There’s the ASA, But Where’s the Sociology?

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a letter published in Footnotes, the ASA Newsletter, July/August 2004.
See also online version with a response.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2004. "There’s the ASA, But Where’s the Sociology?" Public Forum letter. Footnotes, ASA Newsletter, July/August, 32(6):9.

The recent abuse of the ASA resolutions process and the political drift it betrays in the ASA are indicative of a sad development in contemporary U.S. sociology. Irrespective of its non-scientific theme, the resolution on the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution was presented to the members of the ASA in the most offensive manner. When the members of the ASA were first notified about the resolution, they were at once alerted to the fact that the ASA Council had already “voiced unanimous, strong support for this resolution.” Although the resolution was presented as “member-initiated,” it was in fact ASA President Burawoy who first initiated the idea in March 2004 when he emailed the chairs and chairs-elect of the ASA sections on Sex and Gender, Sexualities, and Family and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Caucus upon discussion of the issue with the ASA Council. (Although a constitutional issue was raised, the Sociology of Law section was not informed.) Even in presenting the resolution, the ASA President and Council violated procedures of democratic governance, acting as some mighty politburo which feels that the “full membership should have the opportunity to express itself” only after the Council made sure to express itself on a resolution it had instigated.

The ASA leadership’s blatant disregard for democratic principles is further evident from the fact that the Council decided to ask an additional opinion question although no petition on this issue was forwarded. Purportedly, the Council “recognized” that “some” members might hold additionally relevant opinions on the legislative aspects of the matter addressed in the resolution. “Anticipating this might be an issue in the future,” the Council offers no justification for these speculative statements and even claims to know what will be on the ASA members’ minds in years yet to come! Most troublesome, the Council unilaterally decided to delve into our minds on an issue that is not related to our work as ASA members. The ASA Council has been perverting our Association’s governance from a government by the people to a government for the people.

Irrespective of its legitimacy, the resolutions process was not preceded by any debate. The ideal of democracy is not met merely by voting, but more profoundly relates to having open discussions on the issues that are involved. That requires a whole lot more than quickly putting up a link on the ASA Public Forum. As John Dewey reminded us, “Majority rule, just as majority rule, is as foolish as its critics charge it with being... The means by which a majority rule comes to be a majority is the more important thing: antecedent debate, modification of views to meet the opinions of majorities.” But in the ASA there is little or no debate allowed. Worse yet, judging from some of the private emails I have received, there are several people in the ASA—especially graduate students—who are afraid to speak out publicly for fear of retaliation. As the ASA police is already here, I cannot entirely blame them.

The negative consequences of resolutions that are contrary to the very mission of the ASA can at best only be ironic—for science and morality alike. The non-sociological drift in the ASA entails a corruption of sociology to further a particularistic political agenda. President Burawoy is clear about his political intentions (Burawoy 2003). By organizing only thematic panels and inviting activists to the ASA meeting, he seeks to bring in “critical winds” related to justice and rights. Proudly, he proclaims that the ASA has “ventured into political debates” on several issues and “waded even further into politics with an anti-(Iraq) war resolution” (p.13). Politics indeed! Ironically, such a stance involves a more than unfortunate approach to morality that purports to resolve important ethical and political questions by means of (the authority) of science, thereby perverting the deeply human aspects of moral concerns and eroding the pluralistic nature of contemporary morality.

I hope that fellow sociologists in the ASA will respond to these issues and will have the courage to think and act. The ASA meetings in San Francisco may be a great opportunity to voice our concerns, whether in the form of debate, protest, acts of civil disobedience, or by any other means necessary. The ASA police will be watching, but our cause is just. Sociologists in the ASA, unite and take over!

See online copy with a response by Michael Burawoy, Democracy in Question: Reply to Deflem.


ASA Family Section Announcements, March 2004 (containing Burawoy’s letter). Available online at:

Burawoy, Michael. 2003 “South Africanizing U.S. Sociology.” From the Left, Newsletter of the ASA Marxist Sociology Section, 24(3):1,12-13. Available online at:

Social Forces. 2004. Essays on public sociology by Michael Burawoy, David Brady, Charles Tittle, and Francois Nielsen. Social Forces 82(4), in press. Available online at:

See related writings on public sociology.