Changing the ISA – from the bottom-up

18 Apr

“Where are all the brown folks?’ – whispered to me by a PhD student who was attending ISA for the first (and probably last) time.

Every year I go to the International Studies Association (ISA) annual convention. It is held in a huge conference hotel (usually a Hilton or a Sheraton) and always in North America. Every year I come away with the same thoughts:

– Where are all the people of color?
– Where are all the people from the global South?
– Why does the convention have to be held in a soulless mega-hotel?

Every year I complain – usually on Facebook – about how ISA is an annual meeting of white folks from the global north. Every year my Facebook friends explain – in great detail – why this is the case (the costs of travel, visa restrictions etc.). And every year, friends who serve on various committees in ISA (or EISA, BISA etc.) say things like: ‘Oh but we are doing something like that. We have an inclusion committee, and we give out scholarships, and the XYZ studies section is far more progressive that the rest of the organization. You should join the XYZ studies section.’ And every year I forget about it and move on.

This year I want to move on from merely analyzing the problem to doing something about it. I simply do not believe that organizations that have normalized charging registration fees of hundreds of dollars and meeting in soulless mega-hotels are capable of the change that I am interested in. I believe that there are hundreds of honest and sincere people serving on ISA committees (disclosure: I was Peace Studies program chair for a few years). But once people serve within an organization, there is a danger that group-think takes over and radical ideas are dismissed. People within organizations become defensive of that organization.

The following is my half-thought through idea for reforming ISA. I welcome comments, suggestions and allies – particularly those with practical skills of organization. My idea is influenced by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that occurs alongside the Edinburgh International Festival. The latter is a long-standing Arts festival held over three weeks every August. It is hugely respected, and often stages high-culture events. Somewhere along the line, groups of artists saw the Edinburgh International Festival as being staid and exclusive. So they gate-crashed the official Festival by holding their own events in Edinburgh at the same time as the main Festival. The Fringe events tended to be edgier and more innovative and are often held in the upstairs rooms of pubs or coffee shops. Today the Fringe is much larger than the Festival: it has thousands of events. Both Festivals have carved out a niche and both are extremely successful (though not without problems and critics). Edinburgh in August is truly alive with a huge number of events and artistic energy everywhere.

Let’s face it. ISA is never going to change very much. It is always going to be held in mega-convention hotels. It is always going to be three or four days of frenetic fly-in, fly-out activity where we leave zero footprint in the city we visit. It is always going to charge a huge amount of money simply to attend. In my time as an ISA member I am aware of no genuine thinking outside of the box attempt to trim costs. Despite good intentions about inclusion of scholars from the global south (and please don’t bore me with a lecture on how ‘things are more complicated than a simple binary between global north and global south’. Remember: analysis is not the same as actually doing something) the numbers of participants from the global south is always going to be disgracefully tiny.

My suggestion is that we organize an ISA fringe. That groups of scholars hire rooms around the main Convention and hold seminars, workshops, think-ins and anything else we want to. The main ISA convention will continue as normal (high priced coffee, queues for the lifts, the zoo-like meeting place in the lobby of the main hotel, the Exhibition Hall where the CIA have a stall, and weirdest of all the ISA-sponsored photographers going around the hall taking pictures of people without their permission – shame on you Atlanta ISA!). But the fringe will become a space for more innovative, edgy, paradigm-challenging scholarship. It will not be restricted to the 90 minute, five papers and a discussant model. Crucially, the Fringe would not be charging a massive registration fee. It would be open to anyone, including activists and the general public. It would seek to make links with the city it was hosted in and get out of the ‘green zone’ of the Hilton or Sheraton or where ever the main convention is held.

Now, I know that very laudable attempts have been made by some ISA Sections to make links with the host city. And I know that ISA holds conferences in global south (though priced in such a way that locals are usually just the waiters). And I know that side events are already held. And of course it could be argued that the main fringe already exists in the bars and restaurants every evening around ISA. But I am thinking of a low cost little brother or sister to the ISA convention that organizes serious academic events and thinks seriously about including scholars from the global south (well done to IPRA for holding its annual convention in Sierra Leone!). If scholars from the global north paid say thirty dollars each, think of the number of scholars from the global south we could invite! No printed program, no committee meetings, no hiring of a massive hotel. Instead, pubs and cafes would let us have their spaces for free on the condition that we buy coffee. Or we could assemble in seminar rooms in near by universities (if colleagues there paved the way). We would leave the ISA green zone and be in city neighborhoods.

I will still attend ISA. It is a good place to meet lots of friends and acquaintances. But I am wondering about just how cost effective it is (EISA’s pricing makes ISA look like a bargain) and of the ethics of an organization that is so representative of an academic elite from the global north and so unrepresentative of scholars from the global south.

If you are a do-er please get in touch. If you want to further analyze the problem you are very welcome but I really have heard it all before and am skeptical that real change will occur.


8 Responses to “Changing the ISA – from the bottom-up”

  1. Aidnography 18/04/2016 at 9:36 am #

    Time and again, I am also arguing for better, innovative digital approaches to conferences; enable virtual participation; stream, Skype, Twitter etc.; organizers and hotels sometimes make Internet an artificially scarce resource under the pretense of increasing ‘value’ for physical participation. And in 2016 even ‘networking’ does not *always* and *all the time* mean people sitting around a table; there are plenty of participatory and digital approaches to share, connect & discuss!

  2. kevinclements2012 18/04/2016 at 1:46 pm #

    The people from the global South are normally at IPRA, APPRA, EUPRA and AFPRA conferences… but there is such a snobbish attitude from ISA towards all of these Associations that they are run on the smell of an oily rag; the papers vary in quality precisely because many are presented by people in Universities with inadequate libraries and inadequate access to the Internet. This year the IPRA conference will be in Sierra Leone . I wonder how many of our ISA colleagues would even contemplate conversation in West Africa.!

    • Kerstin Tomiak 19/04/2016 at 12:40 pm #

      I agree to an extent. I did my fieldwork in South Sudan and taught a semester at Juba University. There is a problem with very inadequate library and basically no internet. This results (sometimes) in a different approach to research and paper writing; and methodologies and methods are used differently. I am not saying that the research and papers are of poorer quality, but they come from a different place. I think as long as we do not open up to those diffeent approaches to knowledge production the situation will stay as it is. Also, the inclusion of scholars of colour does not make a huge difference as long as they are forced to work in the ‘white’ framework of knowledge production. This would just be adding some colour, without really opening up.

      I like the idea of doing fringe events – events which value different ways to produce knowledge and different ways of doing research.

      (Btw: I would have loved to go to Sierra Leone. Just cannot afford it 😦

  3. J. Braveboy-Wagner 18/04/2016 at 8:25 pm #

    As a first step, please join the Global South Caucus of ISA. Check out our blog at BTW, ISA’s policy on taking photographs is elaborated on

  4. Caitlin Ryan 20/04/2016 at 9:56 am #

    We could organise ‘teach-ins’ by local activist movements – i.e. ask Black Lives Matter activists in Baltimore to hold a teach-in. I think that given ISA’s location for next year it would be partpticularly important to have alternative conversations, in alternative non-Hilton locations.

  5. Mehiyar 20/04/2016 at 4:08 pm #

    What we desperately need is a new website for a more accessible version of the research currently being produced in both Northern and Southern universities. Research, whether from North or South, is largely inaccessible for many and rarely are we able to put our views across to a larger readership.

    Im surprised by the amount of very good research that hardly goes noticed in think-tank type organisations. Research that has policy relevance, or can improve how we look at the world, often fails to penetrate beyond the select few.

    To overcome this, one idea is to create a network type website where academics can write summaries of their papers and research, or funding permitting, to have a team do this on their behalf.

    This can be one way to create bridges between universities, and also as a way to make our research more accessible to a public that still largely believes academics live in ivory towers.

    • rogermacginty 21/04/2016 at 8:20 am #

      Hello Mehiyar. That is a very good point. The paywalls erected by commercial publishers exclude huge numbers of people. The idea behind Pax In Nuce – a website we set up a few years ago – was precisely that. We encouraged academics to write 1,000 word summaries of their papers and post it on Pax where they could be read for free. I have to admit that we did not follow up on our idea. But if I have the time, and resources, I would like to revive it.

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