ISA South

I spent the past two days at the ISA South conference, held at Queen’s University of Charlotte, and I wanted to share a couple highlights from the panels. The theme of the conference was Public-Private Partnerships: Responding to Global Challenges, but there were panels and roundtables on a variety of issues across IR, Foreign Policy, and area studies.


I went to six panels:
State and Security in East Asia
Confronting the Challenge of Terrorism
Responding to Conflict: International Security Politics
After the Arab Spring: Political Responses in the Middle East
US Foreign and Military Policy
Foreign Policymaking in the United States
I was a bit surprised by how quantitative and data-driven most of the papers were, as almost a standard. Maybe a quarter of the presentations I saw used qualitative research as their primary methodology. Not surprisingly, many presenters discussed challenges they’d been having with their data, especially with sample size and causal inference in subsets of their samples. One person in the audience for the Responding to Conflict panel remarked that all of the panelists were trying to do too much with bad stats instead of really investigating the causal dynamics of the conflict and resolution processes in their studies.
There were a few stand-out presentations that bear discussion. First is Ann Mezzell’s (Alabama State University) work on rogue state versus failed state terminology. This in-progress work is motivated by an apparent conflation of the terms and the standard characteristics associated with them in recent policy scholarship. She utilizes textual analysis and finds that while the terms themselves are rarely used interchangeably by policy elites in the Obama administration, they are frequently used alongside characteristics of the other category. For instance, she finds that the term failed state is frequently used in conjunction with discussions of WMD and state-sponsored terrorism, which had long been a concern with more traditional rogue states. Likewise, she finds the term rogue state being used alongside discussions of economic and social welfare, concerns that had primarily focused on failed states. Her next step is investigating whether the semantic shift has been accompanied by a shift in policy regarding these categories of states.
Second, Joseph Bongiovi (Sociology PhD candidate, UNC-Chapel Hill) wrote about the emergence and normalization of private military and security companies around the world. He uses organizational theory to discuss the emergence of specialized firms to meet new challenges. In this case, he has written about the millions of discharged military personnel following the end of the Cold War, and the application of their skills for the protection of the very wealthy (who are increasing in number, and are increasingly willing to pay to protect their assets), for corporations operating abroad (which cannot count on protection by the host country or, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the occupying power), and for protection of maritime interests which are increasingly at risk. He argues that the emergence of governmental regulation, self-regulation within the security industry, and the cooperation between governments and the industry represents a de facto normalization of PMCs as a sector, having overcome the obstacles of cognitive and socio-political legitimacy in the minds of governments and populations.
Third, Joshua Massey (Political Science PhD candidate, University of Georgia) wrote about the social impacts of US Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) procedures. He argued that active duty military personnel tend to live in a given community for a much shorter time period than civilians, and that their relatively transient nature prevents the development of social capital in trust and reciprocity. He finds that “mega-bases” in cities such as Jacksonville, NC which are composed of more than 50% active duty military personnel result in much lower levels of civic activity, which he measures in participation in voluntary associations. Over time, he argues, the economic benefits of BRAC may be offset by long-term losses in social capital, which has real affects on economic and socio-political trends. It was a fascinating presentation about a side of defense policy rarely discussed.
Fourth and finally, Alise Coen (Emory and Henry College) presented on her ongoing work on the securitization of Islam in the United States Senate. Utilizing concepts from the Copenhagen School, she discussed how the idea of Islam has become increasingly associated with threats to national security and national interest. She has analyzed the 106th Congress (1999-2001) to establish a pre-9/11 baseline of securitizing and normalizing speech acts regarding Islam, and is currently examining and coding the 111th Congress (2009-2011). She will be trying to determine whether the time past 9/11 has been sufficient to decrease the frequency of securitizing speech acts, or whether the rhetoric following the 2001 attacks has established such a strong new normal that Islam has been firmly securitized among US legislators. This is very much a work in progress, and promises to yield fruitful, interesting results.
There were a ton of other really interesting papers and presentations that I wish I could talk about, but there just isn’t the space here. Overall, the conference was a great experience, and I wish I hadn’t missed the deadline to present. I had been told beforehand that the regional ISA meetings were never that great, but I found ISA South to be fertile ground for important and useful discussion of developments in the field. It is not the place to go to meet big names, or to hear the newest, most groundbreaking theoretical work in IR. However, it was an opportunity to meet scholars from smaller and less represented colleges and universities, and to see what the day-to-day professional life of academics outside the major research institutions is really like. They’re putting out great work and keeping the field moving forward.

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