Interview With ASA Immediate Past President Prudence Carter

In September 2023 staff of The Sociologist (hereafter TS) had the opportunity to interview Dr. Prudence Carter, who had just concluded her August 2022 – August 2023 term as president of the American Sociological Association (ASA). The interview, presented below edited for clarity, offers an insightful reflection on the state of the ASA, sociology, the US, and each of us as sociologists; and leaves one grateful for the people who serve as elected officers and staff of our largest professional association.

TS: What achievement are you proudest of as ASA president?

That is a harder question to answer than it might seem. Most people don’t know how many hats you wear as president. Yes, there is a full-time ASA Executive Office in Washington, D.C. (and now really spread out across the country since they are remote); ASA has a staff of 24 and a full-time executive director who carries out many of the everyday duties of the association; but that director also has to frequently check in with the ASA president for approval before she can do some things. So, there is a large part of the job that is administrative; there is another part that is ceremonial, serving as the face of ASA in various public formal settings. And a large part of the work of the ASA President is planning the program for the annual meeting, which is no small feat—and also trying to come up with some small initiative, if you have the bandwidth.

I spent much of my presidency responding to political crises happening in the country. For instance, with Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and other states framing anti-Critical Race Theory policies but also planning and trying to get laws passed against LGBTQ+ individuals, and anything they thought was going to highlight the reality of historically oppressed and marginalized groups. So, during my presidency, ASA wrote multiple public statements in an attempt to respond to these attacks in the most non-partisan, objective, and research-centered way we could. We put out a statement about why it is important to teach about racism, we put out a statement about the importance of academic freedom, we filed an amicus curiae brief in the affirmative action case that was before the Supreme Court. There was a lot of work in collaboration with other learned societies, crafting those statements on behalf of the ASA. ASA has an executive council of 24 members and a smaller group of that council, which is empowered to act when the council is not meeting (as it only meets about four times a year) and a great deal of my time, as I have said, went into crafting these public statements on these very important national issues.

One of the things I was and am most concerned about is that ASA, like other learned societies, has a declining membership. About 15 years ago, at our peak, we had a membership of 14,000; today, we are at about 10,000. That’s, of course, more than a 25% drop in membership. A big drop. We were trying to figure out ways to get people more engaged with the organization. We tried a national town hall, which had a respectable though not large attendance and various webinars, including on timely issues such as the implications of AI for sociology, and a national virtual gathering for graduate students featuring the ASA’s past president Cecilia Menjívar, then president-elect Joya Misra and me. We were and are trying different things to increase member involvement—and thereby to raise membership.

But to get back to and answer your original question. The thing I am most proud of is how the conference turned out this year. I thought much about the educative power of sociology, and I also want to write really deeply about the integration of social organizations, institutions, and communities. What I really felt proud of at this year’s conference was that it was intended to be deeply integrative. I have received a number of kind notes from colleagues who attended the meeting. Some have said to me that they felt deeply seen and heard at this year’s meeting, that they had a place at the meeting this year. I am really pleased at the epistemic diversity of this year’s meeting, of the different ways of doing sociology that highlighted. This has been there in some ways every year, but this year I felt it was in the very ethos of the meeting. As president, from sunup to sundown, I was part of our effort to bring people into the organization—we had a host of receptions, we had new member meetings and orientations—trying at every turn to make that connection that would enable people to feel a part of the project that is sociology in this day. It is still a very large meeting, and I am not saying that we reached everyone, but I think the spirit to do so was really there. I was also very conscious of the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and understanding; it was very important to me to have “the old guard” and “the new guard” there together. I put quite a bit of thought into forming a Program Committee that reflected these generational differences and offered the possibility of intergenerational connections. And I was very pleased after the meeting to have older members, some past leaders to come up and say to me that they were pleased with the meeting. And, then, to swing more to the left, I was also pleased to have some critical public scholars, some of whom have been critical of ASA, to say that they were pleased with the meeting; and one very well-known public sociologist even said that this was the first time they had ever been emotionally moved at ASA. I was moved by the generous feedback from multiple constituencies.

When I think back to my early days putting together the Program Committee, and much of that is covered by bylaws, I was very conscious of the opportunity and the need to put together a committee that represented different parts of the country, different generations, as I have said, different ways of doing sociology, and different kinds of institutions of higher education.

TS: We know some people who in past years have left ASA after presidential addresses they felt were moving the association too far to the left or too far toward critical practice. Do you think the theme of “the educative power of sociology” was a more welcoming orientation than some past themes may have been?

I think, as I said in my presidential address, that ASA has encountered what we may think of as “epistemic flight,” and I tried to challenge those people who have left to come back. As ASA has opened up and it has been led by more women and people of color who have more radical and critical orientations to sociology and ways of doing sociology, there were a number of established sociologists who felt that it was going too far. I think this has been unsettling and destabilizing for some of the traditional mainstream sociologists who had been used to being in charge and did not know what to do when they were not in charge. I also think there have been sociologists who applauded this change in power as a sort of opening to move the organization “all the way to the left,” if we use political ideology, and to practice a kind of exclusion. That is not who I am. I am not tolerant of any kind of exclusion.

I tried to make clear that in the deeply integrative experience that I feel we need to be seeking, we need to learn how to coexist and to disagree and to refine and refute. Otherwise, we are going the same way as when in this country education was supposed to be opened up, and we had white flight out of public schools, right? We sociologists mirror society, we are imperfect human actors, and we reproduce boundaries and stratification and inequality and who’s in and who’s out; we reproduce those dynamics. Not necessarily at the annual meeting, but across the year, I had many mainstream sociologists tell me they had left ASA—many of these were white men, and ASA is now disproportionately female. But there was also a loss of positivist and quantitative sociologists who feel they cannot find a place for their work. I feel that we should be able to move beyond this, that there is enough good work coming out of all epistemological camps to make it possible for us to welcome and work together from a diversity of perspectives.

In preparation for my own address, I believe I read or listened to every ASA presidential address from 1905 on, and what I saw was that across the 20th and 21st centuries, even when ASA was white-male dominant, sociologists were debating among themselves about which paradigms should be the most prevalent—functionalism, conflict theory, Talcott Parsons versus Robert Park, then C. Wright Mills. But when women and people of color come in, a worry emerges from those formerly in power “that we cannot be heard,” and there is a devaluation of the work represented by women and people of color as not being really knowledge creators, but rather ideologues and storytellers working from our own biographies. I think there may be some occurrences of this, but possibly no more than there are people doing quantitative work who are not impartial and use biased measures. I feel part of this is a social-psychological reaction that people who have been in power tend to have when they feel that their power is going to be diminished and ideas less central.

The question I have to wrestle with right now is who gets cited in the written version of my presidential address, because who gets cited is itself a political act. Who am I centering? I have to center the works that will help me develop a strong argument both conceptually and empirically and express my understanding. I still am concerned not to center some scholarship too much and of course not to leave out significant other scholarship.

TS: What was your most frustrating experience? Or troubling failure?

That is an easy question to answer but a hard answer to live with—that is, how little we as an organization are able to do to help individual sociologists who turn to us for support, people who are not being allowed to teach their courses as they know they should be taught. Florida is probably the worst case right now. But there are around the country sociologists who are facing real harassment because they teach issues that are at the very core of sociological analysis of society—they teach about gender, about race, about reproductive justice, and they are either being harassed for it or harassment of them is being tolerated. The new ASA president and council are struggling with letters of support that we write. But I worry do these letters really “land;” is there something more we can do? Is there some other way to help defend these individual sociologists, but also the dissemination of sociological knowledge generally?

I was approached at the meeting by a colleague from Florida who was worried that Governor DeSantis would move against sociology next. I advised the colleague to do what they needed to do to take care of their own health and well-being and that ASA would be ready if Governor DeSantis attacked sociology. But in truth, we do not have the resources or the mission in our governing documents that let us do all that our membership would like us to do. We are not an NGO able to move in and give the kind of protection we would like for sociologists here and around the world.

A learned society, I like to say, has to work like a church or voluntary association—we only have as much as our members give. ASA does not have the resources to provide the support we would like to give. We need more revenue, time, and effort for our membership to do all the things that are needed by the membership. But this is a problem across the board for learned societies.

Partly we know these shortfalls are due to a pandemic effect, and we do not know how long they will last.

TS: What would be your advice to any new ASA president? After everything you have experienced.

Well, once you are elected as president, you are elected for a three-year term—president-elect, president, immediate past president. Joya Misra, the new president, who has a lot of experience with ASA, has picked up where my presidency left off and is trying to work to find ways for ASA to be more supportive when there are attacks on members and to sociology itself. We as a council are working with Joya to address this problem of a hostile environment for the teaching of sociology—which may have been there before but is now in a state of heightened intensity.

TS: Did you ever think about just showing up at a state school board meeting or something?

I had been awarded the honor of an esteemed lectureship and invited to speak at the University of Miami, and I had accepted the honor before things became as they are in Florida now, and I withdrew my acceptance and explained why. And that action—explaining why I felt I could not go to Florida to speak in the atmosphere of state-sponsored hostility to core ideas of sociology—that action seemed to promote discussion there to the effect that the school could say, we cannot attract people we need and want to hear from because of the current anti-intellectual environment here.

TS: If you could have one wish come true for changing ASA, what would that wish be?

That we as a discipline model the kind of radical inclusivity that our discipline tells us is best for a society and that we nearly all wish to see. Also, that we as a discipline need to become more effective with policy makers. We need to work to translate our findings better into the language policy makers can use. In education, my field, I think sociology has ceded ground to other disciplines. Economists are getting coverage asking sociological questions, using their methods, and getting Congress to do what they want it to do. We need to be right there alongside them. I have argued repeatedly that multi-dimensional social problems require multi-interdisciplinary effort, and we in sociology need to find more ways to be part of collaborative, multidisciplinary research teams. One of the best things about my being in a school of education was that I was working with economists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, and I learned so much. I have in my mind the idea of having sociology seen as “a really attractive playmate in the sandbox of the social sciences.” That’s a bigger cultural change—most disciplines are so busy trying to set up and maintain the symbolic boundaries that make them a discipline.

TS: How can we make sociologists more significant players in the development of US policy? 

I am looking with interest at some programs around the country that come out of joint social science programs—I know one at Michigan, another at Harvard. I wonder if we don’t need to think more about this kind of structure. I repeat again that multifaceted problems need multiple disciplinary approaches, and these kind of combined programs provide a real structure for potential interdisciplinarity; they take that frequently cited idea and move it beyond a couple of professors from different departments getting together.

But I think we also need to step up our game when it comes to confronting the major issues facing society right now. We have tended to reward the asking and answering of empirical questions. Now we face questions that may not have those more ready answers, and we as sociologists are not restructuring our departments and associations to meet those challenges. I am thinking especially of five major areas we need to be encouraging work in, especially theorizing that comes out of the confrontation with these problems: obviously, one is environmental sociology; another is the continuing quagmire of inequality and battles over rights; a third is the economic issue of wealth and a need to look more probingly at what constitutes wealth and what leads to its sharing. A fourth, to my particular heartbreak, is education, my own field—sociologists have radically neglected education. It seems as though we may have thought, “well we’re all in higher education, we know about that.” But we need to have been looking deeply at K-12—we need to ask ourselves, how could we have missed, have failed to predict, the backlash that is now enveloping our schools? And a fifth is technology—where, I ask, is a sociological theory of technology? AI is here to stay. There may be some there that I have missed, but I do not believe that right now sociology has a dominant or even a strong paradigm for analyzing the social impacts of technology.

TS: What, speaking as a sociologist and a parent, is your biggest fear for your son?

What will happen to the earth. But secondly, what does he need to learn? And if there is a bug or a hack, a complete shutdown of computer and smartphone technology on which his generation and even we now rely, what skills will he have to survive? I also worry about the effect of technology, especially social media, on humanity and our abilities to relate deeply with one another.

TS: When we think about this kind of radical change, the radical change your son’s generation may confront, it seems to undercut everything we know about what people need to function. How do you handle this sense of uncertainty? 

I cling to an interview I read with a Japanese founder of AI. He said that looking at the future of AI he would say to everyone, “machines won’t have hearts; they won’t have the skills that come from having emotions. We need to cultivate the arts and humanities.” Both of his daughters were in arts and humanities programs at university. At Brown, a basic computer science course has thousands of students because everyone is thinking that this is the new Wall Street. Some years ago, when Stanford University saw enrollment skyrocketing in computer science courses and dropping in humanities courses, they began partnering with the humanities.

Given where we are going with technology, there is an even greater need for sociology. I think someone in public life who points a way for sociology in the future is Tressie McMillan Cottom; she is an ASA Council member and a New York Times columnist with expertise in culture and technology. But she is not in a sociology department—she is instead an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, and an affiliate of the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill. Now there may be a warning there for sociology departments about having too narrow a sense of what they are looking for when they hire; but there may also be a lesson in what is to be gained from interdisciplinary experience.

TS: What question would you have asked yourself if you were doing this interview?

What was the greatest growth curve for me as President? I would advise that there is so much work to do for the presidential address; you don’t do it in two months; I spent over a year reading and learning widely across the discipline. The best piece of advice I received was “give yourself time for that, you have on your shoulders the responsibility of speaking for the discipline at this moment; give yourself time for the growth that can occur through this experience.” And I was so glad that I took this advice.

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