on civility

For the last several weeks I’ve been working with a small group of sociologists on a petition asking for more information from our disciplinary organization (the ASA) before we vote on a proposed dues increase. This is because we are being asked to approve a dues increase without being told what the revenue will be spent on (or if it will be saved).

When the idea of writing a petition was raised, I must admit I was a little surprised. Do we really need a petition to answer a simple question? Surely, the staff or council would simply post a note on the ASA website, disclosing the omitted information. I was wrong to think a solution would be simple, or quick in coming.

(I am reasonably confident that our sitting Secretary, Kate Berheide, will endeavor to make this information available, although I wonder if it will be released to members before our vote takes place. Moreover, since–in the best case–it will arrive with too little time for members to debate the proposal’s merits, we will still end up in the very weak democratic state we’re living in today.)

Anonymous and named commenters on OrgTheory, The Disgruntled Sociologist, Code and Culture and other blogs (see the digest listing of discussions here) have intimated that the signatories of the petition (574 of us, and growing) are elitists, cheap, politically motivated, and as you will now be able to read, our president (Randall Collins) has compared us to Tea Party activists because we are (or so he thinks) “tak[ing] our complaints out on those who serve us.” One commenter at OrgTheory seems to dispute our need for more information, and instead suggests we should simply decide if the cost is higher than we feel we can pay, and if so, leave the organization (and  start our own?).

The tenor and content of these comments on our request for information we have every right to request reminds me of nothing as much as the “debate” held in light of the anti-war mobilization in 2003. As I remember it, millions of Americans took to the street to protest Bush’s decision to send troops to Iraq. The push-back included some pro-war activists making allegations that protesters were anti-American, that they were Al Qaeda sympathizers, and that if they didn’t like the President’s decision…well, they could just look for another country to live in.

The comparison is overdrawn. Of course, a dispute among sociologists (and again–one I totally didn’t expect would play out this way) is not the same as a nation’s debate over the morality and necessity of war. But to allow ourselves to fall into such hollow, ad hominem critique, to exaggerate our differences instead of finding ways to take better care of one another’s needs and to hear each other speak, respectfully and patiently–these things are similar among the two cases.

Australian statesman John Howard is quoted as saying, “It’s too much to expect in an academic setting that we should all agree, but it is not too much to expect discipline and unvarying civility.” I respectfully request that we take heed of Howard’s prescription. Be disciplined when you read one another’s views. Please–stop reading our petition as an objection to increasing the number of income categories. Please–stop misinterpreting us as having an objection to a progressive dues structure. You will not find either opinion in our petition. And please, be civil as you debate these issues. Be good to one another. Be patient and kind.

I have seen remarkable evidence of these qualities in the past two weeks as the thirteen of us have passed hundreds of emails, gone to great lengths to encourage different opinions, and engaged in (somewhat tortured) deliberation and voting, in order to produce the petition. We continue to collaborate, volunteering for various responsibilities (e.g., sending email notices of the petition to various constituencies), and problem-solving. We’ve accomplished this, although we have (I expect) very different backgrounds, aspirations, and statuses within our respective universities. This group has given me hope, while other sociologists have been a great disappointment.

I want to close by sharing a list of those sociologists running for office in 2011 who have signed the petition. If you wish to “vote for transparency”, these candidates may be your best choice.

Cecilia Ridgeway, Professor, Stanford University: President-Elect

Emilio J. Castilla, Associate Professor, MIT: Council Member-At-Large

Monica Prasad, Associate Professor, Northwestern University: Council Member-At-Large

Susan S. Silbey, Professor, M.I.T.: Council Member-At-Large

Bandana Purkayastha, Professor, University of Connecticut: Committee on Publications

Steven Vallas, Professor and Chair, Northeastern University: Committee on Publications

Theodore Gerber, Professor, University of Wisconsin: Committee on Nominations

John Iceland, Professor, Penn State University: Committee on Nominations

Mignon R. Moore, Associate Professor, UCLA: Committee on Nominations

David Shulman, Associate Professor, Lafayette College: Committee on Committees, Member-at-Large

Cenate Pruitt, Instructor, Gainesville State College: Committee on Committees, Member-at-Large

Amanda K. Damarin, Assistant Professor, Georgia Perimeter College: Committee on Committees, 2 Year degree granting institutions

Jyoti Puri, Professor, Simmons College: Committee on Committees, MA Granting Institutions

I hope you will give them your support, in the upcoming elections.


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10 responses to “on civility

  1. ezrazuckerman

    Jenn: Thanks for the great post. And any readers who think that this is really some kind antitax movment by rich sociologists should note the data (and commentary) provided by Gabriel here: http://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/a-comparative-look-at-asa-membership-costs-and-benefits/#comment-95037

  2. Pingback: Disrespect « The Disgruntled Sociologist

  3. ASAcrossroadsGPS

    For those keeping score from home, this the fourth (apparently) independent instance in which I’ve heard the (now 700+) signatories to the petition referred to as “Tea Partiers.” This emerging meme made no sense to me the first three times. It is clear, Kieran’s sharp wit aside, that this isn’t a tax revolt. But hearing Randy Collins repeat this, I’m prompted to consider other affinities between ASATransparency and the Tea Party. What could people who are drawing this analogy possibly mean? Here’s my take on it: All of us are unhappy with at least some of the things that ASA does in our name (e.g., the K Street condo, taking positions on “hot” issues, charging for access to ASA journals, attempting to represent the interests of the discipline in DC, etc.). These are all issues that are “complicated,” as various elected members who have made the sacrifice of serving the organization have repeatedly related in the course of this discussion. When disgruntled members query the organization about Issue X and are in effect told in response, “its complicated,” they are further disgruntled.

    We are told that the answer lies in “transparency.” Why would that be the answer, rather than, as Jenn suggests above, simply electing candidates who would make the policy changes that the disgruntled prefer? Here’s where the Tea Party analogy begins to make a bit of sense to me. Why would “transparency” be the answer? Because good old fashioned “outside-the-beltway” common sense will tell you that nothing is complicated. (“When sociologists outside Washington sit around their modest kitchen tables, they would never think to rename the Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award the W.E.B. DuBois Career Award for Distinguished Scholarship!”) The multiple constituencies that ASA attempts to serve are – mine excepted of course – special interests. If ASA would only “open the books,” then all right thinking people would naturally come around to my vision of the organization. Collins will undoubtedly take a beating for his email, but reading between the lines, I think it is pretty clear what he is concerned about. Shall we put the question of raises for ASA staff up on Polldaddy.com? Why stop there?

    • Jeremy

      Can we put the question on Polldaddy.com of how many ASA staff there are and what exactly they do and how it all adds up to an employee payroll over $2.5M? And why the audit reports say that total payroll costs–despite Randy’s story–have still gone up by 11% in inflation-adjusted dollars from 2004-2009?

      I think key difference between ASAtransparency and the tea party is that the tea party is presented as this quasi-literate jabbering mass who are angry but not especially interested in facts. I can assure you that we are very interested in facts–actual, hard, specific facts about how the organization works rather than vague, oily statements–especially facts that we can verify ourselves. Some of us are quite good with numbers, and indeed, by this point have come to suspect we may be better or more attentive with numbers than some of the people saying “it’s complicated,” especially those who make assertions about finances that don’t square with the information that ASA has put online.

      It’s also different from the tea party because if the finances of the federal government are much, more open to specific scrutiny than the finances of ASA. You still can’t tell that much from the audit reports or the tax returns. That said, I am curious about the $166K that the audit report says were spent on “meals” in 2009, and the tax returns are good for making people aware that the Executive Officer’s salary is north of $200K.

  4. ezrazuckerman

    Wow, what a sickening post. So because several people have slurred the petition-signers, this makes you think that the slur-throwers must be onto something? (This is a classic approach taken by antisemites and racists, btw. Why is all this hate being directed against this group? Well, so many people can’t be wrong, right? They must really deserve it! And so my friends, let us look a bit closer into the character of thes people….) And so you do some creative thinking and suggest that that that “something” is some vague ulterior motive that involves something to do with the renaming of the ASA’s career award (I love the use of quotes with no person behind them!) and targeting the ASA staffers’ raises. So we are left wth vague accusations as to political motive, which are attributed to whom– all 700+ petition-signers? Or is the suggestion that these dark motives are driving the petition-drafters, and the rest have been duped? Meanwhile, where does the logic at the end of your post take you? Being open with the ASA membership about why the ASA needs more revenue is such a Pandora’s Box that it s better to use a politically-correct smokescreen rather than to tell the membership that it needs more revenue, and to justify this based on comparison with peer organizations and the services the ASA provides?

  5. ASAcrossroadsGPS


    I think the idea that that the disgruntled are “better or more attentive” was exactly the point I was making: Somehow direct democracy will yield an outcome that representative democracy has not. It may, but there is no reason to believe that it will be the outcome the disgruntled prefer. Polldaddying these things is a Very Bad Idea.

    • Jeremy

      When you say Polldaddying, do you mean you disagree with all this being subject to a member vote in the first place? It’s a by-law matter that dues increases larger than cost-of-living must be subject to a member vote. Given this rule, it seems right to me that members need to be accurately informed about the rationale what they are voting on–this is what really bothers me about the way it was presented in Footnotes–and that members can vote no and encourage others to do so.

  6. Jenn Lena

    The petition is nothing other than what it is.

    It may be true, as ASAcrossroadsGPS suggests, that Collins and others fear a deliberation of the use/s of the dues increase will open a Pandora’s Box of reform-minded mobilization among sociologists. [FWIW, it’s not clear how this would take place, given the limited things we vote on and the relatively tin ear the association appears to have to mobilization outside the context of voting.] If this were to take place, it seems obvious to me that it would be a consequence of leadership’s decision to disguise a dues increase as a vote on progressive dues.

    I would further add that, as far as I have been able to tell from our email discussions, the members of the petition writing group (just 13 of 700+) don’t share opinions on what should be bundled into the ASA’s activities, and, by extension, how much member dues should ultimately cost. (I can only imagine what diversity of opinion lies among the 700+ of us.) What we all agree upon is that we needed more information on the use of new dues revenue before we could consider a positive vote. That’s it.

    Finally, on the “better or more attentive” issue. It is simply true that current and past administrative officials have made empirical claims about ASA finances that have been revealed to be untrue by members of the socblogosphere. This does not equate–in my mind–to anything grander than it is.

  7. A call for more information is not equivalent to a call for everything to be decided by plebiscite.

    Kim Jong-Il would surely agree that it is easier to make the “right” decisions if your subjects do not have access to all of the information. Why we should advocate that as a solution for the ASA is a mystery.

    ASAcrossroadsGPS might respond that Randall Collins was elected president by the members, and was thereby delegated the power to make such decisions. But did the members know what they were voting for? When the ASA does not share basic information with its members, it is hard to say that they did.

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