You won't find Sally Hillsman, executive officer of the American Sociological Association, walking down the sidewalk with earbuds on. That's because the lifelong sociologist cherishes the sights and sounds of metropolitan life.
"I'm a big city person," says the New Jersey native who spent much of her life in New York City and the last 17 years in Washington, D.C. — where she lives with her two large white cats in the Penn Quarter neighborhood, a stone's throw from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and other D.C. landmarks.
Born into a family full of medical doctors, Hillsman started out pre-med but switched to sociology. "I became interested in the structures of society as opposed to the body," says Hillsman, now 70, who majored in both sociology and economics. Eventually, sociology won out when she began her Ph.D., which she earned at Columbia University in 1970. Early research positions were at the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia and the Vera Institute of Justice and Center for Policy Research, both in New York City.
In the mid-1970s, Hillsman completed the first major experimental design for a study on pre-trial diversion (sending offenders to drug or other treatment instead of going through the full court system), the first successful study of its kind in the U.S. Another pioneering multi-site study examined criminal penalty fines that were adjusted to meet people's means.
As vice president of research and technology for the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia, she led research efforts to support the state courts. Studies there focused on statistics in the state court system and speedy trial. When she started, "We had a lot of studies about law, but not a lot of studies about how the criminal justice system works on the ground — what did it do, how did prosecution actually work," says Hillsman.
In 2002, she became head of the American Sociological Association, which has some 14,000 members and 29 staff members, and publishes nine major journals in the field. As executive officer, she manages the business side of the organization and facilitates the journals' peer review and production. She also oversees many other aspects of the Association, including the annual August meeting that draws some 6,000 people and works with the association's public information program get sociology out into the public eye via national media.
Outside of work, Hillsman listens to classical music and plays the piano, but her real passion is travel: This globetrotter has visited every continent except Antarctica, and takes one month every year to immerse herself in a different culture and part of the world. The last few years have taken her to China, Tibet, Morocco, Peru, the Easter Islands, Patagonia, Brazil and more. This fall, she'll head to Turkey and next year, Mongolia.
Souvenir statuettes from Africa, rugs from Morocco, and mini Easter Island stone heads adorn her office at the Association's new high-rise D.C. office, where she looks out over bustling K Street through picture windows.
Part of her work has been helping to ensure that high quality scientific work is done that helps policy-makers make better decisions. "I feel privileged to have been a part of that process over the last 40 years," says Hillsman.
Though the social sciences don't require enormous funding structures as do other sciences — like space exploration — it's important that the databases that sociologists rely on, census data and sample surveys by the Bureau of Justice statistics, for example, remain funded, according to Hillsman. In addition, sociology is closely linked to the other social sciences and the humanities — including languages — which need funding and support, she adds.
"The standing of the social sciences in the world of policy- and decision-making has significantly improved," she says. "Having good-quality scientific standards available is critical to a democracy."