It was the French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville who observed on his tour of the USA that Americans like to form associations. In his 1835 tome Democracy in America, he devotes a few chapters to discussing the use of associations in civil life, the link between associations and newspapers, and the connection between civil and political associations.
And indeed, there are all manner of associations in the USA. There is an association for those like our very own Executive Director Laura Sawyer who work in associations—the American Society of Association Executives. There is even one for the ICA itself: the Council of Communication Associations, in which the ICA meets with other academic associations in the communication space.
As someone outside the USA, I marvel at this propensity to form associations. Because associations are formed with a purpose, having one conveys a sense of self-empowerment: The group members feel that they can do something, that they can make a difference. An association unites the like-minded with a sense of purpose and fosters social capital—you and I have something in common, so let’s get together to work on it. It also speaks well of the government, which is entrusting a potential bureaucratic function to the citizenry instead. This final point is not trivial; the freedom to form associations is linked in many countries’ constitutions to the freedom of association.
The psyche behind this eagerness to associate is reflected in the ICA itself. There is a sense of self-help (the self here referring to a group); there is a sense of self-empowerment, as members propose many of the ideas that become policies; and there is a sense of unity of purpose, as members aim for a common goal.
In practice, the ICA works through committees. A quick count finds us with nine award committees; five standing committees, including the one planning the conference—which is formed from all the chairs of the Divisions and Interest Groups; and seven task forces for one-off projects.
Wikipedia lists one of the functions of a committee as “a tactic for indecision,” which it labels a dilatory tactic (a tactic to delay or obstruct business). Rest assured that ICA reviews its committees annually and dissolves those that are redundant because their tasks are completed.
Yes, it is true that sometimes having a committee can be inefficient. But that inefficiency is more than offset by the much-reduced likelihood of making unwise decisions. In my own experience, I have learned to make better decisions from observing how committees crack very tough nuts to make theirs.
You are welcome to volunteer yourself for a committee, especially if you are not familiar with committees and associations. Serving on a committee is like doing good research: Done well, it can make a difference in people’s lives.