Peter Willetts reflects on his research on NGOs, in the context of BISA’s history

Over the last forty years, BISA has evolved from being a small friendly club to become a large professional organisation. When it started the members were an eclectic mix of individuals, who had a common interest in international “studies,” but no sense of an academic discipline. Some were lawyers, some were philosophers, some focused on regional studies, and some were historians. The majority were interested in questions of peace and war, particularly in the context of the Cold War. There was virtually no theoretical debate, because almost everybody shared Realist assumptions. The English School did emphasise international society rather than anarchy, while idealists hoped for stronger international organisations and Functionalists promoted transnational economic and social cooperation. These three approaches collectively had too few adherents to provide a serious challenge to Realism. In addition, they remained state-centric, they took military power for granted and they were all rationalists. There simply was no room for the study of non-governmental organisations.

BISA’s Beginnings

Author: Alan James
NB: these observations are memory-based. Others who were about at the time, or know about it, may be able to correct my recollections.
BISA was a professionalized Bailey Conference. The latter had been founded decades earlier by Charles Manning (LSE) and named in memory of an inter-War teacher of International Relations at the School. But it was no more than an occasional and at least for a long while a by-invitation, non-residential conference. IR also made a (very subordinate) appearance at the annual conferences of the Political Studies Association, which had been established in 1950, but few of our people attended. At this time, of course, there were not that many of them. But by the 1970s the teaching of IR had expanded somewhat, and taken off from its early LSE-Oxford-Aberystwyth axis. Also by this time the entrepreneurial Alastair Buchan (who in 1958 had been the inspiration behind the founding of the Institute for Strategic Studies, which he then led for a decade) had been appointed to the Oxford chair. Abetted by the lively Philip Reynolds, who had moved from Aberystwyth to Lancaster (and was soon to become the latter’s VC), they felt it was time that IR had its own association, along the lines of the one which had been set up in the United States in the late 50s – the ISA.

Forty years on

Forty years - the life of BISA - is roughly the span of an academic career.  This is poignantly so for those of us who were junior lecturers when BISA was born.  The organisation’s life, for my cohort, has been part of the scaffolding of our professional lives.  In my own case, I was at the first meeting, served on the Executive Committee, delivered an Annual Lecture, worked on the Board of the Cambridge/BISA series, was Vice-Chair and Chair and first President, helped edit the Review, and represented BISA on two RAE panels.  

BISA@ 40 and beyond

A series of commentaries on the state of the

discipline to mark the 40th anniversary of

BISA's founding


British International Studies Association


Charity No:1151260
Company no: 8422260
Registered office: University Of Birmingham Room 650, 6th Floor, Muirhead Tower, Edgbaston, Birmingham, England, B15 2TT