ISA, IR and Peace

Last week I took part of 56th International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention, which took place in New Orleans. It was the first time I took part of such event. Even though the ISA convention is the biggest academic event in International Relations (IR), my personal preference over the last years has been attending smaller conferences in Europe (where I currently live), some focused more directly on Peace Studies — a field that has traditionally developed in the opposite direction of mainstream IR and where I decided to focus on my PhD.

I found the ISA Convention very interesting in many ways. First, rarely will you able to see so many renowned academics gathered at the same place at the same time. Second, it is an easy way to get up-to-date with most of what has been recently produced in IR and its many sub-areas (including Peace Studies, although the arbitrary placement of Peace Studies under the IR label could be disputed). Yet, it was also ‘too much’ in many ways. Finding my way around among over 5 thousand participants in a crowded Hilton was quite unsettling and made me miss the smaller nearly ‘cosy’ conferences back in the old continent, where it seems just easier to get to talk to everyone. But even more unsettling was the realisation that, in spite of the apparent connection of so many people coming from different countries (although the majority from the US) at times there also seemed to be a profound lack of dialogue between the academic knowledge produced in these different places.

I would like to focus on the ISA presidential address as an example of this. This year the address focused on a central topic in Peace Studies — the concept of ‘positive peace’. The argument presented was that IR had become stuck in the discussion of ‘war’ and, looking at most publications — including important ‘peace research’ journals — there was still a tendency to focus on ‘negative peace’ (how to ‘end’ wars and other security issues) instead of ‘positive peace’ (how to build a sustainable constructive peace scenario) as the core of the research agenda. And yes, whereas this may be indeed the case (and I personal switched fields — from IR to Peace Studies — precisely because of this), what surprised me was the major silence regarding a huge production that already exists about positive peace and which strongly criticises traditional IR. In fact, the core of the speech was based on the old Galtung’s positive/negative peace dichotomy, explaining the very basics of positive peace, later to suggest a few ways on how to move forward in this agenda. The suggestions for further research on peace included: (a) think beyond and below the state; (b) think beyond Political Science (bring in disciplines such as Anthropology and Psychology); (c) think beyond great powers; (d) think in terms of long-term processes; and (e) think about a normative agenda (without loss of rigour).

Was it only me who was puzzled with such address?!

During the last five years of my life all I read basically fell into these topics and yet they were far from new topics… In fact, many of the participants in this ISA were important academics who have been discussing precisely these topics over the last 10-15 years at least, and who have published extensively in Europe and in international journals. Looking back into my own academic life, however, this sense of surprise to this call for ‘new things’ that are ‘not so new’ partly faded. I started remembering of all the things I was taught as an undergraduate in IR and which basically concentrated on mainstream positivist approaches. I also remembered that Galtung and ‘Peace Research’ was something not even present in our curricula, being mentioned in a marginal ‘optional discipline’ which the vast majority of IR students would not attend. Being educated within mainstream IR, it became evident that the presidential speech was probably directed to the mainstream IR public and was in fact a plea to bring Peace Studies/Research into IR.

My opinion about this plea…? I know the definition of a discipline is always porous and what I always loved about Peace Studies was its multidisciplinarity, its normative agenda, its ambition to move forward and create new things instead of ‘adapting’ to the ‘real world’ — or whatever many mainstream academics think the ‘real world’ is. I still remember that crazy feeling I had in my MA (2003-2005) when I had to read some books (some fairly new at the time) that made me wonder if we were moving back in time, into a no-sense Cold War mind-set. I am happy I have moved to Peace Studies and I don’t feel the need to bring Peace Studies into IR and adapt labels. Instead, I think mainstream IR still needs to rethink many of its assumptions and catch up with the loads of interesting work that has been done over the last years in Peace Studies and other disciplines that also deal with peace and conflict. Books and articles have been published; it’s all there! We just have to get out of the box!


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