The collision of sociology and politics in matters of war and natural disaster was a central topic of discussion at the 102nd annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, which drew over 6,100 attendees to two hotels in midtown Manhattan for the past few days.
The attendance set a record for the annual meeting, topping the 5,700 who came to the 2004 meeting in San Francisco.
The theme of this year's conference, which ends today, is "Is Another World Possible? Sociological Perspectives on Contemporary Politics," and a number of sessions viewed contentious public debates on globalization, prisons, and the media through the prism of sociological research. Many sessions were also seeded with the expertise of prominent writers on contemporary affairs (Naomi Klein, Malcolm Gladwell, Barbara Ehrenreich), politicians (Rep. John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat, and Ricardo Lagos, former president of Chile), and academics from other disciplines.
One particularly heated issue that sociologists grappled with was the continuing ripples in the United States and the Middle East from the attacks of September 11, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq. At a panel on the political sociology of terrorism held on Saturday afternoon, two sociologists offered the analysis and policy recommendations that they would give to the Bush Administration and the U.S. military on Iraq and the war on terrorism.
In his talk, Mansoor Moaddel, a professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University, shared the results of a series of surveys that he conducted among Iraqis of all religious beliefs and ethnicities. Some of the surveys were paid for by the National Science Foundation.
The bad news for American policy makers, he noted, was that Americans are still almost universally disliked and distrusted by all parties in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. Iraqis are "a public that is unwilling to cooperate" with American forces, said Mr. Moaddel. But he also found that Iraqis gradually are becoming increasing secular and nationalistic in their views, which he interprets as a hopeful sign that the nation may not be as riven by its religious and ethnic divisions as it appears.
The panel's other speaker was Ian Roxborough, a professor of sociology and history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Mr. Roxborough is doing research on attitudes in the U.S. military, and he offered his views on how the military was coping with the shifting -- and at times contradictory -- demands upon it after the attacks of September 11. In particular, he was highly critical of the U.S. Army's approach to handling counterinsurgency in Iraq, which he described as "1960s theories, regurgitated with absolutely no new understanding."
Mr. Moaddel argued that "sociologists need to be more politically involved," particularly in their efforts to bring their research findings to the attention of policy makers. But Mr. Roxborough was dubious about how successful such efforts would be.
"Policy makers generally rely on research in the way a drunk uses a lamppost," he quipped. "For support and not for illumination."
Another panel on the possibility of change in the Middle East on Saturday featured two prominent scholars from outside sociology: Gilbert Achcar, who has recently taken a position as a professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and Juan R.I. Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Mr. Achcar, the author of The Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder (Monthly Review Press, 2002) was deeply pessimistic about the political chaos in the region, noting that its present state was "really appalling, nightmarish. ... There is not even the consolation that we have reached the bottom." He pointed to significant changes in American foreign policy -- including an end to the occupation in Iraq -- as a necessary step in easing regional tensions.
Mr. Cole, who is as well known for his trenchant and comprehensive blogging on Middle East affairs at Informed Comment as he is for his scholarship, chose to present a case for long-term (though not short-term) improvement in the region using "three phenomena I see as powerful, enduring, and hopeful": falling birth rates, growth in regional economies, and significant gains in literacy and democratization.
Both Mr. Achcar and Mr. Cole pointed to Turkey -- where a moderate Muslim party that favors European integration has made significant gains in recent elections -- as a torchbearer for change in the region. "Turkey is a sign of success for a different sort of foreign policy," Mr. Achcar said.
Failures and Betrayals
A panel on Sunday that focused on the collision of sociology and politics that accompanies natural disasters switched the spotlight from the Middle East to the Gulf Coast -- which is still recovering from the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- and other places closer to home. The panel tackled a number of topics, including how women, minorities, and the poor had fared in the wake of the failure of institutions during and after Hurricane Katrina and also featured some novel proposals for change in disaster response.
Among the speakers at this panel was Harvey L. Molotch, a professor of sociology at New York University, who observed that "catastrophes of any sort have a sociological payoff. ... They reveal what's under the rocks of society." Among his reflections was that a sort of "conspicuous altruism" emerged at scenes of past catastrophes, including unsuitable or unusable corporate donations that he dubbed "Brand Aid."
Citing reports from the relief efforts that followed the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia in 2004, Mr. Molotch recalled the "airstrips clogged with aid from corporations. ... Pork for Muslims, Hershey bars for the starving, and winter clothes for the tropics." He urged governments and other institutions to substitute spending on regional priorities that might have "lasting and beneficial consequences" in place of the flood of immediate aid.
Charles B. Perrow, a professor emeritus of sociology at Yale University and author of the recent book The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (Princeton University Press), suggested that governments attempt to "reduce the size of the targets" -- for example, by reducing the scale of rebuilding in New Orleans and not encouraging many displaced residents to return as a way of keeping the city's population down.
"Some risks we must take," said Mr. Perrow, who pointed to the strong probability of another large hurricane striking the city, and the parlous state of reconstruction there thus far. "But not the obvious ones."