Disciplinary associations are formal organizations that connect individuals or multiple entities that see themselves as holding a similar occupational background. In this précis, we use the term “disciplinary associations” rather than professional societies because in some cultures, the term “professional society” connotes a specific normative framework, i.e., performing state functions of licensing or other certification of members. In the North American context, however, the terms are interchangeable.
The foundations for this work come from social theorists who were interested in understanding the emergence of new social networks as a consequence of large-scale societal changes. Georg Simmel, in his essay “The Web of Group Affiliations” argued that increasingly, society could best be viewed as the result of a complex set of relationships in which individuals were connected to each other via shared memberships in formal organizations. Max Weber’s classic “Class, Status and Party,” argues that organizations that represent occupational groupings would come to be important political actors in an increasingly bureaucratic society. Emile Durkheim’s approach encourages us to examine the ways in which structures, such as disciplinary societies, perform important functions. Finally, Karl Marx’s work suggests that we need to be attentive to the power struggles that occur between groups within societies and how these struggles change as material conditions change.
Disciplinary associations perform a number of important functions or roles. First, they are involved in the socialization of new members to the profession. In some cases, they exert formal control of educational institutions or certification of programs. In other cases, though, the socialization process is less formalized. Second, the association enables collective action by its members. Third, disciplinary associations can engage in an array of normative functions such as regulation of a profession or professional practice, including establishment of proscriptive ethical guidelines of members’ behavior. Finally, disciplinary associations can reward or punish members’ behavior in various ways.
These four functions are carried out via a number of mechanisms:
1 Lisa M. Frehill, senior research analyst, Energetic Technology Center. The author is grateful for the skillful review provided by Daryl Chubin and Willie Pearson, Jr. Any errors that remain are her own.
• community/networking—web presence, membership directories, new online community technologies such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, affinity groups, etc.
• policy work, including advocacy
• scholarships, travel awards, research funds, internships
The relative importance of different functions may be reflected in the extent to which resources are allocated to these various mechanisms. Functions that are seen as important would tend to have a higher level of resource allocation than those functions that are less important.
Disciplinary associations vary greatly in terms of their characteristics. The geographic scope can be very large, such as the international level, or at world, regional, or national levels. This scope affects the extent to which the organization may become involved in policy and political issues, and at what level. The membership of disciplinary associations varies, too. In the sciences, some associations have a largely academic membership, such as the Association of Women in Mathematics, while others may have more industry members such as the American Chemical Society. Further, the extent to which students—graduate and undergraduate— participate in the activities of the society varies as well. Some associations are actually federations of many smaller organizations. For example the International Council for Science has 113 multidisciplinary National Scientific Members, Associates, and Observers (scientific research councils or science academies) from 133 countries.
It is also important to be attentive to the organizational structure and governance of disciplinary associations. Some, for example, have chapters at a “local” level, providing a mechanism for individuals to participate in activities without traveling. Many scientific associations have sections or other organizational entities that represent various sub-field or subject areas or interest groups. The balance of grassroots efforts versus centralization of tasks is an on-going struggle in some associations. As associations’ functions become more time- and labor-intensive, more of these functions are likely to be performed by professional staff rather than volunteers. Some associations are at the intersection of identity and profession. Social movement theory helps us understand the functions and mechanisms employed by these kinds of associations. In the United States, the very vibrant period of collective action by identity movements in the 1960s and 1970s—notably the Civil Rights Movements and the Women’s Liberation Movement—saw a blossoming of large organizational fields of associations connected by overlapping memberships and similarity of goals. Some of the organizations that arose in the sciences and engineering, include • Association of Women in Mathematics (1971)
• Association of Women in Science (1971)
• National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (1972)
• Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (1974)
• National Association of Black Engineers (1975)
• National Association of Black Physicists (1977)
• Association for Women in Computing (1978)
All of these organizations grew from grassroots organizing by members of the relevant identity groups—women, Blacks, and Hispanics—who saw a need to pursue common interests vis-à-vis their identity outside of existing disciplinary associations.
On the international and regional levels, however, the diffusion of the disciplinary association based on identity has been slow. Just as the U.S.-based organizations mentioned, above were grounded in identity movements in which women and minority scientists felt marginalized within their fields, some of the international women’s organizations have their roots in the struggles against Western-dominated organizations. Examples of international women’s science efforts include:
• International Network of Women Scientists and Engineers/International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES). First ICWES conference: 1964, organized by the U.S. Society of Women Engineers
• Gender and Science and Technology (1981)
• Third World Organization of Women in Science, now the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (1989)
• The Center for Arab Women for Training and Research (1993)
• Gender Advisory Board (1995)
• InterAcademy Council on Women in Science (2004)
• European Platform for Women in Science (2005)
Each of these organizations features meetings or conferences and multinational governing bodies. Beyond these mechanisms, associations seem to vary greatly in structure, form, web presence, and the like. Connections among these organizations and with U.S. disciplinary associations will be explored in more detail in future work.
Preliminary research about the role of U.S. disciplinary societies in increasing diversity in science and engineering was completed in 2008. The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST), in partnership with the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), conducted a workshop for representatives from 24 disciplinary societies.2 Attendees were from many types of associations and were involved in diversity efforts in different ways. In some cases, the attendees were from organizations like the Society of Women Engineers, in other cases they were from committees within a larger disciplinary association, such as the Women in Engineering Committee of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Prior to the workshop, an online survey was distributed to 120 people identified by AWIS and CPST as involved in efforts related to women, minorities, diversity, or some combination thereof to better understand the resources allocated to these efforts and the strategies used within disciplinary associations. With a 58 percent response rate, the findings are not considered capable of generalization but were a useful starting point, with results presented to the workshop attendees. Presentations were also made by several invitees, with all attendees informally sharing their work. Small group discussions and a final plenary discussion resulted in the following list of recommendations to U.S. disciplinary organizations:
• Measure and assess the effectiveness of the society’s current internal diversity efforts (e.g., staff, volunteers, and membership)
Evaluate successes using goals and objectives
Pinpoint areas for improvement
2 The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, “Recommendations from a Workshop: Professional Societies and Increasing Diversity in STEM,” Boston, MA, February 14, 2008.
Benchmark externally for best practices and establish mechanisms of accountability
• Articulate the society’s business case for diversity
Define diversity and inclusiveness for the society
Outline how diversity supports the vision, mission, and goals of the society
Identify specific benefits to the society
• Mainstream diversity
Provide training and resources (e.g., staff support and funding) for diversity committees and caucuses
Continually educate and engage membership in diversity initiatives through surveys and communication vehicles; communicate survey results back to membership
The role and location of efforts to increase representation of women and/or minorities was an interesting point of discussion. Often an organization’s resource allocations can be viewed as a symbol of commitment by its members. But in the case of diversity efforts related to identity, there are two other kinds of interpretations, suggesting that this could be an overly simplified view. On the one hand, members of various identity groups may be suspicious that the mainstream organization would co-opt their efforts at grassroots activities if they were dependent upon the support of the mainstream association. Another issue that was raised is also common: are the diversity efforts that are embedded within a larger disciplinary association genuine? Or do they represent a “cooling out,” a process that merely placates identity group members but actually isolates and marginalizes their attempts to exercise voice within the association? These issues need to be explored further.
In closing, disciplinary associations are an important organizational structure through which scientists build communities of practice, rewarding achievements and enabling members to share information. As socializers of new occupational entrants, disciplinary societies impact the human resources pipeline into the workforce. Like any collective, though, disciplinary societies can serve as a conservative social force, replicating existing arrangements and hierarchies or they can be important loci of social change.