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 buzzed in the early days.  The annual conference generated great expectations for IR scholars largely deprived of networking opportunities in those days, in the shadow of a self-important PSA, and remote from the superpower ISA.  Our own conference offered chances to hear the big beasts, meet old friends, make new ones, and have a good time just before Christmas (with term finally over, and family duties dodged for a while).  There was a strong sense of a coherent disciplinary project, with the ghosts of 1919 and 1945 on our shoulders.
When BISA was born, in the mid-1970s international affairs stretched out according to Raymond Aron’s formulation, ‘Paix Impossible, Guerre Improbable’.  By the turn of the 1980s, such assumptions had disappeared, with the superpowers spiralling into a new Cold War and the nightmare prospect of apocalypse soon.  BISA now buzzed with urgent world issues.  But not for the first or last time, international politics showed their capacity for radical surprise.  With the unpredicted fizzling out of the Cold War in the late 1980s, BISA now started to buzz to different tunes: that of big ideas, not big bombs.  The ‘post-positivist turn’ brought new intellectual excitement, but also a splintering of the coherent disciplinary project.
We all became better theorists, yet the ‘alternative approaches’ failed to overthrow long-standing realist and liberal understandings of the dynamics of the international level of world politics.  Debates between and within theoretical schools, and critics of the discipline, frequently drowned out empirical researchers and those of us who thought IR remained the key human science, asking the biggest questions about politics in the biggest political arena.
The future is now jolting us back to reality, in an era in which the ideas that constructed human society through the centuries do not work for many humans or the natural world on which we all depend.  Whether universities will catch up remains to be seen, as their managers fetishise metrics and dizzy themselves spinning over league tables. 
As our disciplinary centenary approaches, it remains to be seen whether, externally, BISA can help IR get the institutional and intellectual recognition and resources it deserves.  Internally, it remains to be seen whether BISA can re-create in an argumentative discipline a sense of a coherent project in a world unable to make collective decisions in the human interest.  If it fails, it will be too bad for the ghosts of 1919 and 1945, and all those other millions of victims of the games nations play.

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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


British International Studies Association


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