Sociologists Everywhere: Inequality in the World Science System

This is based on our article, “Sociologists everywhere: Country representation in conferences hosted by the International Sociological Association, 1990–2012,” published in Current Sociology.

The Unequal World Science System

In general terms, the World Science System (WSS) refers to the economic, political and social factors involved in the production and distribution of, and access to, scientific knowledge on a global scale. The structure of this system is characterized by various kinds of inequalities (Beigel 2014; Patel 2014) some of which last for decades (Martin 2012: 833 -36; Mosbah-Natanson and Gingras 2014). Theoretically, the deep and persistent inequalities within the WSS manifest as a core-periphery system in which privileged, Western countries dominate (Alatas 2003). Recognition of the unequal WSS has led to initiatives – both inside and outside of ISA – that are designed to call wider attention to this issue and promote inequality-reduction policies (Beigel 2014: 619-621).

Empirical studies on inequality across the WSS tend to focus on publishing and on cross-national scientific collaborations (Bentley 2015; Mosbah-Natanson and Gingras 2014; Wagner and Wong 2011). Professional events – conferences, world congresses, forums and similar meetings that feature face-to-face interaction of scholars from across the world – are also vital to the WSS (Godin 1998; Glanzel et al 2006).

Regarding sociology, attendance at international scientific events is important for three reasons. The first deals with production of knowledge. Sociological knowledge, as recorded in academic journals, builds on the presentation of papers at international scientific conferences (Glanzel et al 2006; Godin 1998; Lisee, Larivière and Archambault 2008). The second reason pertains to the processes of scholarly learning and collaboration. Sociologists gain the opportunity to learn from, and connect to, scholars from different countries with whom they do not regularly interact; this spurs creativity and forms the foundation for new scientific collaborations. Third, sociologists gain access to the personal networking that is intrinsic to professional development and status building. Attending international conferences is important in the building and evaluation of academic careers.

In the article recently published in Current Sociology, we focused in-depth on the International Sociological Association (ISA) to examine inequality in attendance at its flagship conferences. The extent to which ISA’s flagship conferences – the quadrennial World Congress and the mid-term Forum – have successfully included sociologists from all over the world is an open empirical question.

Inequality and the International Sociological Association

We ask, To what extent do countries differ with respect to the number of scholars attending ISA conferences? and What factors drive attendance? As is the case with other WSS elements, we argue that scholarly involvement in international social science events is characterized by unequal cross-national representation.

We develop a set of hypotheses based on the economic, political and social dimensions that likely influence country representation. To test them, we created a dataset containing information on 212 countries and their participation in eight ISA conferences – World Congresses and Forums – held from 1990 to 2012. The data on attendance were generously provided by ISA. One can note that, for the eight conferences between 1990 and 2012, ten countries lead in terms of total number of participants: USA (3,678); UK (1,952); Germany (1,898); Spain (1,811); Canada (1,594); Brazil (1,482); Australia (1,293); France (1,250); Italy (929) and Argentina (884). Figure 1 illustrates participation from 1990 to 2012 by world regions.


Figure 1. Number of participants at International Sociological Association events, 1990-2012

isa country representation

While ISA focuses on economic factors to reduce this inequality – most notably in their A, B, C membership and conference fee schema – we also include political and economic factors. We measure economy with GDP per capita. Political factors are measured with the level of democracy. We argue that greater civil liberties and political rights are usually accompanied by more academic freedom to carry out research and to travel abroad. For social factors, we consider that countries’ participation in large-scale international research projects, such as the major cross-national public opinion surveys, is a reasonable indicator of the social science research infrastructure. Country representation in cross-national public opinion surveys (such as the World Values Survey) is very uneven due to economic and political reasons and reflects the strength of national-level social science research infrastructure required for active participation in such projects (Slomczynski and Tomescu-Dubrow 2006; see also Lynn et al 2006: 12-13; on the importance of cross-national data for ISA internationalization, see Platt 1998: 47).

What We Find

Results from a series of statistical analyses show that a country’s GDP, level of democracy and social science research infrastructure (SSRI) substantially determine their level of representation. SSRI effects are significant above and beyond that of GDP, and of other controls. At the same time, we also find a meaningful decrease of representation inequality according to countries’ GDP for the period 1990 – 2010.

We do not suggest that ISA purposively excludes sociologists from certain countries. On the contrary, the history of the organization shows clearly that the ISA has always been aware of the unequal representation of scholars at its events, and has sought ways to address this problem. Yet, inequality endures. The ISA, as well as key actors in the WSS of the social sciences, should acknowledge the resilient nature of this phenomenon and contend with it.


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Wagner, Caroline S. and Shing Kit Wong. 2011. “Unseen Science? Representation of BRICs in Global Science.” Scientometrics 90:1001 – 1013.

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This article was prepared by Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow, Marta Kolczynska, Kazimierz M. Slomczynski and Irina Tomescu-Dubrow, Cross-national Studies: Interdisciplinary Research and Training program (, The Ohio State University and the Polish Academy of Sciences.

We thank ISA for providing the data on attendance to ISA events and current ISA President Margaret Abraham for encouraging our project. Versions of this research was presented at events of the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR) of the Higher School of Economics in Russia, and we are grateful for their comments.


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