my assessment is that ASA is a model of organizational stagnation and failure to respond in a manner adequate to the situation. The sociologist members, through their elected council, seem to have no substantial response, which will leave it to the professional staff to implement emergency measures as revenue drops in the coming years. One virtually inevitable outcome is the association further committing to its reliance on paywalled journal publishing and the profit-maximizing contract with Sage, and opposing efforts to open access to research for the public.

Committee on Publications

But it is on the publications committee, and its interactions with the ASA Council, that I have gotten the best view of the association as a perpetual stagnation machine.

I can’t say that the things I tried to do on the publications committee would have had a positive effect on ASA membership, journal rankings, majors, or any other metric of impact for the association. However, I do believe what I proposed would have helped the association take a few small steps in the direction of keeping up with the social science community on issues of research transparency and openness. In November I reported how, more than two years ago now, I proposed that the association adopt the Transparency and Openness Promotion Guidelines from the Center for Open Science, and to start using their Open Science Badges, which recognize authors who provide open data, open materials, or use preregistration for their studies. (In the November post I discussed the challenge of cultural and institutional change on this issue, and why it’s important, so I won’t repeat that here.)

The majority of the committee was not impressed at the beginning. At the January 2019 meeting the committee decided that an “ad hoc committee could be established to evaluate the broader issues related to open data for ASA journals.” Eight months later, after an ad hoc committee report, the publications committee voted to “form an ad hoc committee [a different one this time] to create a statement regarding conditions for sharing data and research materials in a context of ethical and inclusive production of knowledge,” and to, “review the question about sharing data currently asked of all authors submitting manuscripts to incorporate some of the key points of the Committee on Publications discussion.” The following January (2020), the main committee was informed that the ad hoc committee had been formed, but hadn’t had time to do its work. Eight months later, the new ad hoc committee proposed a policy: ask authors who publish in ASA journals to declare whether their data and research materials are publicly available, and if not why not, with the answers to be appended in a footnote to each article. And then the committee approved the proposal.

Foolishly, last fall I wrote, “So, after two years, all articles are going to report whether or not materials are available. Someday. Not bad, for ASA!” Yesterday the committee was notified by ASA staff that, “Council is pleased that Publications Committee has started this important discussion and has asked that the conversation be continued in light of feedback from the Council conversation.” In other words, they rejected the proposal and they’ll tell us why in another four months. There is no way the proposal can take effect for at least another year — or about four years after the less watered-down version was initially proposed, and after my term ends. It’s a perpetual stagnation machine.

Meanwhile, I reviewed 24 consecutive papers in ASR, and found that only four provided access to the code used and at least instructions on how to find the data. Many sociologists think this is normal, but in the world of academic social science, this is not normal, it’s far behind normal.

I don’t know if the Council is paying attention to the Task Force on Membership, but if they were it might have occurred to them that recruiting people to run for office, having the members elect them based on a platform and some expertise, having them spend years on extremely modest, imminently sensible proposals, and then shooting those down with a dismissive “pleased [you have] started this important discussion” — is not how you improve morale among the membership.

Remember that petition?

While I’m at it, I should update you on the petition many of you signed in December 2019, in opposition to the ASA leadership sending a letter to President Trump against a potential federal policy that would make the results of taxpayer-funded research immediately available to the public for free — presumably at some cost to ASA’s paywall revenues. At the January 2020 meeting the publications committee passed two motions:

  1. For the Committee on Publications to express opposition to the decision by the ASA to sign the December 18, 2019 letter.
  2. To encourage Council to discuss implications of the existing embargo and possible changes to the policy and to urge decisionmakers to consult with the scientific community before making executive orders.

We never heard back from the ASA Council, and the staff who opposed the petition were obviously in no rush to follow up on our entreaty to them, so it disappeared. But I just went back to March 2020 Council minutes, and found this profoundly uninformative tidbit:

Council discussed a recent decision of ASA’s authorized leadership to sign a letter expressing concern about an executive order related to scientific publishing rumored to be coming out with almost no notice or consultation with the scientific community. A motion was made by Kelly to affirm ASA’s policy for making time sensitive decisions about public statements and to confirm that the process was properly followed in this instance. Seconded by Misra. Motion carried with 16 for and 2 abstentions.

This doesn’t mention that the substance of the dispute, that the publications committee objected to the leadership’s statement, or the fact that more than 200 people signed a letter that read, in part: “We oppose the decision by ASA to sign this letter, which goes against our values as members of the research community, and urge the association to rescind its endorsement, to join the growing consensus in favor of open access to scholarship, including our own.” To my knowledge no member of the ASA leadership, whether elected sociologists or administrative staff, has responded publicly to this letter. Presumably, the terrible statement sent by the ASA leadership still represents the position of the association — the association that speaks for a rapidly dwindling number of us.

Side note: An amazing and revealing thing happened in the publications committee meeting where we discussed this statement in January 2020. The chair of the committee read a prepared statement, presumably written by the ASA staff, to introduce the voting on my proposal:

The committee has a precedent that many of you are already aware of, of asking people to leave for votes on the proposals they submitted…. This practice is designed to ensure that the committee members can have a full and open discussion. So, Philip, I’d like to ask you to recuse yourself now for the final two items, which you can simply do by hanging up the phone…

Needless to say, I refused to leave the meeting for the discussion on my proposal, as there is no such policy for the committee. (If you know of committee meetings where the person making a proposal — an elected representative — has to leave for the discussion and vote, please let me know.) It was just an attempt to railroad the decision, and other members stepped in to object, so they dropped it. The motion passed, and council ignored it, so seriously who cares, but still. (The minutes for this meeting don’t reflect this whole incident, but I have verbatim notes.) 

You will forgive me if, after this multi-year exercise in futility, I am not inclined to be optimistic regarding the Taskforce on Membership’s Recommendation #10: “Enhance and increase communications from ASA to members and provide opportunities for ASA members to provide ongoing feedback to ASA.” I have one more meeting in my term on the publications committee, but it doesn’t seem likely I’ll be there.

One thought on “The American Sociological Association is collapsing and its organization is a perpetual stagnation machine

  1. Remarkable and radical transparency.

    I have viewed other posts. Remarkable consistency.

    I have recently returned to academia, and find the system of knowledge dispersal woeful. Fundamental overhaul required.

    Like

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