Goodbye, Social Problems Forum: Who could hang a name on you?
All good things eventually come to an end. “Don’t question why she needs to be so free... Dying all the time… Yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone.” This was all famously true of someone named “Ruby” on a foggy London Tuesday in the latter 1960s. It may also ring just as true today for certain sociological paradigms (youngsters of the same era) that we also used to really love… but I won’t go there. On this occasion, I am writing to lament the end of a veritable institution that is slipping away from us (like Ruby in the darkest night) with this final issue of the Social Problems Forum: The SSSP Newsletter.
This tribute of sorts must of course begin with heartfelt thanks to Brent Teasdale who has done such a great job of editing the Social Problems Forum since Fall 2010. From his first issue right up to the present, Brent has upheld the finest traditions of this legacy publication that has formed part of the SSSP for 40+ years, providing essential communication and printing timely commentary, thought pieces, and book reviews (the latter of which for some inexplicable reason are not published in Social Problems).
Since the earliest issues under Brent’s editorship, many important pieces have greeted us. Take for example Barbara Katz Rothman’s “At Your Beck and Piven: A Call for More Public Sociology” (2011, Social Problems Forum, 42(1):4-5) that put the spotlight on the hate campaign launched by Glenn Beck and Fox News and aimed at our own dear colleague, Francis Fox Piven. And there was Wendy Simond’s great piece on the significance of the Occupy Movement, including her priceless one-liner synopsis on the state of our union: “We believe everything is totally fucked up; we can easily enumerate the ways… [and] do this routinely in our jobs as educators” (Simonds, Wendy 2012 “Occupied Preoccupations,” Social Problems Forum 43(1):1). While these are among my favorite pieces, many important political discussions as well as critical shorts regarding the association’s evolving organizational dynamics and internal policies have also been published on Brent’s watch, keeping intact a tradition established over various decades.
You will note that the present issue forms the third issue of Volume 44, signifying that it has been regularly published since 1969. So if you were actually alive around the time that the Rolling Stones smash hit “Ruby Tuesday” was just coming down on the music charts, just a few weeks after the first humanoids stumbled around the lunar landscape, you might have stumbled yourself into the first issue of the SSSP Newsletter at the 19th annual SSSP meeting in San Francisco. (Maybe you even brought it with you to sit on at a love-in in the park). Originally seen as a purely organizational device for informing members about the activities and plans of the association, the SSSP Newsletter quickly grew to become an essential forum for exchanges of opinion and discussion among members. As a previous editor myself, you might gather that I am feeling a bit nostalgic about this final issue. My two-term tenure spanned the 1993-99 period (beginning with Volume 24, No. 3) after taking over from Ron Troyer. I inherited the editorship of the SSSP Newsletter at a point in its life cyle that it was a well-established and time-honored space for members to comment on the association’s purpose, mission and future as a unique association of scholar-activists.
When I occasionally look back at my cloth-bound, editor’s copy of Vols. 24-30, I am still impressed by the diverse kinds of political and thought pieces that appeared during that decade. Offering a unique venue within the association, members (and frequently others) reflected on a wide variety of concerns. For example, some highlights over the six year period included Patricia Anne Flynn’s exploration of the controversies surrounding the Human Genome Project; Barbara Ann Scott’s essay about the hypocrisy of the Clinton Administration’s record in US armed interventionism; Víctor Rodríguez’s piece on the LA riots; an interview by the late Fred Hoffman of a prominent Los Angeles community leader (and former Black Panther) speaking out on behalf of the Coalition Against Police Abuse in eloquent description of an urban insurrection following the beating of Rodney King; Javier Treviño’s defense of academic freedom and tenure; Gladys Acosta’s analysis of the upsurge of the women’s movement in Latin America and the role it was playing in galvanizing resistance to neoliberalism; Cuban scholar Elena Díaz’ reflections on how US policies were causing serious problems for her country; Wayne Smith’s essay describing the unconstructive policy paradigm governing US-Cuban relations (Smith was a former US diplomatic representative to Cuba under the Carter Administration and a keynote participant in the 1993 SSSP meetings in Miami); indeed, various members wrote in the Newsletter about their observations on Cuban society after participating in a SSSP-sponsored delegation that traveled to the island on the heels of the 1993 annual meeting in Miami. And there was Steven Teixeira’s piece on the need for greater scholar-activism in addressing pressing urban and immigration issues; William J. Chambliss’ commentary on the need for fundamentally rethinking the field of critical criminology in the face of increasing globalization; Peruvian feminist Virginia Vargas’ report from the 1995 International Women’s Conference at Beijing; Ecuadoran feminist Guadalupe León’s piece regarding the landmark legislation passed in her country to combat violence against women; Jim Russell’s account of the social impact of NAFTA on Mexican laborers; Walda Katz Fishman and Jerome Scott’s reflections on the very negative impact that the Olympic Games were having on public housing in Atlanta; Keith Kilty’s astute concerns regarding academic labor issues; Peter Waterman’s testimony to the global importance of Social Movements in the face of ascendant neoliberalism; Joe Feagin’s analysis on the observable impact of racial discrimination upon age expectancy; Judy Aulette’s denunciation of the right wing attack on progressive sociology under the guise of “family values;” Neil Wollman’s indictment of TIAA-CREF and its abandonment of social responsibility; Michel Chossudovsky’s essary on how US foreign policy opportunistically funded and allied itself with Islamic fundamentalist groups in the Yugoslav conflict; all of these just to name some of the pieces published during that six year period.
Some articles stirred considerable internal controversy such as scathing critique of our leadership in the Fall 1998 issue offered by Art Shostak. Art took the SSSP to task for not having been even vaguely curious as to whether our San Francisco conference hotel was unionized or not, much less concerned about it being actively listed by unions on a major boycott list for its horrendous anti-union practices (in a city where over 80% of hotels were unionized). In the end, the controversy he stirred provided a “learning moment” for the SSSP leadership such that meeting in unionized hotels, even while still to this day is not a steadfast norm of the association, is at least now supposed to be considered a desirable characteristic in our hotel negotiations. I later remember being very influenced by the Fall 2000 issue (by then under the editorship of Steve Couch) when John Galliher wrote a very thoughtful piece about what makes the SSSP different from other sociological associations to which he and many of us also belong. What stands out to me now, looking back at his piece, was the importance of having an organized forum where members could vigorously comment upon internal issues such as how the association administers its money, and to have this under independent editorship rather than being filtered through our paid executive and administrative staff.
I guess that is why in all honesty, I must now confess to having very mixed feelings at the decision taken by the 2011-12 SSSP Board to eliminate the Social Problems Forum. As a board member at the time (SSSP president-elect), I did in fact vote against the measure. My assessment of the association’s budget was such that I did not accept the largely ‘cost-savings” justification that was presented, relative to the loss of this decades-worn portion of SSSP culture. Looking at the association’s present finances that display unprecedented reserves, I think I understand this neo-liberal style decision even less today. Since earlier Board decisions had already converted the SSSP Forum into an exclusively digital publication for electronic distribution, the real issue was whether the publication warranted the costs associated with having a very modestly stipended, scholarly editor edit the newsletter independent of the SSSP administrative office. It was ultimately determined that a cost-effective alternative to the Newsletter would be to simply post information on our website. According to the published minutes of the 2011-12 board meeting (in which I participated), “relevant materials will be migrated to the Society website, as feasible” and that “email blasts [will be sent] annually to the membership, updating them as to the relevant news of Society activities.” In my view, the minutes place into evidence how recent board decisions can be effective at cutting costs but substantially fail to ensure adequate continuity of an institution dynamic that has served the Society’s membership for decades. The absence of any reference in the minutes to the discussion in which I questioned the elimination of the Social Problems Forum also serves as de facto testimony to why there is a continuing internal need for just such a forum.
I might note in closing that the ASA started down a similar path a little while back when it decided to eliminate printed distribution of that association’s newsletter Footnotes. Similar cost-cutting arguments were made and what’s more, technology has changed and the digital age has presumably now rendered such antiquated forms of communication obsolete. People like me (and those of the original Ruby Tuesday generation) who like to read a printed newspaper over Sunday morning coffee must surely be fading from the scene. But, “no one knows, she comes and goes.” It turns out that ASA has since regretted their ill-considered move and has resumed hard mail distribution of Footnotes. “Ain’t life unkind? .. Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.”
Goodbye, SSSP Newsletter/Social Problems Forum.
Who could hang a name on you?
When you change with every new day, still I’m gonna miss you.
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