Welcome to the BISA Blog


The BISA blog provides a platform for our members to share their research and provides a place for conversation on the latest developments in international studies. The intention is that this should be a space for scholars to communicate new ideas, pedagogical innovation and support other scholars, especially early career researchers.

The blog will also communicate news and additional information from BISA. We hope that it will be able to reach our members in manner that allows for greater interaction with BISA and create a space for communicating the cutting edge ideas and research that are the hallmark of our association.
 
- Professor Richard Whitman, BISA Chair

North Caucasus Studies? Impediments for the Emergence of a Distinct Area of Study

A review of scholarship on the Russian North Caucasus reveals that there is a large though dispersed body of interdisciplinary work done on this region. While interest in the North Caucasus comes and goes, articles and monographs keep being published featuring original research on the North Caucasus, its native languages and cultures, political processes, history and other dimensions that cut across disciplinary lines. However, this body of work has yet to be organised by summative accounts or around dedicated conferences and institutions. In Europe and North America, there are neither journals nor research centres that specialise exclusively on the North Caucasus. In sum, the North Caucasus studies 'field' - if it can be called that way - is diffused. Research on this Russian region is typically hosted by two broader areas of study: Caucasus studies and, occasionally, Russian studies. In the United Kingdom, those that specialise in the North Caucasus are typically based in departments of Central and Eastern European Studies. I do not suggest that this situation necessarily hinders scholarship on the North Caucasus. However, it does hinder collaboration and contact among researchers working in the region [i].
 
In the following, I argue that there are four difficulties that at least partially explain the diffusion of North Caucasus studies in Europe and North America: the definition of the area, the relevance of the region, language barriers and security concerns.
 
First, the boundaries of the North Caucasus are hard to define. Where to locate the northern end of the Caucasus as a distinct area of cultural/political studies? Andrew Foxall mentions [ii] that this ambiguity is present even in Russia itself. Is the North Caucasus limited to the 'ethnic' republics of Adygea, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, North Ossetia-Alania? Or should it also include the neighbouring, Russian-majority districts? It could even be defined up to include all of southern Russia between the Black and Caspian seas. For a potential North Caucasus studies 'field', this lack of definition blurs the boundary between the specificity of the region as an area of study, and, for instance, Russian studies. However, this type of lack of a clear geographic definition has not impeded other regions to become areas of specialised study. For instance, Soviet Studies have evolved into broader areas to include former socialist countries and even China. The trajectory of the journal Europe-Asia Studies (formerly Soviet Studies) illustrates this trend. One could also argue that the region is not large enough to stand as its own 'field'. However, other regions with relatively small populations have dedicated journals and international associations dedicated to their study, such as the Baltic states (about 6 million) [iii].
 
Second, the policy relevance of the region has diminished markedly in the past ten years. Much of the early, post-1991 scholarship on the North Caucasus was connected to the conflict in Chechnya, and with the broader insurgency in the neighbouring republics. This early burst of interest could be seen as reflective of the larger trend in Central Asian studies in the 1990s when the newly independent, former-Soviet republics attracted researchers to conduct fieldwork in that region [iv]. For the North Caucasus, the end of the Chechen wars seems to have marked the end of the period when the region's political arrangement was in flux and open-ended. Consequently, interest in the region is not as widespread as before, when 'big' developments were taking place.
 
Third, area studies are typically associated with language-based scholarship. The native languages of the North Caucasus are considered to be some of the most difficult to learn, due to their relative isolation vis-à-vis other language families. This peculiarity has made the languages of the North Caucasus an object of interest in philology [v], but represents a barrier for other disciplines interested in language-based research on the region. However, due to long-term Russian domination, documents and inter-ethnic communication are both done in Russian, which facilitates some forms of research. This both enables certain forms of research but also contribute to the lack of specificity in North Caucasus studies, subsuming these further into Russian studies. Some universities in Europe have offered North Caucasus languages as part of their postgraduate programmes, but these remain a rarity.
 
Fourth, the security situation throughout the North Caucasus has been an impediment to fieldwork being conducted in the region. Even beyond the wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and Dagestan today, the other 'quieter' [vii] republics have seen their share of violence. However, the last few years have seen a drop in violence throughout the North Caucasus. Even some international travel guides such as Lonely Planet [viii] feature some of the North Caucasus republics (albeit they refrain from recommending travel to more unstable ones such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia). Consequently, fieldwork has been carried out in all of the republics, including Dagestan [ix]. Furthermore, there is a small but growing field of inquiry on how to conduct scholarly research in conflict zones, featuring cases such as civil-war era Cote d'Ivoire [x]. 
 
In sum, a lack of clear geographic determination, policy relevance, language scholarship and safety assurances for researchers doing fieldwork have been among the impediments for the emergence of the North Caucasus as a distinct region for area studies. While none of these is impossible to overcome, they have made access to the region more difficult. A possible solution to these obstacles could be a deeper, more institutionalised collaboration of Western universities with North Caucasus institutions in interdisciplinary research and training. 
 
 
References
 
i. The same cannot be said of Russia, or at least not entirely. Inside the Russian Federation, there are some study centres that specialise in the North Caucasus from an interdisciplinary perspective, or even in its sub-regions. Also, there are a number of journals entirely or partially dedicated to the study of the Russian Caucasus from various disciplines. However, these cases are few. Other Russian centres that address the region are mostly in the fields of linguistics and philology. 
ii. Foxall, Andrew (2015), Ethnic Relations in Post-Soviet Russia. Russians and non-Russians in the North Caucasus. London: Routledge, p. 8.
iii. This is, namely, the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies, which does feature scholarship on the broader Baltic sea region too.
iv. See, for instance, Johnson, E. C. (1994), “Central Asian Studies in American Academia”, Islamic Studies, 33:2/3: pp. 393-396.
v. See, for instance, Jaimoukha, Amjad (2001), The Circassians: A Handbook. New York: Palgrave, pp. 17-18.
vii. The phrase 'quiet conflicts' was notably used to describe political conflict in Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia. See Kazenin, K. (2009), Тихие Конфликты на Северном Кавказе. Moscow: Regnum.
viii. Richmond, S., et al (2018), Russia Travel Guide. Lonely Planet, pp. 398-410.
ix. Ratelle, J.-F. (2013), Radical Islam and the Chechen War Spillover: A Political Ethnographic Reassessment of the Upsurge of Violence in the North Caucasus since 2009. Doctoral thesis, University of Ottawa, chapter 6.
x. Bonfoh, B., et al (2011), “Research in a war zone”, Nature, 474: 569–571 URL=https://www. nature.com/articles/474569a (accessed on 1/04/2019).
 
 
Ivan Ulises Kentros Klyszcz is a doctoral student at the University of Tartu, Estonia. His research interests are Russian foreign policy and the North Caucasus. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. @IvanUlisesKK
 
 
 

How powerful is ethno-religious populism in Indonesia and Malaysia?

Scott Edwards & Asmiati Malik
 
A political strategy of mobilising those feeling increasingly insecure due to a perceived side-lining of religion and ethnicity is occurring in Malaysia and Indonesia. Centred on opposition to ‘others’, it is giving rise to concerns over the strength of polarizing narratives in these fledgling democracies. 
 
The 212 rally in Indonesia highlighted the strength of religious narratives. Supported by several political parties, as well as the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the 2018 reunion attracted more attendees than last year. While the committee promised to be politically neutral, Jokowi’s coalition was not represented due to his criminalisation of Ulema”, and opposition Prabowo Subianto addressed the crowd. An oath of allegiance was given to FPI leader Habib Rizieq, “Great Imam of the Islamic Ummah of Indonesia”, who argued that it is forbidden by Islamic law to vote for a president supported by political parties condoning blasphemy – referring to Jokowi.
 
In Malaysia, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), experienced in using religion and ethnicity, are learning from their neighbours. Prior to last year’s election UMNO called for a ‘Malay tsunami’. They since had their own gathering to protest the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s plans to ratify the ICERD (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination). Naming it Himpunan 812, the rally was supported by opponents of PH including UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and argued that PH undermine the values of Islam.
 
There are some symbolic linkages between 212 & 812. Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA), one of the 812 organisers, invited 212 leader Ustaz Bachtiar Nasir to speak via video call. Symbols such as the tauhid flags, uncommon in Malaysia, were seen to be inspired by 212. In Indonesia, those supporting the “change president 2019” hashtag tweeted that 212 and 812 are symbols of rising Islamic civilization. These linkages demonstrate the way in which momentum from both is used as inspiration for the other. 
 
But why is this narrative surrounding Islamic representation being mobilised?
 
812 is an effective distraction from the 1MDB affair for UMNO, and ethno-religious populism seems to be their last hope of rallying support now they have lost their ability to distribute patronage and no longer need to consider their non-Malay partners. It resonates with many Malay voters, who feel increasingly insecure, and there seems to be greater fluidity of party loyalty than in Indonesia  where less than 20% of people identify with a political party. 812, therefore, provides a strong focal point for shaping perceptions that the PH government is “anti-Islam” and “anti-Malay”.
 
212 is also being used by an opposition who are not only focused on religious sentiment, but also the economically marginalised in Jakarta. The eviction and financially burdening relocation of residents in Kampung Pulo is just one unpopular policy in a city where inequality is rising. As Ahok was perceived as close to rich elites, it was not particularly difficult to link economic marginalisation with ethnic and religious sentiments. 
 
In Indonesia, these narratives have seen mixed success. They allowed opposition elites, such as Anies Baswedan, to access strong positions in the Jakarta administration – giving them an advantage in the 2024 Presidential elections. Where it is less successful is in the current elections, and populist strategies are not as strong as they were during the gubernatorial election. A CSIS poll showed that many who describe themselves as 212 sympathisers are also Jokowi voters - generally moderate Muslims represented by organisations such as Nahdatul Ulama (NU). Jokowi selected former chairman of Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate, who also took part in 212 and testified during Ahok’s trial. He has successfully gained support from former 212 alumni, causing a split, and counter-attacked accusations that he is not chosen by Ulema, managing to co-opt this narrative to appeal to more inclusivist Islamic supporters.
 
This mixed success is also reflected in Malaysia. UMNO won a significant portion of the Malay vote during the election and this narrative helped propel them to victory in the Cameron Highlands by-election. It is a tactic that PH is finding particularly difficult to counter, as Malay parties such as Bersatu are increasingly seen as too liberal due to the power-sharing within PH. They face difficulties in accommodating the interests of the non-Malay and allaying anxieties of the Malay electorate that remain wary of the coalition, meaning PH cannot co-opt these narratives. There are limitations, however. Despite continuing Malay support for UMNO, there was a strong swing to PH during the elections as they appeal to more moderate and inclusivist Muslims. This seems to have led to some degree of hedging on this strategy. Critics such as Khairy Jamaluddin said that the continuation of 812 was a mistake, and it is time to reduce the political temperature of the country. Zahid stepping down, and his replacement by technocrat and moderate Mohamad Hasan, may hark a change towards more programmatic appeals, though he has also stated UMNO is for those who will fight for and love their race.
 
Both democratising countries are facing challenges of how to deal with politics and narratives of race and religion in the age of social media. This was emphasised at the first Political Studies Association’s (PSA) political psychology conference held at the University of Birmingham by Helen Haste. Her keynote focused on the power of narratives in relation to populism, where she stressed that we need to understand the psychological effects that these narratives have – especially in influencing political choices and their relation to other dynamics.
 
Scott Edwards is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham who focuses on Malaysian and Indonesian politics and foreign policy. 
 
Asmiati Malik is a doctor research at the University of Birmingham
 
 
 

Could focus group interviews be the missing link in critical research?

Lisa Gibson, University of Nottingham
 
 
In recent years, there has been an increasing shift in international relations scholarship toward more critical approaches like constructivism, feminism and poststructuralism. With this critical shift has come an acceptance and move toward more interpretivist methodologies. These shifts are characterized by a greater recognition of the role of discourse in understanding how meaning is negotiated between actors and even a shift to studying the relational side of international relations. Discourse can be explored in written documents and media articles, but also in social discourse like conversation and dialogues. These shifting perspectives are influenced by an increased understanding of the important role that agency and even emotions play in international relations. At least in part, these shifts are influenced by a recognition of the role that people play in causing conflict and facilitating peace between countries. Despite the awareness of the human side of conflict and the need to better understand people’s perspectives, what has surprisingly been lacking in these shifts is the use of focus group interviews in the research process. 
 
This is despite the fact that social science researchers have long recognized that focus groups are the most beneficial method to understand how actors construct meaning together around a given phenomenon (Barbour and Kitzinger, 1999)
 
Interpretivists see meaning as being constructed socially and experientially. Similarly, critical theorists tend to prefer dialogic research methods that foster conversation and reflection, where the researcher and participants are able to reflexively explore the nature of things. It is through a dialogic process that truth can be determined by consensus (Habermas, 1984). Theorists like Habermas see dialogue as essential to understanding and emancipation (Linklater, 2001). In addition, as critical researchers seek to understand the voices of more marginalised people groups it is important to recognize that many of these marginalised cultures are collectivist cultures. People from collectivist cultures tend to see themselves as interdependent with each other and prioritize group goals over individual ones. People from these cultures, already use more collective processes in their decision making. As a result, collective processes of negotiating meaning are a very natural social process for them. 
 
Therefore, focus group interviews, as an inherently collective process, can be particularly useful in understanding the group members perspectives when compared with other research approaches. Further, focus groups are also specifically helpful for critical researchers who are cognizant of power dynamics. ‘Compared with most traditional methods, including the one-to-one interview, focus groups inevitably reduce the researcher’s power and control’(Wilkinson, 1999). 
 
If dialogue is one of the best ways to understand how participants construct meaning together as a group, then focus groups are the best method to use in the research process. If this is true, then it begs the question, why aren’t IR scholars using focus group interviews more frequently in their research. Some benefits of focus group interviews is that they tend to be less expensive and more expedient than other qualitative approaches like ethnography and individual interviews. However, when research involves actors in foreign countries perhaps it is seen as cost prohibitive to travel to a foreign land to do a single focus group with 6-12 participants. Or perhaps with people’s busy lives, it becomes problematic to get a group of people together at the same place and time to conduct the focus group interview. These are all realistic issues. In addition, when doing research in the area of peace and conflict studies, there is always a need to consider issues like security and safety of a researcher and prospective participants when planning to travel into a conflict zone. Therefore, researchers have begun to explore more innovative approaches to research to reach more hard to reach populations. One such method, which has been used in health and culture studies, is the use of Facebook focus group interviews. This method is particularly beneficial, because it provides a forum to not only recruit participants, but hold online Facebook interviews. Rather than searching to find people to interview, you are doing your research in a place that people already are. Doing these interviews online are particularly useful for reaching hard to reach participants, because people are already spending a lot of time interacting online. Facebook focus group interviews can take place in an asynchronous format where participants don’t have to be online at the same time and in a bilingual format by using the Facebook translate features. Facebook provides a very natural and rich forum to explore the process of social discourse in a semi structured way, rather than more passive processes of data collection from existing Facebook groups or posts. It is only through the intersubjective process that the process of meaning construction can be appropriately observed. In addition, when people participate in these focus group interviews the process mirrors similar linguistic characteristics that happen in face-to-face dialogue such as the use of emojis, in lieu of body language. 
 
To sum up, as the field of international relations scholarship evolves with an increasing commitment to engage a multitude of approaches and gain perspectives of diverse actors, the research methods should evolve as well. Focus group interviews have a long history in social science research. Its recent re-emergence provides an exciting opportunity for researchers to use this rich format to explore critical perspectives on identity construction through a more natural dialogic format. 
 
 
 
Lisa Gibson has a JD in law and is pursuing a PhD in International Relations at University of Nottingham. Her research falls in the area of critical peace and conflict studies. She is currently using focus group interviews to explore how Libyans participation in friendship groups with Americans impact their views of Americans and American foreign policy. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
References
 
Barbour, R. and Kitzinger, J. 1999. Developing Focus Group Research. London: Sage.
 
Habermas, J. 1984. Theory of Communicative Action. Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Translated by Thomas A. McCarthy. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press.
 
Linklater, A. 2001. The Changing Contours of Critical International Relations Theory. In: Jones, W. Critical Theory and World Politics. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Riener Publishers, Inc. 
 
Wilkinson, S. 1999. How useful are focus groups to feminist research. In: Barbour, R. and Kitzinger, J. eds. Developing Focus Group Research. London: Sage.
 
 
 
 

PSA/BISA 11th Annual Learning and Teaching Conference 2018 – University of Leeds

Drs Stuart McAnulla and Victoria Honeyman, University of Leeds
 
 
This year’s annual Learning and Teaching Conference, jointly hosted by the PSA and BISA's Learning and Teaching Working Group and held in association with Oxford University Press, focused on the student journey. With the introduction of student fees, the National Student Survey, the Office for Students and the Teaching Enhancement Framework (TEF), academics are keen to ensure that they are continuing to provide the best possible learning experience for their students, often in trying and difficult circumstances. The first keynote speaker, Bela Arora (South Wales) discussed her inspirational teaching, explaining how she used external events and projects within her seminars, and outside of teaching hours, to allow her students to develop a range of exciting and useful skills. By utilising her own community connections, and encouraging her students to work with each other, she has been able to provide an extensive and impressive learning experience for her students, which her excellent keynote speech explained to the conference delegates.
 
 
 
Following the keynote speech, the conference panels began. The first panel began with a paper from Helen Williams (Nottingham) on the importance of feedback literacy and consistency across departments, not just so students are receiving a consistent message, but also so that they receive a message they can easily understand. The second paper from John Craig (Leeds Beckett) discussed the importance of lectures, a long-standing, but often criticised, form of teaching. The panel was concluded by Oana Burcu (Durham), who spoke on the subject of group work and assessment, based on her module which utilised extensive group work, suggesting that it was a key skill for students to engage with, and a structure which could be managed more easily than might be imagined. 
 
The second panel focused on the modern challenges which academics face in delivering a relevant curriculum to students. Simon Choat (Kingston) spoken on his experience of decolonialising his curriculum and expanding the scope of his political theory module beyond the classic scholars. Claire Sutherland (Durham) discussed the challenges academics face from external forces, such as TEF and QA and how these can be dealt with effectively. Ben Little (UEA) concluded the panel by discussing his experience of connecting pedagogy with forms of active political campaigning – his students campaign to introduce stronger controls on nurdles. 
 
The third panel concentrated on the teaching of political theory, with Spiros Makris (Macedonia) and Pete Woodcock (Huddersfield) discussing dilemmas concerning how the teaching of political theory speaks to issues such as citizenship and employability. The teaching of political theory can be considered too theoretical or philosophical to be viewed in practical terms, but Markis and Woodcock both argued in their papers, that the skills students acquired from learning, and analysing, political theory were key to their employability levels and should be encouraged and emphasised.
 
The final session of the day was the Jacqui Briggs Memorial Lecture, delivered by Heather Savigny (DeMontford) who spoke very movingly on her late friend, Professor Jacqui Briggs (Lincoln), a leading member of the Learning and Teaching community, emphasising how approachable and friendly Jacqui had been and what a huge contribution she had made to the discipline, both in terms of her professional output, but also in terms of her warm and welcoming personal attitude towards colleagues and friends.  Savigny then moved on to discuss textbooks, something which Jacqui Briggs was a big supporter of (and an author of), how they can be produced and how they can positively contribute to both the discipline and the CV of an academic. 
 
The first panel on day two centred on interdisciplinary and online learning. Cathy Coombs (Leeds) discussed her module, which was taught by academics across a range of schools to students from across a range of faculties to explore the interdisciplinary elements of power and conflict. By utilising an online learning environment, Coombs and her colleagues were able to cover a wide range of topics and varied material, which was very popular amongst their students. The second paper from Simon Rofe (SOAS) discussed online learning, drawing on his experience of leading a large online module, as well as a large MOOC.  
 
The second panel discussed innovative practices in fostering employability skills, with applied papers from Simon Lightfoot (Leeds) and Lata Narayanaswamy (Leeds).  Both papers discussed the importance of employability, and drawing ‘real world’ experience into the classroom, by using both  innovative assessment, based on real life examples and connections with external organisations as a research partner for dissertation students.
 
The final panel of the day considered renewed approaches to supporting students through their studies, with papers from Hannah Duggan (London Met) and Mark Shanahan (Reading) discussing areas including mental health support and preparing assessed work. With a growing student population, and the varied academic backgrounds which students have, the support mechanisms which universities have are under renewed pressure, and the papers focused on how these challenges could be met. The conference concluding with a roundtable discussion on the often neglected topic of the role of pedagogy in research supervision, led by Tony Armstrong (Birmingham City). This discussed issues such as originality in doctoral research, and whether current practices are too narrow or limiting in what is considered to be acceptable new contributions to understanding. inter-disciplinarity and the role of supervisors were also discussed.
 
All the conference papers were inspiring and attendees all left with a reinvigorated approach to their own teaching, and a host of new ideas to bring back to their home universities, as well as with new contacts and friends. 
 
 
Biographies:
 
: My PhD was a critical biography of the Labour MP Richard Crossman and was published in 2007 by I B Tauris. Since completing my PhD at the University of Leeds in 2005, I have taught on a wide range of modules. My primary research interest is British Politics, with a particular specialism in British foreign policy. I have written extensively on the foreign policy objectives of both the Conservative and Labour Parties. I am also Chair of the British International Studies Association Foreign Policy Specialist Group. I work extensively with the media, providing expert analysis for the BBC, Channel 5, Al Jazeera, France 24 Radio 5 Live, Radio 4 amongst others. I also work with members of the Associated Press. You can find her on twitter @vhoneymanleeds
 
Stuart McAnulla: Before coming to Leeds, I completed a PhD and taught at the University of Birmingham. I also worked for a year as a researcher at the University of Central England, where I also taught a public policy course. My particular interests are in: contemporary British politics; ideological and institutional change; political atheism; religion and politics. I am co-convenor of the Political Studies Association specialist group on Religion and Politics. I am also a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life here at the University of Leeds
 
 

The PhD & the Powerful: A BISA Post-Graduate Network Workshop

Disparities of power often exist between postgraduate students and the actors they focus on. This holds especially true for international studies, where access to information and subjects is often constrained by state actors able to envelop themselves in numerous, potentially legitimate, restrictions. At the same time, international studies is literally soaked with discussions and definitions of power. Furthermore, from realist debates about great power politics, Weberian ponderings of legitimate force, Foucauldian deliberations inspired by governmentality and biopolitics via the consideration of soft power, such discussions and definitions are as varied as they are predominant.

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