History of ISA

ISA Past Presidents

ISA Presidents and their Presidential Addresses: Introduction

By Jennifer Platt, University of Sussex, England

The ISA was founded in 1949, and its presidents have served three- or four-year terms from one World Congress to the next. Below, some systematic material is provided on each president and presidential address separately. This introduction explains the wider setting, and looks at some features of the group as a whole. (For the general history of the ISA up to 1997, see Platt 1998). The addresses are given in a formal and highly structured context, so they cannot be regarded simply as individual performances, although they are that too. Some relevant features of World Congresses and their organisation, which have changed over time, are described; how presidents have been elected, and some characteristics of the successful candidates, are sketched. It is shown how the form of the presidential address has emerged from this combination of factors.

World Congresses and their Presidents

In recent times it has become usual to have a presidential address, but there has not been a continuous tradition of scheduling one; the period during which it became thoroughly institutionalised started only in 1978.

It has not always been easy to find out precisely what actually happened. The content of some addresses is only available as a summary report - used here when that gives enough information for the purpose in hand - while no text of Bottomore’s address has been found, though luckily von Alemann (1978) provides a summary. For Cardoso the published paper found (Cardoso 1987) is not described there as a presidential address, though given at the appropriate Congress. It appears that a ‘presidential session’ was scheduled (and minutes indicate that this was left to Cardoso to organise, and he provided little information on what he planned). The eventual programme document shows a three-hour first slot headed ‘Opening session’, which includes first ‘Welcome addresses’ and then ‘Academic presentations’, with Cardoso speaking under the first head and chairing the second part, which had six other speakers on ‘Current challenges to theories of social change’. The paper which is treated here as a ‘presidential address’ is of a length and style suitable to serve as a chairman’s introduction or conclusion, so one may infer with some plausibility that that is the role it played. In 2006, Sztompka chose to give only a short introduction to a ‘presidential debate’, but he confirms that he regarded this as a presidential address although it was not named as such on the programme.

The secure appearance in print of presidential addresses depended initially on the production of Congress Transactions, and more recently on the availability of an appropriate ISA journal; from the 1970 Congress until 1986, neither was available, though Himmelstrand found less routine possibilities. Current Sociology existed from 1952, but it was an inappropriate journal while it maintained the original format of consisting entirely of trend reports and bibliographies. International Sociology was founded only in 1986. In the Transactions for early Congresses, not all speeches are reproduced, and the template for the Congress organisation may not be explicitly described. A number of those present at the earliest World Congresses were written to, but unfortunately nobody so many years later remembered if a presidential address had been given, or if so what it had said. It is thus hoped, but cannot be certain, that all the addresses given, and published, have been identified.
Distinct from the ‘presidential’ address has been a short address of welcome by the president, conventionally given in an opening ceremony which also includes speeches from the local organiser, and at least one dignitary from local or national government. Some of these speeches have, however, not merely performed such social tasks as thanking the local organisers and praising the national sociology of the receiving country; they have also mentioned issues to do with the state of sociology generally, or the current world situation and its relation to the Congress theme and the contribution to be made to it by sociology. These themes, raising current intellectual issues, are similar to those of the ‘presidential addresses’. Thus at the founding Zurich Congress of 1950 Louis Wirth spoke about the potential contribution of sociology in the current world situation, but this was called ‘opening address’. Friedmann’s and Marshall’s speeches appeared in ‘opening’ slots but were in some places referred to as ‘presidential address’, and did not confine themselves to welcoming themes, giving a brief critical review of aspects of the general state of world sociology. It is hard, therefore, to draw a clear line between what should and should not be counted as a ‘presidential address’. Contributions without that label have been used as material towards the total picture if they included significant material not simply of the ‘opening’ genre.

The character of the addresses

The addresses collectively have a strongly international flavour; some are unequivocally international, drawing on worldwide data, while others are, though international in concern, more theoretical and discipline-oriented in style. It is evident that the forms addresses have taken vary in ways that relate to international developments more generally, and to their consequences for ISA membership. Thus for Wirth, Angell, Friedmann and Marshall the cleavage between Soviet and Western blocs, ‘the two power centres of the world’ (Wirth 1950), was dominant; Angell specially welcomed the first Congress attendance of members of the Soviet bloc in 1956.
A recurring theme was the need to find common empirical ground avoiding ‘the confrontation of Marxist and non-Marxist sociology’ (Marshall 1964:11), and Friedmann (1962: 11) suggested that true sociologists nonetheless share fundamental values, and the new sociologist has become ‘le moraliste de la société industrielle’. But Marshall also notes that the 1962 Congress was the first to be held outside Europe, breaking down the barrier felt by some to exist between European and American sociology, and that ISA attention is now turning to the Orient, where there are greater real cultural differences: ‘…mutual adjustments [are] needed to enable all to work together for the development of a truly universal science of society’ (Marshall 1964:11).
In 1970 the first Congress and the first president from the Soviet bloc coincided, but there is a lacuna in the documentation. The maintenance of the Polish sociological tradition made it a special case within the bloc, and Szczepanski played a mediating role in the ISA context. (Proposed Transactions collapsed for lack of funds.) Then Himmelstrand and Cardoso, addressing the first Congresses held in the Third World, treated the West/Third World cleavage as the key one, and Cardoso (1986 ) sees this as ‘…proof of the universalist calling of the ISA and of the vitality of sociology in countries which had previously been mere consumers of the intellectual products emanating from the great centres of culture.’ Subsequent presidents have talked more in terms of globalisation, while recognising that significant cleavages still remain and that practical problems to be addressed differ.
Ideological constraints have become less relevant, but views on how to deal with diversity vary as presidents respond to the real differences in intellectual life across the globe, and the more recent pressure for indigenisation of sociology. Recent addresses ambitiously offer the ISA as a leader or role model:

  • ‘…as a truly international association, the ISA …can contribute to develop the values and the institutions of democratic global governance.’ (Martinelli 2002)
  • ‘…we shall build here in the congress halls a micro-model of what we dream the globalized world may one day look like. The world without borders, with strong bonds of trust, loyalty and solidarity among equals, rooted in free and open dialogue…’ (Sztompka 2006)

Oommen, however, suggested that

  • ‘…a world society discerned in terms of one culture, one civilisation, one communication system and the like, is not only not possible but not desirable’ (1994: 266), and sees the challenge as to achieve equipoise between pluralisation and globalisation, to decentre but not succumb to local chauvinism.

Archer approached the issue differently:

  • ‘…a genuine international sociology must abandon one of the most imperialistic assumptions ever visited on the world by our discipline – namely, that the human being is merely a socio-centric product and that humankind is a purely social creation… For commitment to Humankind is also an affirmation that it is ultimately one and indivisible.’ (1990: 131)

Differences of opinion and emphasis both among presidents and within national constituencies are obvious here, but we emphasize the evidence of a shared view that these are issues that the ISA should grapple with.
Strong claims have been made by presidents about the potential contributions of sociology and its congresses to solving world problems:

  • Angell expressed the hope that attendance from both East and West ‘would contribute not only to the develop-ment of sociology but also to the welfare of the world itself’;
  • Oommen said that ‘We are indeed shaped by contemporary events, we need to be responsive to them, but above all we need to mould them.  I hope that our deliberations this week will contribute towards a less uncertain future for humankind’;
  • Martinelli suggests ‘We need to construct a world citizenship and a global polity that submits to democratic rules and institutions’;
  • Archer holds that ‘International sociology aims at no less than the mobilisation of Humanity itself as one self-conscious social agent’;
  • Sztompka, more modestly, spoke in Durban only of the challenge to use our knowledge ‘…to help solving the immense social problems facing the post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa’.

The political commitments sketched below are perhaps sufficient to suggest that references in these addresses to social and political action as part of the mission of sociology have not been purely ceremonial, even if the occasion was one defined as calling for such expressions of social hope combined with sociological confidence.

Congress themes

Each Congress has had an official general title, and possibly also subsidiary themes

Official World Congress titles/themes

Many of the themes reflect current issues in the wider world as well as within sociology, choices sometimes affected by shifts in membership or sponsorship. Thus the earliest themes of ‘international relations’ and ‘inter-group conflicts’ relate closely to UNESCO concerns at the time, as does 'development' in 1962. ‘This general theme was chosen… to make the World Congress an important instrument in the policy pursued by UNESCO… to investigate and advance the potential contributions of sociology to the objectives of world understanding and world integration.’ (International Social Science Bulletin II:3, 1950) (Later UNESCO funding was much less available to ISA, probably showing a shift in its perception of the potential contribution of sociology.)  Wirth (1951: 197) in 1950 said:

‘We are engaged in a race between the progress of natural science and social science, between social intelligence and [atomic] disaster…There can scarcely be any doubt about  the greater urgency of advance in social science than in physical science in the face of the problems confronting mankind today.’

It is not by chance, either, that ‘prediction and social planning’ comes up when a Congress is held in the then-Soviet bloc, and perhaps ‘science and revolution’ aims to consolidate some of the participation across social cleavages initiated there as well as responding to the surge of leftist politicisation led by student unrest in the West; Oommen in his introductory remarks pointed out the relevance of ‘shifting solidarities’ in a period when Yugoslavia has disintegrated and Germany reunited.

Social change is always relevant, as Cardoso remarked, and for the ISA at least the question of ‘unity and diversity’ in sociology is a permanent one, but it is evident how world-historical events have affected the sense of what called for response. But one can also see, in the earlier focuses on theory, methods, and relations with policy and policy- makers, concern about the status and direction of sociology, at a period when it was not yet institutionalised in academia in many countries. It is striking that the 1959 programme included, in response to demand, a strong component on research methods, expressing a felt need at the time to establish guidance and scientific standards.

Congress organization

World Congress programmes have been planned by an elite Programme Committee, of which the current president has usually been a member, though it has since 1970 been chaired by the Vice-President for Programme (sometimes a candidate for the next presidency). One may assume that the president has had some say in the determination of the Congress theme(s), and s/he has always played a speaking role somewhere in the programme.
What that role is, however, has changed over time, as has the whole conception of how the Congress would work. UNESCO was responsible for initiating the foundation of the ISA, as one part of a wider programme to develop social science to promote its policy aims, and had a strong influence on its early patterns of activity. Most of a 1953 issue of its International Social Science Bulletin was devoted to ‘The Technique of International Conferences’, and it is clear there that social science was at that stage seen sufficiently instrumentally by UNESCO for ISA conferences to be lumped in with those, of quite different kinds, convened to attempt to reach constructive agreement on policy decisions, not simply as occasions for the presentation of the latest work of sociologists oriented to the discipline.
The earliest Congresses focused on one or more relatively narrow topics related to major world problems, with the declared aim of reaching some sort of collective conclusion by the end. Thus the first Congress, in Zurich in 1950, had as central theme ‘Sociological Research in its Bearing on International Relations’, with three subtopics, each of which was introduced by a paper from a leading figure, followed by the summaries or abstracts of a large number of submitted papers the pattern of which was summarised by a rapporteur. (The first introduction, to the subtopic ‘General and Methodological Problems’, was given by president Louis Wirth – though immediately followed by another introductory paper from Davy, one of the Vice-Presidents.) The minutes of the Administrative and Programme Committees for the second Congress (ISA/1953/3:4), in Li?ge in 1953, show the plan:

  • ‘With regard to the internal organisation of each section… it was agreed that there should… be (i) a relatively brief introduction by the chairman; (ii) an analytical summary by the rapporteur of the main points in the papers submitted; (iii) a series of brief… statements by the contributors of papers; (iv) general discussion; (v) concluding statements by rapporteurs and by chairmen.’
    [Wirth’s sudden death in 1952, and the lack of an immediate successor, prevented the playing of any presidential role this time.]

The third Congress (Amsterdam 1956) was organised in a similar way, with an initial plenary session on the general theme of social change chaired by president Angell, who also gave a paper introducing it (Angell 1956), followed by sessions on particular aspects of change. A final session was intended ‘to bring together the main points of the Congress discussions as a whole’ - though the report on it adds that ‘this aim was not really achieved, largely because the range of subjects discussed had been so wide’ (Bottomore 1956: 1).
One can feel the growing pressure of demand for space from the ever-increasing constituency, often submitting papers with little obvious relevance to the official themes, and by the fourth Congress (Stresa 1959) less time was devoted to plenaries and more to discussion and topic areas unconnected with the central theme. However, president Friedmann gave what was listed as a presidential address (Friedmann 1961), scheduled for the opening, though illness prevented him attending that; he also spoke in the closing session. In Washington in 1962 the Research Committees (RCs), of which there were now 11, started to figure prominently, further limiting the salience of the (four) official central themes. President Marshall spoke in an opening session, disclaiming the intention of a ‘learned lecture’ and saying he was only opening the Congress, but this was referred to as a ‘presidential address (Marshall 1964). President Szczepanski similarly chaired the opening plenary at the 1970 Varna Congress, but by then the current pattern of afternoons devoted to RCs was established. Thus before 1978 the president was likely to play a leading role in the programme, though typically not one labelled as presidential, or giving scope for a paper focussing on his personal research interestsunless they happened to fit the template.
The minutes of meetings leading up to the Congress of 1978 show discussion of what is treated as the novel idea of having a presidential address, and how it could be fitted into the standard format of the opening session. It was agreed that Bottomore should speak, and on the history of the ISA (in which he had played a long-term role which made that particularly appropriate) to mark the achievement of its 25th anniversary. This introduced the ‘modern’ pattern, more fully inaugurated in 1982 when Himmelstrand gave a fuller and more research-based address in a plenary ‘presidential’ session distinct from the opening session with local dignitaries.  More recently, there have been morning plenary sessions, normally including a 'presidential' one, with invited speakers on topics related to the theme, afternoon RC sessions with contributed papers which have only a chance relation to that, and a scattering of often equally unrelated sessions of other kinds. Thus more recent Congresses have become more like ordinary conferences nowadays, with a rather notional central theme, and many internal subgroups following their own agendas.

Who has become president?

The organisational constraints and role expectations for the presidents are important, but their personal characteristics of course also affect their addresses. To understand those we need to consider how people become president; for that both their motivation and others’ reasons for electing them must be taken into account. It is obvious that ISA presidents are not personally typical of world sociology, and not only because no-one could be.

In the ISA’s early days, when it was very small, its activists were (reflecting the world distribution of sociologists then) almost entirely drawn from western Europe and North America, and those most active were senior people who often knew each other quite well; as the organisation – and world sociology – expanded, it became much less an association of familiar colleagues.
Presidents have always been elected by the Council(s), and until 1970 the candidates too had to be drawn from the Council membership.  Initially there was only one Council, of national representatives, and there were of course fewer national members then. (The question of election by individual members did not originally arise, because the standard member was, following the UN model, the national association, though special provision was made for some people where there was not yet any national association that they could join.) Later, representatives of the RCs - generally felt to be more internationally minded - were added to those of national bodies.  When the ISA started, it was clearly understood among the insiders that the president had to be an American, since that was where the political weight and the foundation money lay – as well as much the largest group of established sociologists. The particular Americans chosen were, however, not typical, but peculiarly suitable on personal grounds: each had been president of the American Sociological Association (ASA) two years earlier, and had then given a presidential address oriented to broad international trends and world problems. In addition Wirth belonged to two international sociological associations, and had worked on issues of race and minority relations which were salient among early UNESCO concerns, while Angell had directed UNESCO’s Social Science Department (SSD) and its project on 'Tensions affecting international understanding’.  After their period, the general understanding throughout ISA affairs that there should be the widest possible national representation became more salient, though at first candidates still came from restricted circles.

Since then the growth of the electorate and the discipline mean that fewer and fewer of the voters are likely to know the candidates personally, and so for many their voting decisions have had to rest on factors such as gender, general intellectual reputation, or nationality, in addition to prominence in ISA activity. However, within-nation rivalries have sometimes affected the level and mode of participation in ISA affairs (see, for instance, Pereyra 2010: 216-218), so that to note only nationality can mislead about the political realities.

Presidents’ organisational careers have varied. Of the presidents after Angell, both Friedmann and König had been involved in ISA’s earliest stages; Friedmann (who directed the Centre d'Études Sociologiques, which led the development in France of the new empirical sociology from the US) had been a member of the ISA's central Research Committee, and was president of the RC on Industrial Sociology from 1959-70, while König had been present at the founding meetings, organised the first Congress, and was Vice-President for 1959-62; Marshall had been less prominent in early meetings, but was director of the SSD when he was elected. Szczepanski became the first chair of the RC on Industrial Sociology in 1957, in 1962 was a member of the editorial board of Current Sociology, and acted as Polish representative on the Council. Hill and Bottomore had in effect worked their way up within the ISA without being among the first-generation senior figures; Bottomore (who was on the staff of the London School of Economics, where Marshall was also located) had served as Executive Secretary and editor of Current Sociology, while Hill had been an extremely active internationalist within the Research Committee on the Family and had also chaired the ASA's committee on International Cooperation. A later president who followed a similar pattern was Archer, who belonged to the RC on Education from 1966, becoming its president, and for eight years edited Current Sociology, while Oommen had been local organiser of the 1986 Delhi Congress.

RC networks have often drawn people into more central associational activity. There was initially just one central Research Committee, mainly concerned with stratification, but it subdivided. The subdivisions in the 1950s could be taken to represent the main research interests among the small number of sociologists then; more were added in the 1960s, and there was a striking expansion in the 1970s, making membership a declaration of interest rather than the commitment to shared research activity originally intended. From 1982 every president but Wieviorka has previously held office in a RC; from 1974, all but Wallerstein and Wieviorka of those who had not played the other central roles mentioned above have served a Vice-Presidential term before reaching the presidency. (Wallerstein had, however, been an exceptionally active long-term Congress participant.)

Thus there have been different modes of social integration into the association; each mode both draws the attention of parts of the electorate to what these people could offer, and of those who stand for election to the possibility of rising further. It seems highly probable that socio-intellectual networks not confined to the ISA, some involving transnational academic affiliations, have also been relevant. How else does one become known as a reliable contributor, a serious intellectual, a congenial internationalist?  For instance, among Friedmann's students were Alain Touraine (French) and Jacques Dofny (Belgian); Touraine, who became Vice-President in 1974-8, visited Latin America often, and is known to have directly sponsored a Mexican to ISA office. He became a friend of Cardoso when both were teaching at the University of Sao Paulo, while Wieviorka was his (Touraine’s) student and collaborator; Dofny moved to work in Montréal, and became Vice-President in 1982-6; Céline Saint-Pierre took her first degree in Montréal with Dofny and a doctorate with Touraine in Paris, and became joint Executive Secretary in Montréal in 1974. (Such trails of connections could surely be further developed. For instance, there is a Bottomore-related trail. However, some methodological caution in following such trails is suggested by inside knowledge of that case.  Any researcher who inferred that, because he was eventually my head of department, that does something to account for my later ISA involvement and EC membership would be wrong; we never spoke about the ISA.) For that reason, the accounts of individual presidents given below try to draw attention to known links which may have played such roles.

Every President has been prominent in the discipline, but not always in the same way. It may have some significance that a high proportion of them have been mainly known as theorists, and/or have worked at macro levels of cross-national concern; empirical studies at the micro level are more confined to limited areas of the world and the discipline, and less likely to produce work seen as widely relevant to those with other interests. There have been dominantly transnational presidential careers, and others with a stronger national base. But fewer than half – and none since 1982 – had first served as president of their national association, so that has not been an effective prerequisite to the post, even when there was an active national association available. (It is notable that Hill and Wallerstein had not been ASA presidents.)  One cannot tell from the documents whether later presidents more often chose the ISA as an alternative to local affairs or, if so, why, but it seems possible that they did so.

The personal cosmopolitanism of many presidents may have contributed to their orientation towards the ISA rather than – or as well as – more local activities.  Almost all had extensive foreign experience, particularly in France and the USA, much of it owed to world-historical contingencies. König had a German father, who worked for the League of Nations, and a French mother; as the family moved around Europe he learned other languages. Several learned from wartime contingencies: Marshall picked up German in a prison camp during WW1, Szczepanski broadened his experience doing forced labour in WW2; Bottomore was posted to India in the army in WW2 (and collected doctoral data in Paris). Hill, a Mormon, picked up his languages in Europe during the traditional stint as a missionary; Himmelstrand was born in India, and researched in Africa, holding a post in Nigeria for three years; Wallerstein started as an Africanist, and from 1974 held a regular visiting position in Paris; exile for Cardoso was spent working in Chile and in Paris. This is not the Home Guard.
A number of the presidents have had active political involvements of various kinds, whether before or after their tenure. Szczepanski, Cardoso and Martinelli held elective office, Cardoso as senator and then president of Brazil, Szczepanski as a deputy to the Sejm (Polish parliament), and Martinelli as a member of the Milan City Council. (He (in 2001) and Marshall (in 1922) also both stood for election to their national parliaments, but were defeated.). At least Wirth, Marshall, Szczepanski, Himmelstrand and Martinelli have played significant consultative roles in relation to government in their own countries; Angell, Marshall and Szczepanski all held roles related to UNESCO, internally or as national representatives to it, as did König in a predecessor body.
Other presidents are not documented as holding office, but were, like König (author of a strongly anti-Nazi book which led to his Swiss exile), Friedmann (active in the Resistance, and for a long time associated with the CP despite disagreements with it) (Grémion and Piotet 2004: passim), and Bottomore (committed to socialism, and strongly interested in Marxism though with political activity mainly on the intellectual front), known to have strong political views, of different styles but all on the left. Obviously the practical situations of the two Polish presidents have been quite different from these – CP membership for them certainly had nothing radical about it – and until the triumph of Solidarity  they had to find some form of superficial accommodation with the regime to remain in the country and participate in international sociology. Without much more detail one cannot attempt to consider which of the sociology and the practical politics should be regarded as cause and which as effect, if they can be distinguished at all in that way.


It has been shown how the development of the institutionalised ISA ‘presidential address’ was part of a changing pattern of Congresses as their attendance expanded beyond the original nucleus, and their content became more diverse and individualised.  It is clear that the content and style of addresses has been affected by implicit associational norms, by committee processes, and by changes in the world situation.
Individual presidents have brought to this setting their personal backgrounds and interests, which have affected modes of integration into the association, and their eventual emergence as presidential candidates. There are different routes towards the top, but once there the contextual norms influence the orientations and rhetoric of the addresses given. The presidential addresses have, thus, necessarily been thoroughly social products, of a kind structured by ISA's organisation and norms, as well as special individual contributions.