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.


6 Responses to “ISA needs a Fringe”

  1. kevinclements2012 27/08/2014 at 2:43 am #

    Roger, Ive long railed against these large meetings for exactly the same reasons. IPRA htis year, despite its ragged edges does have better representation of global south, men and women and real world dilemmas reflected in the papers and discussions of the conference. It also is more explicitly normative in intent than ISA. It would be very good if you and others would think if IPRA as a suitable venue for at least one of your overseas conference events. This would boost the academic content, attract the publishers and Im sure would generate a diferent kind of momentum…. If you are interested the next IPRA conference is going to take place in Sierra Leone. It probably won’t be in a Hilton Hotel, the internet access may be slight but it will be grounded in locality!!! Cheers Kevin

    • rogermacginty 27/08/2014 at 9:24 am #


      • Steve Wright 15/09/2014 at 10:28 am #

        Whilst sharing Kevin’s enthusiasm for IPRA – it was held at the virtually 6star Hilton Hotel in Istanbul – a place so chrome and marble filled, it was the antithesis of what peace research stands for – and I certainly could not afford to stay there. It is a challenge to make decisions re venue which are consistent with our ethos – My first IPRA conference I spent in a Mexican village at a cost one tenth of the official package! Your recent iapcs conference in Manchester suffered no ill comparison in terms of quality of papers, key note speakers or audience enjoyment – far from it. Keith Krausse’s erudite key note address on the second day was a joy…and all of us were grateful to you excellent team of volunteers – and there was no €100,000 “donation” from a dodgy government. It is probably worth taking a look at the European Group on deviance and Social Control which has a great track record of organising some form of solidarity activity during the course of the conference, in whatever country it is held.
        Sierra Leone is a powerful choice of venue for the next IPRA – especially if the spectre of Ebola spreading far and beyond has not been dealt with…. Glad that your reflections have led to a very sensible praxis….

      • rogermacginty 15/09/2014 at 2:56 pm #

        Thanks Steve. Very kind words. All of us are suffering from declining conference budgets and have to subsidise our travel ourselves. So we are shooting ourselves in the foot by having increasingly professionalised conferences.
        I do realise that ISA is limited by the sheer size of the vent. There are not many venues that can hold it. But I suspect that quite a few university campuses actually could.

  2. J. Wagner 30/08/2014 at 10:02 pm #

    I founded and currently chair the Global South Caucus of the ISA, formed only three years ago. We are dedicated to diversifying ISA — in membership as well as theoretical and practical foci. We would like to believe that the meetings of our cozy group at the huge annual conference, in particular our annual luncheon at which we honor a global south scholar,. can provide a counterpoint to the “leaden” (that is, somewhat impersonal) atmosphere described above. You may be interested in knowing that we (GSCIS-ISA) are sponsoring a major conference in Singapore in January next year which will, we hope, do many of the things you suggest above. There will be no Hilton Hotel (!), we will meet at one of the smaller universities, we will be providing community tours, and we will interact in other ways with the community. Please free visit to see conference details on the ISA website:

  3. Annette Freyberg-Inan 12/09/2014 at 1:36 pm #

    It’s inaccurate that ISA conventions are always headquartered at Hilton Hotels. They have been headquartered at many different hotels over the past decades. To be sure these are always large hotels, but that is due to the size of the conference, not to any sort of corporate preference. The alternative of a conference center has been rejected in part because meeting at a conference center would feel even more “corporate” and certainly even less cosy than a Hilton spotted with Starbucks. Nobody really likes these large hotels, but we have failed to identify another option for holding such a large conference while trying to have a sort of center where people will meet, as opposed to scattering people all over a city. The networking is a big part of what people want from such a meeting, and networking works best when people run into each other often and can easily meet between panels and their various other obligations. As for outreach activities to connect with the community, I am all for them. Barry Gills has organized just such activities at almost all ISA conventions over the past years, but more would be great!

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