Sociology, behind the scenes

Each year I try to find time to serve the broader discipline of sociology through service. Service activities include things like volunteering for selection committees, proposing and organizing sessions for the annual meeting, reviewing articles and book proposals/manuscripts. This is rarely paid work but it is expected of you as an academic.

Anyway, this year I am on a selection committee for a book award. I had heard that book award committees are a lot of work but, since my book will be coming out soon, it seemed like a good year to take this on – so next year (and the year after and the year after) when I am nominating my own book I will have a sense of what nomination letters look like, how the process unfolds, etc.

It has been a lot of work! I spent a great deal of time with each of the more than 20 books that were nominated. There are certainly some upsides to such work: without spending a dime, I have managed to completely update and augment my library within that subject area; after a couple of weeks of intense study, I am up to date on the contemporary state of the sub-discipline and well-versed in the recent literature; and I am in a position to work with others to select a text that best demonstrates what sociologists working in this particular area of research can accomplish.

However, I can’t say that I have developed much insight that will inform the way I approach the book award process from the other side – as a nominee. I have gathered only a couple thoughts that I am happy to share:

1. Send the book yourself, together with the nomination letter. Sometimes the publisher bundles – throwing loads of other related books in with yours and sometime the publisher doesn’t get to it at all.

2. Your nomination letter should be personalized for the committee members and reasonably brief – balancing a concise and pointed summary with detailed discussion of the important contributions. Bonus if there is positive critical reaction that you can reference. No need to have some “big name” write the letter unless they will offer as thorough a discussion of your work as you would. Even if someone else is writing, best to bundle the letter and book if possible.

3. Let it go and move on. I don’t know if I will ever really get used to the high degree of contingency, subjectivity, and (sadly) the blatant reproduction of status inequality  that can characterize assessments of merit and value within sociology. Over the years many people in the field have told me that success (awards/acceptances/successful applications) in the field is a numbers/probability game – that the folks who have more accomplishments are the folks who send out more. There truth to this even though your odds of success are also (and I would argue (without data) usually more significantly) influenced by things like name recognition, the prestige of your institution, the popularity of your theoretical and methodological proclivities, whose “student” you are, etc, etc.

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