Don’t Boycott: Let’s use conferences as organizational platforms and improve social impact

25 February 2017, 2030 EST

Just returning from an invigorating #ISA2017 where I was inspired by colleagues and new ideas and processing all the stimulating interactions and conversations I had. Last night at the fabulous Global Health Studies section (you should join!) business meeting, one topic of discussion was whether the section should take further action on the U.S. travel ban given that the ISA conferences are to be held in the U.S. or Canada through 2023 and the ban impedes participation by our colleagues from the targeted countries. This year some 170 colleagues did not attend the conference as a result of the travel ban for various reasons—they could not obtain required visas, felt too vulnerable traveling to the U.S. or were conscientious objectors. Inevitably, the idea of boycotting future ISA conferences was floated by several colleagues.

I think this is the wrong conversation to have and I made this point during the business meeting. Boycotts are effective for demonstrating solidarity and for exerting pressure on power-wielders, in this case the ISA and the US government. As we learned last night, ISA holds contracts through 2023, abrogating those contracts will come at a financial cost to the organization. Therefore, it may not be susceptible to pressure from ISA members, in that it might not be able to absorb the financial or legal costs of breaking contracts. Boycotting might also pressure the U.S. government to change its immigration policy, but the data points we have suggest that the administration is impervious to the opinion of expert groups. Boycotts also separate us from each other, disrupting our networks and interactions.

Why not use ISA, and other conferences, as organizational platforms to organize and leverage our expertise to make a social impact? Something like 6,000-7,000 international relations experts attend ISA every year. Let that sink in. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of people that know a lot about international relations and the world. That’s a lot of people with professional and social networks in the U.S. and abroad.

What do I mean by social impact? Academics are currently rewarded for academic impact—citation counts, journal impact factors, winning awards and grants etc.—and policy impact—influencing the policy process as Josh is describing in a series of blog posts. Social impact would measure public engagement, civic education, and grassroots mobilization. Social impact would incentivize bridging the gap with the public, showing the American people and people worldwide the value of political science research and expertise.

How do we do this? I have some thoughts that I will offer here, but I think this merits further discussion. Section members could craft collective statements on issues and policies in their area. Charli’s letter and presentation are great examples of how to use ISA as a mobilizing platform for producing these types of collective statements.  We might opt for non-traditional panels—roundtable or workshop formats—focused on translating research findings for the public and producing civic education tools and resources to inform civic engagement, public mobilization, civil society strengthening, and policy briefs on current topics. ISA sections could collaborate with civil society organizations, using the conferences as organizational platforms to leverage the capacities of all parties and develop strategies for working on issues pertinent to each section. Why not invite advocacy groups and NGOs to these workshops at ISA or parallel workshops to learn how the academy could support their efforts and exchange information and expertise?

As we return from ISA and before we submit proposals for the next annual conference, let’s consider how we might use this and other conferences to develop professional networks in ways that make a social impact. What ideas do you have for boosting our social impact and using conferences as a force for good? Comment below!