The past is a foreign country

‘The past is a foreign country’… and that was certainly true of international studies at the birth of the British International Studies Association.
In the early 1970s international studies was a small and fragmented discipline. Cohesion was maintained by the British Coordinating Committee for International Studies (BCCIS) which organised a biennial conference (the Bailey Conference), at which assorted luminaries enlightened the assembled conferees in a series of plenary sessions. The commanding heights of the BCCIS were occupied largely by London School of Economics (LSE) staff and alumni. By 1973, however, it had become clear to a number of the discipline’s leading lights that the steady expansion of the subject area meant that international studies now required a more open and less masonic-like organisation.
I had the fortune (good or ill according to taste) to be the local organiser of the Easter 1973 annual conference of the Political Studies Association at Reading University. The success of that conference persuaded Susan Strange, then of Chatham House, that I might make a suitable Hon. Secretary for the prospective association for international studies in the UK. Thus it was that I found myself being nominated for the role of secretary to the interim committee of the British International Studies Association at the last of the Bailey Conferences in the Christmas vacation of 1973/4, at the University of Surrey. The targets of the interim committee were: to arrange an inaugural conference for the new association for the Christmas vacation of 1974/5; draft a provisional constitution, secure some seed-corn funding for the new venture; explore the prospects for a new international studies' journal; and stabilise relations with the US International Studies Association (which had given evidence of wishing to treat BISA as a foreign subsidiary). It was also necessary to dissolve the BCCIS in an orderly manner.
Progress for the interim committee was rapid on all fronts. Fruitful negotiations with the Ford Foundation offered the promise of seed-corn funds. Professor J.E. Spence, of Leicester University, was identified as the prospective editor for the new journal. Lincoln College, Oxford, was booked for the founding Conference. 
I was able to contribute to this work of the interim committee in a number of ways. First, by helping to drive forward the new association and its planned journal, in the face of the scepticism of those who doubted the viability of both enterprises and who, in truth, may also have doubted the need to replace the old BCCIS. Second, to nudge the format of the new journal towards that of the successful British Journal of Political Science (which included long, and short. articles and research notes, but not conventional book reviews). Third, to work closely with the interim committee’s chairman – Professor Alastair Buchan of Oxford – to write a short and relatively simple draft constitution.  A recent, and somewhat painful, experience of trying to secure the adoption of an ‘all singing and dancing’ constitution for the Politics Association, at its inaugural conference at UCL, had demonstrated the dangers of proposing over-detailed constitutions to specialists in politics. Fourth, to develop the list of all those who might be invited to the inaugural conference and be prospective members of the new association.
Ist issue BJIS April 1975

Ist issue BJIS April 1975

The British International Studies Association was duly inaugurated at its first annual conference in early January 1975 at (a very cold) Lincoln College, Oxford. This conference resembled the earlier Bailey Conferences, in offering participants a series of plenary sessions addressed by the ‘great and the good’. The new era of working-group sessions was, however, in planning for future conferences. 
The early days of BISA and its journal (initially the British Journal of International Studies, and later the Review of International Studies) were accompanied by real hopes that a wide range of participants might be attracted:  historians, lawyers and economists, as well as ‘main-stream’ international relations’ specialists: a diversity that was reflected in the participation in the Association’s initial committee of the historian David Dilks, the Oxford economist Peter Oppenheimer and the communications’ specialist Colin Cherry. In the event, only contemporary historians and a smattering of lawyers joined up, while the contents of the journal remained overwhelmingly ‘main-line’ international relations.
The history of BISA also reveals one significant paradox. The ‘discipline’ was relatively cohesive in its early days (and the last days of the BCCIS). This reflected the sociology of the discipline, with the relatively small number of participants, its relative domination by alumni of LSE (and, to an extent, Aberystwyth’s long-established international relations department), the central role of the Royal Institute for International Affairs, and by the pre-eminence of established English intellectual approaches, like the international society perspective. Even in the early 1970s, however, there were clear signs of change with new centres of excellence emerging: at Southampton University, under Professor Joseph Frankel; at Sussex University, with its associated Institute for the Study of International Organization;, at UCL, with John Burton’s world society group; at Kings College, London’s, war studies department; at North Staffs Polytechnic; and in ‘think tanks’ like the Conflict Research Society, under Michael Nicholson. BISA reflected and reinforced this growing diversity within the ‘discipline’ and gave it increasing institutional recognition through its new working groups, the first two of which were the International Political Economy Group, under Susan Strange,  and the Contemporary International Relations’ Theory Group, which I convened under BISA’s auspices from the mid-1980s onwards. Such diversity was to flourish in succeeding years and flower in the fragmentation that characterises contemporary international studies in the UK.
Author: R.J. Barry Jones, Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Reading, UK.

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BISA@ 40 and beyond

A series of commentaries on the state of the

discipline to mark the 40th anniversary of

BISA's founding


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