Is Membership an Anachronism?

by Angela Creager, HSS President

I joined the History of Science Society nearly a quarter century ago (gulp!). The incentives were pretty clear. I liked coming to the meetings, and members paid a smaller registration fee. (They still do.) As I had trained in another discipline, the affiliation itself mattered to me. And not least, I liked having Isis and the HSS Newsletter come right to my mailbox. It saved me from photocopying articles in the library, and meant I could read the book reviews hot off the press. In the past two decades, electronic publishing has made the issue of journal access nearly moot, at least for those with institutional access. Most of us now take advantage of social media and other forms of communication to get news and connect to like-minded scholars. These shifts are changing how learned societies and a host of other voluntary organizations operate. As sociologist Robert Wuthnow has observed, many twenty- and thirty-year olds in the U.S. do not join churches, political parties, and other member-based civic organizations, preferring informal connections (Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). The best-known sociological work on these trends is Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)). Yet societies, churches, clubs, and other organizations still rely on having members in order to elect officers, raise budgets, and make decisions. The number of our individual members has been on a slow but steady decline for the last 20 years, as is the case in many academic societies. If the trend continues, how can HSS survive?

I think that membership in HSS still matters, but not because we’re an exclusive club—in fact, we welcome all comers. As part of the strategic-planning process of the last year, we had to wrestle with the question of who our primary “customer” is. (If you find that term off-putting, as many of us did, substitute “constituent,” the term we used in our Strategic Planning Report.) Whose lives are directly benefited by the activities of our organization? At first glance, it would seem that the answer is our members. But that’s actually too narrow. The Society’s meetings, publications, and resources serve a broader group than that. In the end, we described our constituents as “People committed to doing, making, or advocating for the history of science or who are learning to do so.” Our Strategic Plan aims to serve everyone who falls under that description. There are other groups we would also like to serve, such as educators and members of the public curious about the history of science, but our main constituents are those who know about our field and who are participating in it in some way or another. Serving them is our core mission, and not as a means for recruiting members.

So why join? Or, more to the point, why renew your membership in HSS? I offer you three reasons worth considering.

First, because you believe in HSS. Our journals, meetings, and advocacy matter to our field. Many of us are inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary, which is all for the good, yet history of science is its own thing, too. The Society represents and sustains our identity.

Second, because we believe in you. The greatest resource of the Society is our membership, and we need your input and involvement. At this juncture in time, those of you who work beyond the academy and outside the U.S. provide especially important perspectives. A higher percentage of the membership participated in last year’s elections for Vice President, Council, and Nominating Committee than in a long time. Our revised Bylaws, should the Society approve them, will have even more of our officers elected by the general membership. You are critical to our activities and to our future.

Third, because people can do things collectively that they cannot do individually. Many scholars are interested in finding ways to speak to the public, to make our findings useful to students and educators, or to articulate the value of history of science to policy-makers and funders. But it’s hard to do this as a lone individual.

We can do these things together, both through the efforts of our Society and through our cooperation with other organizations. Public engagement has been a particular focus during the past three years, with the founding of the Joint Caucus for Socially Engaged Philosophers and Historians of Science and the hosting of events sponsored through our Elizabeth Paris Endowment for Socially Engaged History and Philosophy of Science. (For our Paris event at the annual meeting in San Francisco we will host a public screening of Merchants of Doubt with a discussion following.)

I will not deny that the dues HSS receives from its members are a vital source of income for our activities. That said, I do not regard membership as primarily transactional. In fact, HSS is committed to serving you whether you join or not. Unlike many learned societies, we do not require panelists at our meetings to be members. Rather, becoming or remaining a member is a way to support and publicize the vibrant work in history of science. So join us!