I had several goals for this introductory exercise. First, I was genuinely interested in what people would describe as their interests and commitment to SPSSI, and I was especially curious about the extent to which there was any shared vision about the Society among its elected leaders. In addition, I thought this might be a good way to find out where people were coming from as they approached their SPSSI work – to get the lay of the land, as it were -- and more pragmatically, I hoped that these comments would set a positive and productive tone for the meeting. Furthermore, a good deal of my social issues-focused research is on volunteerism and civic engagement, including attempting to document and understand different motivations for volunteer work and personal and social determinants of those motivations. I am acutely aware of the time and resources that SPSSI members devote to the Society and its programs, and especially the Council members who give up precious weekend days (in the dead of winter in Washington, DC no less) to spend time on SPSSI business. From another perspective, therefore, I was interested in why the meeting attendees were giving their time and energy to SPSSI and how these reasons might map onto findings and models in the literature on volunteerism, philanthropic work, and organizational and professional engagement. Is there a set of predominant motivations or goals that bring SPSSI Council members to volunteer in the Society, and if so, what are they?
I was blown away by the responses to my simple query. People spoke honestly and openly about their involvement and connections to SPSSI. Interestingly, the vast majority of speakers focused on SPSSI and what it means and represents to them rather than on their personal and professional motivations and needs. Of course, the phrasing of the questions may have had something to do with that as well as straightforward social desirability concerns or sampling bias. Nonetheless, these responses helped crystallize for me what this professional society provides its members. In recent years, the membership rolls of professional associations and organizations have dropped (a fact made famous by Putnam’s work on “bowling alone”), and attendance at many annual meetings is on the decline. Economic pressures surely have something to do with these trends, but a number of other factors doubtless play important roles. In terms of membership in any specific society, programming and publications (e.g., journals, awards) are often identified as keys to member recruitment and retention; members need to feel that they receive benefits of value in order to get and stay involved in an organization. What I heard from attendees at our meeting, though, was that there are a number of other, less tangible, but apparently no less important, benefits of SPSSI membership. (The SPSSI Membership Committee, in fact, is in the process of collecting information from members; if you haven’t already done so, please complete their survey so that we can learn about the interests, involvement, and goals of SPSSI members.)
For many meeting attendees, SPSSI was their first professional home with their membership beginning when they were in graduate school. In fact, many people reported being recruited by active SPSSI members who were their mentors or having received their first grant from SPSSI. SPSSI was identified as an early and enduring professional home. Other meeting attendees spoke about the pull of basic (and laboratory-based) psychology and how they had focused on conducting this type of work in building a tenure-able career. At the same time, they confessed that this work had taken them away from their initial interests in social issues and applied psychology. For them, SPSSI had become especially important post-tenure or later in their careers. Many attendees stressed the uniqueness of SPSSI’s dual focus on research and data along with the determination to do something with that research as what they most valued about SPSSI and its professional niche. That is, they saw SPSSI as a rare professional space in which both research and social justice are respected and integral. Finally, some attendees pointed to SPSSI programs and activities as the basis for their investment; in fact, SPSSI’s stand-alone conference was identified as a big draw for many, and something that kept them connected to SPSSI and its members. (FYI, mark your calendars now for the next SPSSI stand-alone conference in Portland, OR on June 27-29, 2014!)
Going around the table and hearing people’s stories of involvement and investment, a few themes began to emerge. Although SPSSI has long been noted for its work around the “three Ps” (i.e., prejudice, peace, and poverty; see the March 2011 Journal of Social Issues), it appeared that “three Hs” may better characterize the reasons for involvement of leaders in the Society, with these Hs standing for Heart, Humanity, and Hugs. Specifically, SPSSI Council members mentioned the interpersonal Heart of SPSSI and its members. They noted the commitment of SPSSI members past and current to mentoring others, and especially to members early in their careers. More than many other professional organizations, SPSSI members have helped to create and support many divergent pathways for career success (rather than just one), although common to all of them is an abiding commitment to the promotion of social justice. The second H, Humanity, reflects how SPSSI members see themselves as citizens of the world. They look outward, and are in touch with and care about social issues that affect people across the globe. Their foci are broader than smaller regional, disciplinary, provincial, or careerist concerns. The knowledge base and research backgrounds that SPSSI members bring to addressing social issues also was noted by many people; SPSSI members rely on data-based tools and research practices in actively working to make the world better. Finally, regarding Hugs, SPSSI meetings and members were characterized as warm, welcoming, and supportive. It is not uncommon for SPSSI members to greet each other with hugs rather than handshakes. People suggested that some organizations and professional societies have a clearly defined hierarchy and that it can be difficult to break into leadership or to find a place at the table. SPSSI was perceived as having a relatively more flattened hierarchy and as nurturing broad participation by many members at all career stages. Moreover, SPSSI members seem to genuinely care about each other as individuals and not simply as star academics or scholars.
I don’t know that everyone would agree with this characterization of SPSSI and its members, or even if the “three H” moniker will find traction. However, I found it remarkable and refreshing that people could clearly articulate the specialness of SPSSI and its role in their professional lives, and that the major themes could be succinctly summarized in terms of these three Hs. It made me all the prouder to serve as an elected leader in SPSSI, but also impressed on me the sobering challenge of continuing this SPSSI legacy and finding ways to contribute to this “unofficial” mission. There is no doubt that SPSSI and its members will continue to tackle the three Ps as well as a myriad of social issues that confront society. However, the health, well-being, and meaning of SPSSI as a professional society to which people want to join and continue as members, and also to which they want to recruit new members, it seems to me, may hinge in large part on these three Hs and how they are embodied in the years ahead.
To conclude, SPSSI offers a range of member benefits, certainly on par with or exceeding those offered by other professional societies. SPSSI provides diverse and high impact publication outlets, an intellectually engaging conference, awards recognizing a wide range of professional talents and accomplishments, fellowship and internship opportunities, and funding to support research and related activities. As an organization, it works on behalf of members and finds broader audiences for their work through educational efforts directed at policy makers at multiple levels and performed by professional staff, fellows, and volunteers. A new initiative – this summer’s Policy Workshop – will expand these policy activities to include helping to increase the capacity of scholars to directly engage in policy work in different contexts regardless of career stage (see accompanying article on p. 36). However, what makes SPSSI special, and where there appears to be more value-added, is that it does all of these things while maintaining its Heart, Humanity, and yes, Hugs. Of course, professional and career goals are furthered through SPSSI’s programs and activities. At the same time, however, SPSSI members are mentored and supported by other members, effectively contributing to solving social problems on both narrow and broad scales; find appreciative audiences that encourage social issues research and engagement; and develop positive personal relationships with other “SPSSI-types.” The three Hs are what has made SPSSI a home for so many in the past and helped to distinguish it from other professional societies. Looking to the future, they may be keys to SPSSI’s continuing success and serve as an antidote for tendencies to disengage from professional societies. I hope that we can and will deliberately attend to continuing and fostering the Heart, Humanity, and Hugs of SPSSI into the future.
—Allen M. Omoto