Archive | August, 2014

ISA needs a Fringe

26 Aug

For the past fifty-seven years, Edinburgh has staged an International Arts Festival during August. It is an incredibly well attended and organized spectacle involving theatre, ballet, music, lectures and much more. Edinburgh also plays host to a ‘Fringe Festival’. The Fringe developed as a reaction to the high culture and perceived exclusive nature of the main International Arts Festival. It began as something more irreverent, accessible and less high-brow. Now the Fringe is much larger than the original Festival. It tends to be younger, more edgy and experimental. It attracts big names (mostly comedians) but also lots of amateur theatre companies, wannabe comedians, artists and many more. Both festivals operate simultaneously giving the city a wonderful atmosphere – even in the usual rain. Thousands of talented (and not so talented) people throng the streets in search of entertainment.

Edinburgh’s Festival and its Fringe Festival got me thinking about the annual ISA (International Studies Association) convention. This is the largest international relations academic conference in the world. It is held in the spring of every year and attracts about 6,000 academics (and a few policy makers). Papers are given from 08:15 in the morning until 18:30. There are so many people giving papers that about forty panels sit simultaneously. The ISA annual convention is always held in a North American city. It is always held in a Hilton Hotel. These Hilton Hotels are specifically designed to cater for mega-conferences. There are only a few of them large enough to house the ISA convention. The ISA is always headquartered at a United States university (despite the ‘international’ in the title).

There is much good about ISA. It is an opportunity to meet up with professional acquaintances, to meet with publishers, to network, and to listen to (hopefully) interesting papers. It is also usually well run: the IT works, the conference rooms are clean; friendly staff are on hand. But there is something leaden and dull about a mega-conference tied to a hotel chain and steeped in a corporate environment. The muzak in the lifts, the Starbucks concession stands, the look-alike art on the walls, fact that all the cleaning staff (and many of the catering staff) are from ethnic minorities while most conference goers are white, the stale air, the windowless conference rooms … the whole corporate conference package.

The sheer size of the conference means that ISA tends to take over a district of a city. In every coffee shop, restaurant and bar for a mile radius you will spot people lugging around the telephone directory style convention programme and adorned with an ISA name badge. So the convention is not restricted to Hilton, although all formal events (plenary sessions, panels, receptions, workshops, exhibition by publishers, business meetings and trainings) tend to take place in the conference headquarters. Despite the huge number of delegates, the convention has virtually no connection with the life of the host city. Delegates fly in and fly out. They frequent bars, restaurants and taxis, but that is about it.

The corporate nature of the convention is reflected – to some extent – in the often leaden nature of the convention proceedings. Formulaic papers, the uniform of chinos and blue shirts for men, panels taking the same format, the emphasis – in many sessions – on transmit rather than receive … it becomes any conference, anywhere and in any place (as long as it is a Hilton Hotel).

In thinking about how to inject some life into ISA I thought of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Here the performers take to the city streets. They hand out flyers for their shows and make a lot of noise – giving the city the feel of a festival. Such is the pressure to find space to perform that plays are often staged in the attic rooms of pubs, concerts in school or university buildings, and comedians stage walking shows through the streets. Events often attract tiny audiences (just like ISA) but there is immense variety, fun, and energy.
ISA needs a Fringe. It needs to get out of the corporatized hotel environment and interact with the NGOs of the city, to have a greater variety of presentation formats, to celebrate the food, music and story of the host city. Wouldn’t it be great if, as we walked towards the convention venue, local people (NGO representatives, city officials) and activists (from INGOs) were pressing leaflets in our hands, asking us to come to their workshops or to read their latest report? Wouldn’t it be great if ISA was relevant to the concerns of the host city (as well as the normal academic themes)? Wouldn’t it be great if we could stage events (like teach ins) in city squares (weather permitting)?

Otherwise we fly in, give a paper and leave.


New article: Where now for the critique of the liberal peace.

21 Aug

An article by Oliver Richmond and myself is just out in Cooperation and Conflict. This is the abstract:

This article seeks to take stock of the critique of the liberal peace and identify what it has and has not achieved. It also asks ‘where do we go from here?’ The article surveys an agenda for future research and can also be read as a rebuttal of some recent literature that has attempted to shut down the liberal peace debate. The article opens with a quick recap of the bases of the critique of the liberal peace. It then outlines the ‘achievements’ of the debate and examines the failings and oversights of the original critique. Questions are raised about the epistemology and terms of the debate, and of the ability of critical intellectual projects to break through the material power held by mainstream intellectual and policy actors. In its final substantive section, the article asks ‘where next for the critique of the liberal peace?’ We conclude by highlighting avenues of research that might be fruitfully explored.

If your institution does not have access to the journal then please email me ( and I will send you a pdf.

History: Popular, public, voluntary and shared – just like it should be.

18 Aug

There was a wonderful World War One exhibition in the local kirk (church) in the village in the Scottish Border where I live. It was a small exhibition, staged over a weekend to mark the centenary of the start of the War (a few photos are below). Three features of the exhibition are particularly worth mentioning.

The first is that the event was organized by the local community. It was not a professionally curated event. Instead, a few stalwarts of the community asked community members if they had any memories or artifacts from the period. The parish has two war memorials that commemorate most of those from the area who died in the 1914-18 War. A principal task was to add some detail and colour to the names mentioned on the memorials. The crowd-sourcing of information proved to be the most effective way of doing this. Family letters and photo albums, the archives of the local newspapers, regimental histories and oral histories all provided evidence. As did local history societies. This was a civic, bottom-up form of history. It was popular, public, voluntary and shared – all of those things that academia often talks about but often does not achieve.

The second noteworthy aspect of the exhibition was that there was no consciously created meta-narrative. There was no ‘knowing’ and modern attempt to shoehorn the exhibition into a narrative that fits a political or methodological agenda. A narrative was present but it was driven by the evidence that people had brought forward in terms of letters, diaries and pictures: it was that the War had cost the locality dearly in terms of death, injury and disruption. The letters to the bereaved, the diary entries and the photos had all the poignancy that was needed. The surnames of the fallen, and those who served, were often names that are still to be found in the locality. Visitors to the exhibition did not have to work very hard to put two and two together: this was a War that may have been called a ‘World’ War, but it was also one that impacted on local families.

The third praiseworthy aspect of the exhibition was that it was genuinely educative.

Details of a local man who was killed in WWI.

Details of a local man who was killed in WWI.



Despite having read quite extensively on WWI, I learned new things from the exhibition. For example, I did not know that a Zeppelin jettisoned some bombs nearby (they fell harmlessly onto farmland). Nor was I aware of the impact of men joining the armed forces had on agricultural labour. The exhibition showed how farmers were desperate to retain labour – especially as harvest season loomed – yet their ploughmen or labourers had been issued with conscription notices. Pleading letters showed how crops were at risk of being ruined by the labour shortage.

What was particularly pleasing about the exhibition was that it was humane. It did not deal with the history of Great Powers and illustrious regiments Instead, it dealt with history as comprised of people: sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. There is, of course, space for all kinds of histories and historiographies but I thought that this exhibition could have shown some professionally curated events a thing or two.

Exhibition in kirk.

Exhibition in kirk.