The ASA Meeings — Random Reflections

August 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston
The American Sociological Association meetings* ended yesterday. Here are just a few quick and random impressions that have nothing to do with any research anyone presented in any of the sessions.

1. What are we doing here?

I would imagine that if you asked people what they did at the ASA meeting, they’d list the sessions they went to and which good presentations they’d heard. After all, that’s what fills the 200-page program. Well, yes, they did go to those session, but . . .

Long ago when I was an undergrad, one of my professors (Bob Weiss, I think) said that if you ask people at the county fair what they did, they’d list the goat judging, the tractor pull, the barbecue, etc. But if you watch what they actually do, they spend the largest amount of time looking at the other people at the fair.

At the ASA meetings, a lot of what people do is to see and talk with other people — those they see only at these meetings, but also the people in their department who they see all the time anyway.

Or maybe I’m projecting my own idiosyncratic view based on the Soc Annex meet-up Monday night at a bar nearly a mile from the conference. I got a chance to talk with people who I knew only by reputation or from Twitter or podcasts.

2.  It’s the Way That You Do It.

Of the actual sessions I went to, the one I liked best was the one that should have been called “Six smart, funny people talking really fast.” (The actual title was something about getting people in the media and in government — non-sociologists — to use sociological data and ideas, especially your data and ideas.)

3.  Working.

“I’ve been working on . . . .” say the people at the ASA. They are working on minority suburbs, working on gender in selective high schools, working on Asian converts to Christianity, working on measures of economic exclusion, and so on. They don’t say they’ve been studying it, looking at it, or doing research on it. They’re working on it.

It sounds odd to me. Working on something implies that you’re doing something to it, changing it. I remember a time when researchers were supposed to try to minimize their effect on the things they were studying lest they become another causal but unacknowledged variable. So to my ears, “working” sounds strange.

4.  Show-and-tell, yes; reading, no.

I can’t listen to someone read a paper. That inability is a real drawback for an academic, but I may as well admit it. It’s not about the pace or density of the information. I heard panelists who talked rapidly, much faster than in a normal conversation, and I had no trouble following. But if someone reads their paper, I can’t stay tuned in. I want to shout, “Sit down and just send me the pdf.”

A linguist will have to explain my reaction to me. There must be something about audio perception, maybe the different rhythms of speaking and reading. But I suspect that it’s also social. When the person at the lectern is talking, you feel a connection to them — they’re talking to you — even though you’re one of 50 or more people in a room. But reading breaks that relationship. The speaker is now relating to a piece of paper.

When I am king of all conferences, reading will be banned.  Everyone will have to talk their paper. Sociology meets The Moth.

* Thanks to my poor proofreading, the original version of this post omitted the word meetings. Imagine the sentence minus meetings when you Read Aaron Silverman’s funny and appropriate comment below. 


Aaron Silverman said...

"The American Sociological Association ended yesterday."

Oh dear! I knew there were some disagreements about the direction the association has been going lately, but I didn't realize that dissolution was on the program this year :P

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks. I have duly made the correction and acknowledgement.