A gathering of the clans

March 24, 2006

Though the Political Studies Association's once-intimate get-together has grown bigger and more international, at heart it is still the academic equivalent of an annual party conference, says Huw Richards

Two significant changes will differentiate next year's annual conference of the Political Studies Association from this year's, which will be held next month at Reading University. The 2007 conference at Bath University will be the first organised by a dedicated, paid conference officer and the first with papers vetted for quality.

Jon Tonge, PSA chair and professor of politics at Liverpool University, explains: "Having a dedicated conference officer will save host departments from a great deal of donkey work."

SuchJchanges reflect the growth of the association's annual conference since the first was held at the London School of Economics in 1950. That event was so small and informal that all payments were put through the organiser's personal bank account. And it started traumatically when Harold Laski, a founding father of the PSA, died the night before he was due to give the keynote paper.

Subsequent mishaps have been no worse than Hugo Young, the political columnist, arriving to speak 24 hours late because of a diary glitch. And the event has grown from its early days, in which it was described as "50 people all turning up to every paper". This year, 350 to 400 delegates are expected.

John Benyon, the PSA's treasurer and director of lifelong learning at Leicester University, says: "It has become less intimate and personal." But it retains both qualities in abundance compared with the 5,000-delegate jamboree of the American Political Science Association.

Tonge, who first attended in 1993, recalls: "I liked the event from the start. It was great fun socially and intellectually stimulating."

It remains very much a participatory event. Benyon says: "There will be 130 panels and 390 papers at Reading. Most people there will be giving a paper or will be involved as a discussant or participant in debate."

That is partly because giving a paper is often a precondition of funding for attendance. Tonge accepts that vetting may reduce numbers and will lead to some unpopular decisions. Aware of the potentially fracturing effect of proliferating specialist groups, with up to 15 panels meeting at the same time, the organisers have increased the number of plenary sessions. Benyon cherishes the 2003 plenary given by Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University and author of Bowling Alone . It was "brilliant, one of the best lectures I've ever attended", he says.

Big-name overseas speakers form part of a drive to internationalise the event. While the international contingent is still largely American, groups from Australia, India and the first delegate from Japan are expected at Reading. Tonge says: "There is a general move towards international politics and international relations and away from specifically British politics, particularly among postgraduates."

The accompanying postgraduate conference is well established. Justin Fisher, a member of the PSA executive committee and head of politics and history at Brunel University, notes a far greater postgraduate participation in the main conference. "That's part of the breaking-down of barriers between postgraduates and lecturers." He has also seen divides disappear in his specialist Elections, Public Opinion and Parties (EPOP) group: "It used to be very much a boys' club, but the EPOP conference is now 40 to 45 per cent female."

The one area in which the conference has failed is in winning press coverage. Benyon wonders why geographers and psychologists do so much better. "Do political journalists think they have nothing to learn?" he asks.

Executive members recognise that fostering the growth of specialist group events may attract cutting-edge research but risks making the annual conference a lesser event in intellectual terms. Lisa Harrison, another member of the PSA executive, says: "I'd expect to present my main research at EPOP."

But this may have the paradoxical effect of making the main conference more valuable. Harrison says: "Part of its appeal is the chance to attend papers on subjects outside my normal research interests."

At the event's core, there is, Benyon points out, a vital role that it has filled since its inception - that of the political academics' equivalent of a party conference. "The annual gathering of the clans is very important,"

he says, "It's the one time the whole of British political studies, old and young, established and up-and-coming, is gathered in one place."

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