Letter From the Chair, Spring 2020

I write this amidst the coronavirus pandemic, with the uncertainties swirling around us.  Every day the situation changes for academics as for the rest of the nation, and there is a lot that we do not know right now:  How long will we be social distancing? What’s the right mix of compassion and substantive work in a class suddenly moved online? What will be the pandemic’s impact on the sociology job market?  No one has the definitive answers, making the task of charting an ethical and caring path through this crisis a challenging one. We know this: that the pandemic’s impact will be broad and deep and potentially transformative, and that we should prepare for personal and professional trials.

While deeply unsettling, it is also a moment for sociology to contribute, including culture scholars.  We need work right now that explains the patterns of disease understanding and belief; the influence of expert and nonexpert voices; the impact of politics and age and rurality; the class, race, gender and other dimensions of how people are responding and able to respond.  Culture scholars can help write the stories we tell ourselves about this moment.

Cultural sociologists can also help us think about the transformations to come.  Massive economic downturns have in the past shifted the cultural tectonic plates in the United States and globally.  I’m personally fascinated by the relative cultural absence of billionaires, given how much airspace they commanded as recently as February. Could we be moving into an era where accumulating extreme wealth is no longer celebrated or seen as entertaining, but actually viewed more broadly as a social problem?  We need your work to help us think about these and other potential changes.

Some universities are coming up with funding to support new research; NSF also has a RAPID channel for short-term urgent proposals. Take these words as inspiration only if you are in a space to be inspired; I know the crisis has stretched so many so thinly that people simply do not have the capacity to mount additional effort.  In the same vein, ASA has responded to the virus with a statement, endorsed by many other professional organizations, urging universities to “limit the use of student evaluations”, “adjust expectations for faculty scholarship”, and “clearly communicate how they will modify criteria and expectations for review and reappointment.”  I hope that your universities are following this good advice.

As for the ASA annual meeting, we do not know, at the time of this writing, whether it will be held.  The ASA staff and leadership are meeting frequently to discuss it. As part of the program committee for ASA2020, I know how much effort goes into the planning, and I am hoping that if changes are made, that people are still able somehow to exchange ideas, get feedback, meet other scholars and help students.  At its best, the annual meeting acts as an intellectual and social firestarter for our community, but for a host of reasons (expense, climate, and now pandemic) we may need to invent new ways to generate effervescence. More updates about the 2020 annual meeting to come. 

I’d like to draw your attention to some of the labor going on behind the scenes here.  First of all, your award committees are hard at work evaluating section members’ books and articles for their commendation – special thanks go to the committee chairs Gabriel Abend, Ming-Cheng Lo and Mariana Craciun, and to their committee members, for keeping it up even during this difficult time.  Second, the reception committee has been scouring a long list (22!) of possible venues in San Francisco, despite the meeting’s uncertain future, and successfully found one that is large and close enough to work well for us – our enthusiastic appreciation is due to Kjerstin Gruys, Elise Paradis, and Sharon Yee. Tania Aparicio, a PhD candidate at the New School, curates each set of announcements that we send out to the section by email – a terrific help.  These folks join others in helping the section run smoothly and well, and I am very grateful for their service.

Thanks are also due to your newsletter team for a fantastic issue.  See inside for an article about global epidemics/pandemics from Sasha White at Johns Hopkins, 2 book symposium sections (with discount codes for those interested in purchasing the featured books), “4 questions with Steven Lukes,” announcements of new releases by section members, and more – plenty of diverting reading on offer.

Please contact me (apugh [at] virginia [dot] edu) if the section can serve you better.

Warm wishes,