Reply to Yesterday’s Comment
| Gabriel |
In the comments to a previous post, Don raised a series of points about the reform process and the nature of ASA governance. This seemed to be most directly in response to OW, who had her own response immediately below Don’s comment. Ezra and I also had some thoughts, which are largely similar to OW’s in emphasizing that we intend no animus and see the issues as largely structural. Since this is a reply to a public comment and largely concerns procedural issues of the nature of debate about the ASA, Ezra and I decided to post it publicly instead of sending it in a private e-mail.
First, we’d like to thank you for your service to the discipline. We are sure that during your four years as treasury-secretary, you made many sacrifices and had to deal with all kinds of challenges, and obviously your motivations in taking on the job and working so hard at it were based on the purest of intentions. Indeed, it is our view that the ASA’s funding shortfall (if that is an accurate characterization for the rationale for the dues increase) is not a result of impure motivation but of an organization that has become institutionalized in such a way that it is not sufficiently transparent and inclusive. Individuals within such an organization – whether they be staff members or elected officers – may be capable, diligent, and having the best of intentions, but what they are up against is much bigger than themselves.
It is of course true that this manner of raising criticisms is somewhat unruly and the rules are unclear. For instance, is it right or wrong to use pseudyonyms? What to do about the fact that the questions come up here, there, and everywhere on different blogs? We can imagine that from your perspective it can feel like playing whack-a-mole.
However please consider the situation as an organization theorist: do you really prefer a system in which concerns are channeled via private notes to the ASA president? We think it is not healthy for people to confine their concerns to “going through the proper channels” as isolated complainants. Rather, people who perceive a problem need to caucus amongst themselves to develop a common understanding of the problem and solutions to it. Sometimes they may discover that there are compelling answers for their concerns (for instance, the ASA has now provided a useful account about the interest-rate swap). At other times, they may collectively develop a more thorough understanding of issues that were not apparent at first (such as that journals are a profit center for the association, or that one of the main reasons the ASA is expensive is because it has adopted a mission of raising the public profile of the discipline), and these issue are then raised as policy issues for the membership to consider. As you noted, the ASA has an elected leadership; we would add that another positive externality of caucusing is to recruit informed, motivated candidates.
As to the issue of insulting the staff or officers, we certainly do not want to make ad hominem attacks and we have strived to avoid it. However there is the danger that too strenuous efforts to avoid giving offense will mean never criticizing strategies or policies. Doing so would create the danger of excessive status quo bias and possibly create structural rachet mechanisms. For instance, can we never question the necessity of the ASA providing a service lest the staff member who provides that service take offense? And is it wrong to criticize a past decision lest the people responsible for it take offense?
Please consider in this regard: We can’t recall the last time that an ASA officer was elected on a reform ticket, or any kind of platform that involved criticism of how previous administrations have done things. In fact, we’re pretty sure that this has never happened. There are a whole bunch of reasons that we think this has never happened, but we will refrain from offering them here. Rather, we would just ask: if we were to design a membership organization, wouldn’t we prefer one in which reform candidates have at least some possibility of existing, and in which the members are encouraged to gather in public spaces and debate the policies and practices of the organization? The answer is obvious, and we apply it in every other organization or government in which we participate. And if that is the answer, the ASA leadership should try to get past the feeling that they are being personally attacked, and realize that the firestorm of criticism is a very productive development for the organization, which should be channeled to reform the system. The first step in doing so is to provide (to the members as well as the leadership) a clear picture of how much the ASA spends on various services, how much it brings in through various revenue streams, and how this compares to peer organizations. Having done so,we will all have a clearer picture of how the ASA works and whether it would be preferable to increase its revenues, decrease its ambitions, or some mix of the two. And in this kind of environment, we can be confident that we will also make more productive uses of our resources such that we might realize our ambitions for sociology while using less of our members’ resources.
Gabriel Rossman and Ezra Zuckerman