Seeing the punk side of sociology at regional sociology meetings

I read a review of a new sociology book Punk Sociology and wondered where I have seen the punk spirit in my discipline. The first thought that came to mind: regional sociological association meetings. But, first, a quick definition of the punk spirit from the review:

David Beer’s eulogy to the spirit of punk, and his commendable entreaty to his fellow sociologists to imbibe of its energy, inventiveness and iconoclasm…

He revisits two of my heroes from student days. Howard Becker has never really gone out of fashion – class acts rarely do – and C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination is still on the reading list, I would guess, for every newbie sociologist…

Crossing boundaries, using varieties of “foreign” cultural and social resources and analytical strategies, refusing to accept the dominant orthodoxies and avoiding slavish adherence to methodological shibboleths and theoretical dogma…well, of course, and we should all brush our teeth three times a day. The heritage of punk – nowadays focusing on the DIY/communitarian ideas that inform contemporary social movements such as Occupy and feminist/LGBT activism – is emphasised here, although much can be traced back to the ideas and practices of the punks’ bête noire, the hippy, and beyond.

Last academic year, a colleague and I took a group of our sociology students to a regional sociological association meeting for the day. Several things caught the attention of our undergrads. They liked seeing all of the possible topics sociologists cover. The types of papers ranged from thought experiments to full studies and students felt like they could generally understand what was going on and might be able to do such research and/or presentations themselves at some point. And, I remember they thought it was a fascinating look at who sociologists are – from how they present themselves to how they dress to what they study (and for what reasons) to how they interact with others – outside the classroom or our department office. Some of the sociologists seemed like free spirits who enjoyed what they studied and cared about addressing social ills.

Looking back, their comments seem to match my own experiences with regional meetings versus what I’ve seen attending the American Sociological Association meetings each year. These are different crowds: the ASA meetings attract the big names from the big schools. People are well-dressed and looking to engage in both intellectual and networking activities. The price is high: the meetings this year in San Francisco require a $200 conference registration fee, conference hotels running around $260 a night, and plane tickets that are $350+ from the Midwest and further east. Even the paper submission process reflects the status of the meetings: people have to submit 15-20 page papers, rather than the abstracts regional conferences often ask for.

The regional meetings are something different. There is a wide range of participants, from community colleges to research schools with more attendees from smaller and lower-status schools. From what I’ve seen, there is a more cooperative spirit among presenters and attendees. The dress is more relaxed, the standards of the research can vary, and the tone is more conversational than aspirational.

This is not to say the punk spirit of sociology isn’t present in high-status sociologists and high-status schools. However, the ASA meetings have a more professional, corporate atmosphere rather than an iconoclastic and anti-dogmatic approach that can mark other settings.

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