Reflections on My Experience at #ASA2019

At this year’s American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in New York City (#ASA2019), I was not able to attend as many panels as usual because I needed to network like crazy in hopes of getting an academic job or post-doc beginning in Fall 2020, but I nevertheless found each of the few panels I either participated in or attended as an audience member to be extremely intellectually stimulating.

At the Political Sociology Mini-Conference the Friday before the main conference, I participated in a “Money in Politics” panel, where I presented my work-in-progress on the power and preferences of organized business interests in state-level energy and climate policymaking.  The session also included three other papers, each of which was fascinating.  Johnnie Lotesta, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, presented a paper that examined why conservative, moneyed interests succeeded in enacting a durable, right-to-work law in Michigan, but not Ohio.  Elisabeth Clemens and Yuhao Zhuang, from the University of Chicago, presented a fascinating paper on business-government contracts, and Nathan Katz, from the University of Missouri, presented on the (deficient) state of the sociological literature when it comes to campaign finance.

At ASA itself, I attended three panels.  The first, entitled “The Politics of Public Policy,” featured four terrific papers.  Tarun Banerjee of the University of Pittsburgh presented a paper (co-authored with Michael Schwartz and Kevin Young of SUNY-Stony Brook) that advanced a new, structural theory of business power involving capital strikes.  Michael Rodriguez-Muñiz of Northwestern University presented a thought-provoking piece from his forthcoming book about the use of the “demographics argument” on the part of Latino advocacy organizations seeking to advance an Obama-era policy agenda that included, among other things, immigration reform.  David Rigby and Akram Al-Turk of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill presented a promising paper that utilized a comprehensive dataset of decades of congressional hearing transcripts to explore how policy ideas evolve and morph over time.  Finally, Sarah Quinn presented on the political implications and uses of financial credit – an eye-opening and understudied topic.

The second panel I attended was on “Violence” – well outside my area of expertise.  I attended primarily to see what my undergraduate mentor, and one of the most brilliant (and kind) scholars I know, David Cunningham, was up to these days.  I learned that, as usual, he’s up to innovative and eye-opening stuff.  Pairing data from his previous work on COINTELPRO, the FBI program that investigated and policed both the KKK and civil rights activists, with recent data on the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally that turned violent and led to the death of Heather Heyer, David showed that the ideological orientation of the police, in both cases, led to (subtly) uneven treatment of the two sides, which privileged the white nationalist side over the civil rights side. David then developed an elegant theory of the mechanisms that brought this about, which were shockingly durable over time, across the two cases.  The four other papers were also each fascinating, each in their own way, and dealt collectively with a wide range of different forms of violence, synthesized by the discussant, Ruth Thompson-Miller of Vassar College, who issued a forceful warning about the dangerous direction our society appears to be headed.

Finally, I attended a session on “Social Theory and Social Progress,” dedicated to the memory of the late Erik Olin Wright.  This panel featured four renowned scholars including one of my dissertation co-chairs, Monica Prasad, who presented on an NSF-funded workshop that she ran this past year at Northwestern on “Problem-Solving Sociology,” an approach that seeks to encourage sociological research that actually solves social problems, rather than just describing them or analyzing them, which is where a great deal of our discipline’s research – including the research published in our discipline’s top journals – often ends.  Each in their own way, the four talks in this session were geared toward advancing not only knowledge, but progress – an inspiring note on which to end my #ASA2019 experience.

In addition to these panels, I was pleased to attend the book launch celebration of two sociologists whose work I greatly admire: David Pettinicchio of the University of Toronto and Barry Eidlin of McGill.  And, with a couple colleagues/friends, it was also a thrill to embarrass David Cunningham by singing happy birthday to him off-site (pictured below).  

I look forward to attending next year’s ASA, ideally with a job or post-doc in hand!

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