I just returned from four days at the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) annual meeting. While on the flight home, I tried to recall some events that might be timely to blog about. Unfortunately, the two items that immediately came to mind were perennial issues—or in the immortal words of Yogi Berra,“this is like déjà vu all over again.”
First, there remains no market in today’s publishing world for volumes of sociological essays by little known authors, no matter how edifying or well written those occasional compositions might be. There seem to be three genres alone that interest sociological publishers: textbooks (the 800-pound gorilla), empirical monographs, and theoretical encyclicals from superstars. I acknowledge that the lack of interest shown by acquisitions editors for my work might just be due to a lack of merit. But then how would I know? Nearly all the editors I approached refused to review my manuscript solely because it was an anthology of essays. In retrospect, it seems deliciously ironic that my paper submission for the conference landed in a low-status roundtable session—its title, “The Public Sociologist as Essayist.”
Regardless, I will burden you no longer with what Mills called “private troubles.” However, I suspect a linkage exists between my private trouble and the second topic I want to discuss—the public issue of status distinctions within sociology. An irreverent unveiling of our profession exposes this dirty little secret, a duplicity long shrouded in a complicity of silence.
I have been attending these meetings for 16 years. At my first meeting in 1994, I lacked the veil of socialization conferred by a sociology graduate program. My participant-observations of this alien culture were those of an uninitiated but street-savvy stranger; in other words, I wasn’t yet house-broken. With each annual pilgrimage, I re-affirm the reliability of my initial findings. If I had to provide an abstract for this work in progress, it would read as follows:
There is no discipline so morally sensitive to social inequality, or as analytically rigorous at unmasking the social machinations that create and perpetuate these inequities. Conversely, there is no profession so hypocritically insensitive to a specific form of social inequality within its own ranks, or as intellectually inept at recognizing how its taken-for-granted presuppositions and practices create and perpetuate this particular caste system.
I published an early synopsis of this “research” project in 2004 as a column in “Footnotes,” the official newsletter of the American Sociological Association. By the time I landed in Minneapolis on August 11, 2009, I had concluded that little has changed in ASA since that original essay appeared. The oligarchy is still alive and flourishing, and the business of enforcing latent status distinctions continues unabated.
LET 50 FLOWERS BLOOM
I attended my first meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 1994. I went to Los Angeles as a middle-aged outsider, hoping to gain a little disciplinary knowledge from the natives. For five days, I was mesmerized by phenomena that were not listed in the official program—a perpetual display of Goffmanesque rituals of deference and demeanor.
These customs are by no means limited to this tribe of sociologists. All academic disciplines are defined by what Robert K. Merton called their manifest functions. The obvious and intended function of scholarship is the production and dissemination of knowledge. These professional practices also have what Merton identified as latent functions, consequences that are unintended and frequently unrecognized. The scholarly enterprise has one latent function that dares not speak its name—status stratification.
The professional culture and reward structure of our discipline have evolved gradually over the past half century and are now so much the taken-for-granted-reality that most sociologists are oblivious to their functions. Ralph Linton once observed that the last thing a fish in the depths of the sea would discover is water. The late Stanley L. Saxton was a particularly perceptive denizen of the deep. In A Critique of Contemporary American Sociology (1993), he noted, “The conditions of work for a small but powerful minority of sociologists at research universities need not and should not imprint the whole discipline” (p. 247). Unfortunately, they do. The practices of this disciplinary elite have produced a stratification system for both individuals and institutions within the profession of sociology.
Those who believe that the existing academic labor market is a meritocracy might well challenge my central assertion. Defenders of the status quo do not lament this latent function of status stratification. In fact, they claim that whatever prestige is bestowed upon these luminaries is richly deserved. What fairer system could be devised for the manifest function of knowledge creation than one that rewards “the best and the brightest?” In addition, I might well be accused of sour grapes. What am I but a provincial from the periphery who has failed to measure up?
It is not so much the reward structure that I question, but rather how this social order manages to perpetuate itself. I question that an oligarchy of sociology departments at research universities holds sovereignty over the entire discipline. How does this occur? Let me give you just one example.
ASA is the premier professional association for the discipline. All ASA officers for 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 come from schools belonging to the Carnegie Foundation’s most selective category of research universities. Only 150 of nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States are included in this exclusive club. With just a couple of exceptions, the members-at-large on ASA’s Council for those two years also possess this rare pedigree.
Defenders of the status quo will argue that these leaders won competitive elections. True, but if we examine the Committee on Nominations for those two elections we would find that those doing the nominating are disproportionately affiliated with the same elite institutions as those whom they nominate. A similar analysis of the Publications Committee speaks volumes as to why all the current editors of ASA journals are also from Carnegie’s most restrictive list of research universities.
The manner in which this disciplinary elite defines and privileges a certain type of scholarship—and the “conditions of work” that it entails—is the linchpin of supremacy. The old bromide about how one gets tenure now holds true for promotion, external professional recognition, and even superstar status: publish, publish, publish. The highest rank accrues to those doing esoteric research, with subsequent authorship in prestigious journals and academic publishing houses. This “gold standard” diminishes other types of scholarship, reduces teaching and service to second-rate activities, and reproduces a regime of status stratification within the discipline. If most rank-and-file sociologists continue without question to concede this criterion, it only serves to legitimize the oligarchy’s dynastic succession.
An outsider to the disciplinary canon, Alfred Schutz, developed a sociology of knowledge that poses an alternative to this elitist paradigm of practice. He distinguished between scholarship aimed at the “expert” and scholarship directed to the “well-informed citizen.” American sociologists once saw the well-informed citizen as their primary audience. Conversely, the disciplinary elite today sees fellow experts as their only audience.
How do we restore sovereignty to that large majority of sociologists who toil under a more populist paradigm of practice but remain second-class citizens within the profession? The state professional association is one important venue. As an apprentice to the craft, I found congenial homes, first in Sociologists of Minnesota (SOM), and later in the National Council of State Sociological Associations (NCSSA).
I was welcomed by colleagues who refused to be constrained by the “expert” model but were engaged in scholarships of integration, application, and teaching. I was mentored by master teachers who prided themselves in conducting three to five sections of undergraduate classes each semester, devoted to developing a sociological perspective in students who may never take another course in the discipline. These folks practiced service the old-fashioned way; a “good citizen” took on those often-thankless tasks on campus and in the community that needed doing.
I am only saying aloud what has long been whispered. The intent of this essay is to initiate a conversation, a dialogue of equals. Sociology’s latent function not only divides us but also hinders our ability to engage wider audiences—we need to practice what we preach. We invite more of our research university colleagues to join us in state organizations, just as we have joined you in the ASA. Our local associations and practices might make, once again, our discipline relevant to the well-informed citizen. Let 50 flowers bloom.