Reimagining PEWS: A Proposal from the PEWS Council

This proposal addresses issues raised by our survey in 2016, and the subsequent discussion of the survey at the 2017 ASA meeting (see ). The survey explored ways to strengthen PEWS in the context of declining membership. Several newer ASA sections emerged in the last 10 years (e.g. Development, Global and Transnational, Poverty, Inequality and Mobility) that overlap substantively with PEWS in important ways. The growth of these sections corresponds in time with declining PEWS membership. Thus, the council and larger membership agreed the section should act now to remain vibrant and viable.

The survey results point to three key opportunities to strengthen the section. First, the survey suggested that current and former members value the section to the extent that it promotes their career success, and that research excellence was one important determinant of that success. Second, many members and former members perceived a lack of diversity in the section. Finally, current and former members perceived that the section could be more epistemologically, theoretically and methodologically heterodox.

The Council has developed a three-pronged proposal to leverage these opportunities.  We propose:
1) a reimagined statement of intellectual identity designed to reflect the work actually done in the section;
2) programmatic changes to help members advance their career and promote research excellence, and to enhance demographic, theoretical and methodological diversity.
3) structural changes to the PEWS governing body to make the programmatic changes viable, spread the workload more evenly among council members, and increase the number of opportunities for members to participate in section governance on an ad-hoc basis.

The Council feels that our current organizational structure, where elected officers do most of the work of the section, may have given the section the appearance of an exclusive club, as some members commented in the survey, where a small core of officers makes all of the decisions and a large periphery of members feels somewhat marginalized. The aim of this proposal is to dispel that appearance by involving many more members in the work of the section. If a large and diverse cross-section of the membership gets involved, the section should begin to feel more inclusive. At the same time, this will allow the section to offer more to its members: more opportunities to win awards for research, teaching, and contributions to diversity and more opportunities to provide service to the discipline, all of which tend to be rewarded within academic institutions.

The Council invites the PEWS membership, as well as non-members, to comment on the statement of intellectual identity and the concrete proposals, over the next few months on this blog. We welcome suggestions for additional or alternative programmatic/governance changes, as well as revisions to the intellectual identity statement. At the 2018 ASA meeting, we plan to have a longer than usual business meeting at which we hope to vote on whether to informally implement these changes in 2018-2019, put them up for a formal vote as changes to our bylaws in the spring of 2019, and discuss any additional issues that may remain.

The three parts of the proposal–the intellectual identity statement, the programmatic changes, and the governance changes–are outlined below in 3 consecutive blog posts. Permalinks to each of these posts can also be found at the top of the screen for easy access. Please comment on each part of the proposal on their respective threads.

11 thoughts on “Reimagining PEWS: A Proposal from the PEWS Council

  1. I am a recent graduate specialized in the field. I feel that the paradox of the world-systems is that it seems to have limited itself within the boundaries of disciplines that Wallerstein once aimed to dissolve. An overwhelming majority of eminent sociologists favor hiring new instructors, lecturers, or tenure-track assistant professors graduating with a Sociology degree only. I have no objection to why they should not. I, with a degree not in sociology, feel disenfranchized, however. The advertisements, for example, do not allow a person with a degree in International Relations to apply as a candidate in the Department of Sociology for a position asking specialization in development. It discourages non-Sociology people from adopting WSA as a viable theoretical framework of research in their fields. The decision makers and the leaders of the field will have to be generous to accommodate voices and works from other so-called disciplines to promote a transdisciplinary outlook of the field.

  2. The intellectual identity of PEWS should continue to center around world-systems analysis, which requires the analysis and use of diverse “disciplines,” theories, methodologies, and methods. This includes the study of historical capitalism, long-term social change, and contemporary social change today. Because we have a unique identity and purpose in sociology and in other disciplines, I believe that our section should keep its current name.

    1. Thanks for this! I’m on Council and while the name change was something that some people recommended in the survey we conducted on current, former, and never-been members, it’s not something the Council has decided to focus on moving forward. Instead, we want to focus on the tangible and intangible benefits to members for being a part of the section.

  3. I just want to emphasize what Amy says in her opening comment. We are opening the section to you, the membership of PEWS. We want to make this section your (the membership) section, not our (the leadership) section. If you are dissatisfied with the section, we want to hear why you are dissatisfied, but we also want to hear what we, the leadership and membership of PEWS together, can do to make you feel satisfied with the section. If you feel excluded or marginalized, what can all of us do together to make you feel like a welcomed and valued member of the section? If you want to get more benefits out of your section membership, what specific benefits would you like to get and how can the section provide them? The section leadership cannot possibly think of all the changes that could be made to the section to improve it, and we cannot possibly implement them ourselves. It will take all of us to build a better PEWS.

    1. All –

      I agree with the critiques of my colleagues of the statement that posted on the listserv. Some responses make one wonder if world-systems analysis is understood…

      For one, it’s not a “theory” (not one person’s theory, e.g. not the particular view of the modern world-system by Arrighi, Chase-Dunn, Wallerstein, etc.). It’s a perspective of analysis that they all have in common that is not about the modern world-system at all! It’s the critique the modern social sciences (even though we’re housed in one), including, as regards to modern society, the idea that countries are “societies.” They’re not. The larger perspective that we argue is that the units of analysis of “society” are indeed historical, as in the statement. But we DO NOT contend, that the “processes” (as claimed in the statement) are necessarily “global.” Reference to “global” is a reference to the modern world-system at a particular point in time. None of the societies in the past were even close to global in scale (contra Frank’s last stand).

      Unfortunately we’re called “world-systems” analysis, but it could just as well be called “historical societies” or “world-systems and mini-systems” or even more precisely, “bands, tribes, chiefdoms, agrarian states (world-systems), and world-economies (world-systems). I acknowledge that this taxonomy is not fixed and immutable. But in the same regard, we should acknowledge that even the aspects of the societies we study, including what we call “political, economic, social, cultural, and ecological processes” and “class, race, gender, sexuality, citizenship, etc.” are themselves historical products of the world-system that we live in and that we use to resist its inequalities.

      This is not A theory, it’s a perspective or approach to critical analysis. Reference is needed to this fact, and how we differ from the social sciences on the units of analysis, with GREAT care given to how the word “societies” is used. But the last two sentences of the statement are spot on.

      Elson Boles
      Saginaw Valley State University, MI

  4. Dear John and all,
    I read the “intellectual identity statement” and here are my own thoughts: I was concerned that the two key defining features of our section – political-economy and world-systems analysis – are actually not even mentioned in the statement. As it reads now it would seem the section is abandoning any specificity to world-systems analysis and to political-economy – yet these are the very raison d’etre of the section and what distinguishes it from Transnational and Global as well as comparative sociology sections. I understand the need to attract more members, especially from the younger generation of scholars, but at the expense of the core identity of the section?
    (William I. Robinson)

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  5. Bill Robinson makes a cogent question that touches the essence of the current debate about the future of PEWS.

    I believe both the mission statement as currently rewritten AND Bill Robinson both offer approaches with a great deal of merit.

    I want to clarify and praise the merits of both approaches in the hope that a technical solution that allows for the strong points of both to be combined.

    1) The Case for the Official Rewritten Mission Statement

    The most largest and most robust sections of ASA are those which have a dependent variable but no particular commitment to an independent variable.

    Social Psychology. Criminology. Population.

    These sections have bullet-proof insurance against changes in intellectual style and changes in preferred methodologies and theory.

    If it were to turn out that astrological sign is the key variable that predicts personality, criminal behavior and fertility,

    with massive empirical support and sound theories to embrace these new findings,

    all three of the sections could embrace the new astrologers

    and keep on rolling without the slightest pause.

    This is in contrast to the vulnerability of sections that “bet the house” on one theory.

    The Rational Choice section is not doing well given the waning of interest in that approach.

    Had Global and Comparative Sociology gone all in on the “world culture” approach of its founders – it would probably be in deep trouble today.

    In sociology theories evolve with massive transformations every twenty years.

    A section in principle needs to be designed to accomodate new frameworks.

    Following this logic, the most robust section ASA could have would be a section called “Macrosociology”.

    2) The Case for Bill Robinson’s Protest

    PEWS has historically defied the logic of argument 1) with dramatic and consistent success.

    It has been around now for close to fifty years

    And has survived many intellectual transformations in macrosociology.



    Success is a hard thing to argue with.

    Returning to World Systems Foundations and returning to a commitment to innovative Neo-Marxism

    has been the key to what has made PEWS great.

    PEWS has other issues over and above the mission statement.

    Many of these are addressed in the “new strategy for growth” and are addressed well.

    In my own opinion, as Sam Cohn, just speaking as one guy,

    the number one problem PEWS has had has been closed single topic annual conferences and closed single topic sessions at ASA.

    Unless a new scholar is doing EXACTLY what work is being asked for in the call for papers,

    they are totally excluded.

    This excludes a lot of people doing new and innovative work , much of which is legitimately world-systemic in nature.

    Having the “next great scholar” always going to some other section in the early stages of their careers,

    means that other section and not PEWS commands their life-long loyalty.

    This is a big deal.

    Open sessions and general panels that are open to innovative work of all kinds are great for bringing new talent into the door.

    The Mission Statement does need to be made more inclusive.

    PEWS participation opportunities need to be opened up.

    I suspect the participation opportunities will have a bigger impact

    But I think it is not hard to take the very strong currently rewritten mission statement,

    (and I mean that about being very strong),

    and add a modest nudge in the direction of the support of world systems theory.

    Ultimately, it depends on the human beings associated with the section.

    If we as individuals decide to be flexible, be welcoming do outreach, and give young scholars microphone time,

    PEWS will grow.

    If we as individuals decide to be rigid, ration opportunities, make our activities highly exclusionary and silence young scholars for being off-topic,

    PEWS will shrink.

    People’s willingness to encourage and include young scholars,

    And make targeted one on one outreach to people who should be brought into the section —

    This will be the critical factor that makes the difference here.

  6. John Talbot asked us to explain in what ways the PEWS conference is narrow.

    Two simple examples will suffice.

    The 2017 PEWS conference was at Texas A and M. It was on migration.

    If you were not going to speak on migration, you had no business being at the Pews Conference except as a spectator.

    Denis O’Hearn was the host of that conference, being the chair of the host department.

    He could not present, because he does not work on migration.

    This year, the conference is on Long Cycles.

    Anyone who does not work on K Cycles or some other form of Long Cycle can not present.

    That represents well over 80% of PEWS membership.

  7. I agree with the spirit of the intellectual identity statement that we need to broaden our appeal. But by distancing ourselves from the great legacies on which our works are grounded could blur our identity further vis-à-vis dev soc and global/transnational soc sections etc.

    “World system” is in our section name (unless you want to change that too) so I don’t think reiterating “world-system analysis” in the statement would add much. We and other folks might not have a consensual understanding of what “world-system analysis” is except that people usually just associate it with a few big names and grad programs. In such case people who are not from those programs or have not worked under those names might find uninviting.

    In light of all these, I have a concrete proposal: rather than reinstating “world system analysis”, could we say something like:

    “we undertake critical studies of global capitalism and other historical social systems in a long-term, large scale perspectives”

    Here I would see “critical” and “capitalism” as the keywords, as I don’t think any other sections at the ASA would take the “critique of capitalism” seriously like we do. As such, we are highlighting our legacies and lineages in a more subtle, non-sectarian way.


  8. Just a side point. Samuel Cohn said on the listserv: “Are PEWS members clique-ish confining their conversation to only a select set of pre-known associates? Absolutely not. They are some of the friendliest and warmest people in ASA.” I agree completely with this. This approach to colleagues and students is so important. I encourage my students to join and participate in PEWS because of this (as well as because of their political economy interests). Personally, I have benefited greatly from it too.

  9. In reply to Sam’s demonstration of our exclusiveness:
    I looked back at the program for ASA in Montreal. Here are the three section sessions for Sociology of Development:
    1. Doing Development. I don’t study development projects, so I don’t belong in this session.
    2. Politics, Development and Gender. Don’t belong here either.
    3. Health and Inequality across the Globe. Nope.
    Looks like around 70% of the development section is excluded from all three of these sessions.

    My point is, all conferences and sessions have titles and themes. No section is going to organize a conference on The Sociology of Everything. It would be chaotic and the presenters would have no basis on which to speak to one another.

    With the PEWS annual conference, which, as I’ve written somewhere in this blog, is not controlled in any way by the PEWS section leadership, we have the added imperative that a collection of papers from the conference will be published as an edited volume. Therefore the publisher needs to see a coherent theme running through the set of papers in order to publish it. And publication opportunities are more valuable than microphone time.

    People feel that PEWS is too exclusive. I read that in the comments in our survey. I get that, on some level. But my frustration is that no one has yet been able to explain to me what, exactly, that means, in a way that would allow the section leadership to do something concrete to alleviate these feelings of exclusion.

    We tried to come up with a new intellectual identity statement that would be more open and welcoming. But when we tried to insert phrases like “the critical study of capitalism as a global system” into it, we began to hear complaints of exclusiveness. When we leave phrases like that out, we are charged with trying to eradicate world-systems analysis from the face of the earth.

    All of this makes me wonder whether “exclusiveness” is some kind of code word for a deeper dissatisfaction with something about world-systems analysis, but I can’t yet understand the code.

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