America's Scholarly Societies Raise Their Flags Abroad
U.S. associations recruit foreign members and start efforts to help them
Richard Pomfret, an Australian professor of economics, flew to Boston this month to interview a job candidate from Turkey. He also interviewed a couple of Italians, a Korean, three Americans, a graduate student from China -- and two fellow
Australians. Their meeting ground? The annual conference of the American Economic Association.
Mr. Pomfret has shopped for new hires at the association's yearly gathering since 1993 specifically because it attracts economists from around the world. He estimates that half of his colleagues at the University of Adelaide are members.
A growing number of scholarly societies are American in name, but global in ambition. From the Organization of American Historians to the American Mathematical Society, the groups have broadened their membership bases and stepped up collaborations with their counterparts abroad. They recruit foreign scholars to write for their journals, provide technical support for fledgling societies in developing nations, and connect scholars through their Internet offerings. Even societies that don't try to recruit abroad are finding that more of their members now have foreign addresses.
Fourteen scholarly societies contacted by The Chronicle all reported growth in their foreign membership in the last five years. The proportion of foreign scholars currently ranges from a low of 3 percent at the American Psychological Association to a high
of 38 percent at the American Mathematical Society.
The change in the membership mix has been driven by three major developments. First, scholars have become increasingly global in their outlook. Scientists have long seen their work as international in scope, since scientific principles are universal. But now more researchers in the humanities and social sciences are making similar arguments. As people migrate, scholars are realizing, they bring their literature, religion, and politics with them. And so research coming out of Asia may shed light on what's happening in the United States.
"Some people think, Well, there's nothing more American than American history," says Lee W. Formwalt, executive director of the Organization of American Historians. But, he says, "We're trying to show that's not necessarily true."
After becoming interested in how foreigners view U.S. history, the organization began encouraging them to join and asking them to contribute to The Journal of American History, which it publishes. One recent article examined how the Declaration of
Independence has been translated into Russian, German, Japanese, and other languages.
The second major force behind the growth in foreign membership has been the collapse of communism, which opened communication with Eastern Europe and expanded research there, especially in political science and psychology. Sue Davis, director of international programs at the American Political Science Association, says the fastest growing segment of its membership is in the former Soviet Union. Because political science is essentially a new discipline in Eastern Europe, scholars there look to the political-science group for professional development. "They're often poorly trained and don't know the state of the art," says Ms. Davis.
The most powerful force behind scholarly globalization is the Internet. Scholars can log on to a society site on the World Wide Web and scan the programs of future meetings or download a journal article in seconds instead of waiting months for it to come
in the mail. That convenience makes the sometimes-hefty price of membership in American scholarly societies far more appealing than it used to be. Toomas Niit, a psychology professor at Tallinn Pedagogical University, in Estonia, joined the
American Psychological Association three years ago partly for the instant access it provides him to colleagues abroad. He can look up a scholar's e-mail address on the Web instead of mailing a letter. "That's a big advantage," he says.
The annual conferences of American scholarly societies offer the most visible evidence of their growing global emphasis. The three-day meeting of the American Economic Association in Boston this month, for example, served as an anchor for meetings
of associations focused on Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. At any given time, attendees were as likely to stumble across a panel of European professors analyzing the reconstruction of East Germany as to find a group of Americans
debating campaign-finance reform.
Tacked on the meeting's message boards were fliers soliciting manuscripts for the Scandinavian Journal of Development Alternatives and notices that Bahcesehir University, in Istanbul, has a job opening in accounting. Although English was the
language of choice for formal presentations, it was strictly optional around lunch tables and in hotel corridors.
On a Saturday night, the parties kicked in. Dozens of eager, young European graduate students, on break from their studies at American universities, grabbed glasses of red wine and mingled at the European Reception, sponsored by University of Toulouse, Stockholm University, and six other Western European institutions. Down the hall, members of the Chinese Economists Society snacked on chips and soda before settling down to their annual business meeting. More than one in four of
the American Economic Association's 20,000 members now live outside the United States.
That's without even trying. "We do not actively recruit members -- foreign or domestic," says John J. Siegfried, secretary of the association, proudly. But about 60 percent of Ph.D.'s in economics at U.S. universities are now handed out to foreign citizens,
according to a study co-written by Mr. Siegfried.
Such ties make it natural for people born outside the United States to consider themselves part of an international economics community, even if their academic interests focus on their own country. Ping Chen, a deputy director at the China Center for Economic Research at Beijing University, says that 3 of the 15 economists at the center are members of the American Economic Association. When government officials turned to them for ideas on how to liberalize the market in China, Mr. Chen says the Chinese economists turned to colleagues in the association for information and advice. "We become more credible" in the government's view as a result, he says.
Some societies have aggressively sought ties abroad. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, one-fifth of whose members live outside the United States, began a foreign-membership drive in the early 1990's. The society opened an
office in Cambridge, England, in 1993 and stepped up contacts with laboratories worldwide to encourage foreign researchers to submit papers to its journal, Science. Many scientists saw the society's move as a competitive jab at the British publication
Nature, which already had a reputation for publishing papers from an international spectrum of scholars.
At the American Mathematical Society, Jim Maxwell, associate executive director, attributes the growth in foreign members to a 1989 decision to offer reduced membership fees to mathematicians in Eastern Europe and other countries where the scholars
had low incomes. About half of the society's new foreign members now come from developing countries.
Membership numbers often understate the influence foreign scholars have on American societies. Only 22 percent of the American Physical Society's members live outside the United States, but 70 percent of the articles in one of its core journals, Physics Today, are written by foreign scholars. Other associations sponsor conferences with professional organizations in other nations without trying to recruit members there.
Not all scholarly societies have global ambitions. The Modern Language Association of America has been content to maintain a membership that is primarily American. But even there, change is afoot. Two years ago, Martha Banta, editor of the association's journal PMLA, solicited opinions of the journal from more than 100 scholars abroad. The response she got, she says, was "a sense of anger and dismay" at the lack of foreign voices. Ms. Banta is now planning a special issue devoted to those voices. She also wants to create a board of foreign correspondents who will write for the journal.
Even as scholarly societies woo foreign members, they worry about being intrusive. American societies are typically larger and more prosperous than their foreign counterparts, and many feel it would be counterproductive for them to recruit members in
developing countries, where professional associations are weak. "We don't want to drive the local societies out of business, and that's a danger, because we can usually offer so much more," says John Malin, who oversees international programs at the American Chemical Society.
Foreign academics often view their national scholarly societies as serving a purpose different from the American ones. The scholars may join the former to stay abreast of domestic issues, for example, but pay dues to the latter in order to get discounts
on academic journals.
Sergii Kolyada, a professor of mathematics at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, is a member of the American Mathematical Society, but not the Ukrainian one. "It is a new organization with many kinds of problems," he says in an e-mail message. Mr.
Kolyada considered it an honor to be asked to join the American association, in 1998: "The AMS is the BEST mathematical society that I know."
To avoid stifling homegrown professional societies, some American groups have created membership agreements with those organizations. Under the arrangements, membership in a scholar's home organization earns him or her special privileges, such as
a discounted rate on membership in the American society.
But arranging joint memberships can be hard, Mr. Malin says. If a Tanzanian chemist pays the equivalent of $5 a year to join his country's society, should he gain the privileges of membership in the American Chemical Society, which runs about $140 a
year? If so, who would subsidize the difference in cost?
The society has sidestepped such problems by helping chemists in developing countries in other ways. It is studying five Latin American countries to identify how to create jobs for chemists there. The society has also translated a high-school textbook, Chemistry in the Community, into three languages: Japanese, Russian, and Spanish. "It's quite popular in Siberia," says Mr. Malin.
Other societies have undertaken equally ambitious projects, many of which focus on Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and, to a lesser degree, Africa.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science struck a deal about two years ago with the National Science Foundation of China to make Science available free online in China. The American Academy of Religion helped underwrite the cost of a program in Poland in 1998 that brought together Eastern European religion scholars.
The Association for Women in Science is working with the A.A.A.S. and others to reach out to female scientists in remote parts of Russia. The association already has chapters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, says Catherine Didion, executive director, but wants to create professional-development programs for women in smaller, isolated cities, where much nuclear-science research has been done.
Such efforts have helped to counter perceptions abroad that American scholarly societies are looking to dominate the academic world. But some tension seems inevitable. Francine Ford, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicists, says it's hard to compete for members with the bigger and better-financed American Physical Society. She doesn't blame the American organization and notes that it does not solicit foreigners. But the fact is, the smaller her association's membership is, the less clout it has with the Canadian government. That can have a detrimental effect on public support for physics projects. "I don't think there are ill feelings," Ms. Ford says, "but there's some frustration on our part in trying to convince Canadians we are worth joining."
For many foreigners, particularly those living outside of Western Europe, money remains the biggest barrier to joining an American scholarly society. The American Psychological Association charges less than $30 a year, but foreign psychologists still cite cost as the No. 1 reason for dropping their membership. "With the exception of Europe," says Joan Buchanan, director of the association's international-affairs office, "the rest of the world is on a pretty tight budget."
Ashwini Deshpande, an Indian economist who is doing postdoctoral work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is enjoying a student-membership rate at the American Economic Association and relished the exposure she received at the annual meeting, where she presented a paper on "The Economic Consequences of Caste: Understanding Inequality in India." But when she returns to her post at the Delhi School of Economics, she may have to drop her membership. "I won't be able to afford it," she says. "It would be 4,000 rupees, which would be half my monthly salary."
Of course, she might bump into Adelaide's Mr. Pomfret next year and wind up in Australia.