American Sociological Association Research Paper

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Historically, the social sciences in the United States were the province of amateurs, clergy, and practitioners who belonged to the interdisciplinary American Social Science Association. During the early twentieth century, the social sciences came to be the province of academically trained PhDs working in separate disciplines. Sociology broke away from the American Social Science Association and later became part of the American Economics Association. Finally, fifty sociologists formed the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 1905. Since its founding, the ASA has grown to an organization of nearly 14,000 members. During its first 100 years, the ASA grew in complexity as well as in size as it attempted to meet members’ needs and responded to contentious as well as ordinary issues—issues that continue to affect the discipline as a whole.


The professorate in sociology has become professionalized along several dimensions: its long training period terminating in a PhD, its claim to autonomy and freedom in research and in the classroom, its relative freedom from supervision, its body of specialized knowledge, and its adherence to a code of ethics. As of 2000, about 70 percent of sociology PhDs were employed in academia. Since 1933, especially during periods of economic downturn, the ASA or its members have attempted to develop positions for professional sociologists outside of the professorate. These efforts, an effort to control the labor supply, were buttressed by claims about the overproduction of PhDs. At the same time, there were strong feelings that practicing sociology outside of the academy, especially in political or business settings, compromised scientific objectivity and theoretical rigor. The distinction between scientific sociology and client-oriented sociology decreased with the growth of pressure for academics to seek outside funding and with the increase in state-mandated accountability and assessment requirements for faculty. The most recent rewriting of the ASA Code of Ethics bound both academic and nonacademic sociologists to avoid conflicts of interest, assure confidentiality, and respect people’s “rights, dignity, and diversity.”

Academic Freedom

Because norms of autonomy and control are important in research and teaching, the ASA developed institutional mechanisms for dealing with issues of academic freedom. In the early years, the ASA joined with the American Economics Association and the American Political Science Association in a Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. This committee produced one report. During the 1950s, members of the ASA passed a resolution at the annual business meeting “deploring such discriminatory requirements” as loyalty oaths on account of the special interest of social scientists in inquiring about controversial social, political, and economic issues. In the 1980s the ASA’s elected Council founded the Committee on Freedom in Research and Teaching (COFRAT) to protect individual freedom of research and teaching. During the 1980s this committee served in a fact-finding capacity on individuals’ complaints against institutions and recommended institutional sanctions if warranted. These efforts became increasingly acrimonious as institutions protested COFRAT’s work. A committee appointed to review COFRAT’s mission recommended that COFRAT should deal with systematic abuses rather than individual cases. COFRAT reported difficulty in monitoring systematic or institutional conditions and became increasingly inactive. When the ASA restructured in the late 1990s, COFRAT was discontinued.


As its membership grew, there were internal pressures for the ASA to respond to members’ requests for new projects, services, and processes. In so responding, the association became more a complex organization composed of an Executive Office, standing committees, and single-issue task forces. Growth also brought a proliferation of new membership subgroups, “sections” formed around substantive, theoretical, and methodological specialty areas. By 2005 there were forty-two sections, with most members joining at least one section. The larger sections include Medical Sociology; Sex and Gender; Organizations, Occupations, and Work; Sociology of Culture; Theory; and Family. Some members argue that the diversity of sections reflects the fragmentation of the discipline. Others, however, claim that the growth of sections promotes networking within the organization. While the number of specialty sections increased within the association, the ASA continued to participate in such multidisciplinary institutional efforts as the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Council of Social Science Associations.

Social Practice

Early U.S. sociologists often engaged deeply in public issues. The writings and activism of Lester Ward, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Jane Addams affected public debate on such issues as racism, poverty, employment conditions, feminism, and social welfare. Others practiced sociology in the public arena by writing reports for courts, health departments, foundations, and government agencies. Social activism was criticized as “unscientific” by academic sociologists who enjoyed higher status, assumed leadership positions, and published in leading journals. Over time, public sociologists tried to legitimate their work. In the 1980s they petitioned for a practice section within the ASA, initiated a short-lived journal of practice, and pressed for a task force that would create bridges to the public sphere. In 2004 a new task force on “institutionalizing public sociology” was formed to provide rewards and incentives to “bring sociology to publics beyond the academy.” During this time, debate resurfaced about whether the ASA should take sides on political issues. Although the membership did not endorse an antiwar resolution in 1968, they endorsed positions favoring the withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2003 and opposing a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In response to the debate, the ASA’s Council developed criteria requiring scientifically supported evidence before putting hot-button issues before the membership for final approval.


Since the ASA’s inception, debates about the sociology curriculum concerned not only content and teaching methods but also whether the craft of teaching is rewarded and respected on par with scholarly pursuits. During the 1970s the ASA Executive Office opened a Teaching Resource Center; added teaching workshops to the annual meeting; awarded grants for enhancing teaching; formed a departmental visitation program to improve curricula, teaching, and the status of the craft; and began a new journal, Teaching Sociology. These activities paralleled a growing movement to develop a scholarship of teaching and learning that challenged the denigration of teaching within academia.


Only one woman attended the founding meeting of the ASA. Since then, women’s involvement within the ASA increased dramatically, though not without a struggle. By 1944 about 25 percent of PhD-level sociologists were women, although the percentage decreased until the late 1960s. As the number of sociology doctorates awarded to women increased, feminists worked to change both the substance of the field and their treatment within it. After women engaged in sit-ins, founded a separate organization (Sociologists for Women in Society), held an alternative convention, and formed a Women’s Caucus, the ASA’s Council responded by establishing a standing Committee on the Status of Women in Sociology in 1971. ASA members successfully petitioned to create a specialty section on the study of sex and gender, now among the largest ASA sections. Later in the decade, the first annual Jessie Barnard Award was given “in recognition of scholarly work enlarging the horizons [of sociology] to encompass fully the role of women in society.” At the centennial of the ASA, women received about 60 percent of all sociology PhDs. Yet the 2004 report of the Committee on the Status of Women in Sociology to the Council presented evidence suggesting that women are a “majority minority” in the discipline—not equally represented at the discipline’s highest ranks, facing chilly climates at work, experiencing uneven policies to balance work and family, and relatively ignored in ASA journals that include few articles on women’s issues.

Race and Ethnicity

Papers on race relations, racial attitudes, cultural differences among races, and the concept of race as a social category have been presented at every annual meeting since 1907. According to many African American and Hispanic sociologists, the growth of sociology in the United States was related to studies of the problems of racial and minority groups rather than to struggles for social justice. With the growth of the civil rights movement, an ad hoc group was formed to increase the visibility and the voice of minority sociologists within the ASA. The Black Caucus formed in 1969, and by the 1970 annual meeting it had presented a number of resolutions, including one for the establishment of a program to provide stipends for graduate training. Independently of the ASA, the Association of Black Sociologists was formed in 1970 to promote “scholarship that will serve Black people in perpetuity.” The ASA responded to these efforts throughout the 1970s. A specialist in racial and minority relations was hired, the Council instituted the Du Bois-Johnson-Frazier Award, and it later created a standing Committee on the Status of Race and Ethnicity. In the wake of a Black Caucus recommendation, a training grant from the National Institute of Mental Health has provided stipends for nearly 400 doctoral students of color since 1974. The ASA has continued to address race and ethnic issues by participating in the Clinton Administration’s Initiative on Race, producing the ASA Statement on the Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Research on Race, and presenting an amicus brief to the Supreme Court for Grutter v. Bollinger, a case concerning affirmative action at the University of Michigan’s Law School. Despite these efforts, in response to a recent review of sociology in its 100th year, James Blackwell, a renowned black sociologist, noted that members of minority groups remain tokens at most traditionally white colleges and universities. That may not change in the near future. Even as late as 2003, only 32 of 106 graduate programs awarded a doctorate of sociology to an African American, and only 18 programs awarded a doctorate to a Hispanic.

In the beginning of its second hundred years, the ASA continues to face both ordinary and contentious issues raised by sociologists of diverse positions and interests as it attempts to meet their professional needs, advance the discipline, and engage the public.


  1. Bernard, Jessie. 1973. My Four Revolutions: An Autobiographical History of the ASA. American Journal of Sociology. 78 (6): 773–791.
  2. Blackwell, James E. 2005. The Continuing Invisibility of Black Sociologists. Letters to the Editor. Chronicle of Higher Education 54 (4): B18.
  3. Calhoun, Craig, and Troy Duster. 2005. The Visions and Divisions in Sociology. Chronicle of Higher Education 51 (49): B7.
  4. Deegan, Mary Jo. 1998. Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892–1918. Somerset, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  5. Ferree, Myra Marx. 2005. It’s Time to Mainstream Research on Gender. Chronicle of Higher Education 51 (49): B10.
  6. Grant, Linda, and Lowell Hargens, cochairs. 2004. Final Report of the Committee on the Status of Women, 2004. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association. http://www. %20Report%20Oct%202004.pdf.
  7. Kulis, Stephen. 1998. The Representation of Women in Top Ranked Sociology Departments. American Sociologist 19 (3): 203–217.
  8. Kulis, Stephen, Karen A. Miller, Morris Axelrod, and Leonard Gordon. 1986. Minority Representation in U.S. Departments. American Sociological Association Footnotes 15 (January): 9, 11.
  9. Levine, Felice J. 1999. The ASA’s MFP—A Solid Investment. American Sociological Association Footnotes 27 (September/October): 2.
  10. Research and Development Department. American Sociological Association. Few PhDs Awarded to African Americans and Hispanics in 2003. %26+Hispanics&section=Profession+Trend+Data.
  11. Rhodes, Lawrence J. A History of the American Sociological Association, 1905–1980. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association.
  12. Rosich, Katherine J. A History of the American Sociological Association, 1981–2004. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association.
  13. Slaughter, Sheila, and Larry L. Leslie. 1997. Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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