Tag Archives: ISA

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.