The International Studies Association (ISA) was founded in 1959 to promote research and education in international affairs and to give American scholars and practitioners interested in international studies a regional base for developing and sharing research. For more than half a century, ISA has been fulfilling and expanding this mandate. Under the aegis of the ISA Constitution and the leadership of Past ISA Presidents and Executive Directors, ISA has grown exponentially to bridge national and geographic boundaries and build a truly global community of scholars and practitioners.

The Association’s Executive Offices have previously followed the Executive Directors and have been headquartered at the University of Denver, the University of Minnesota, the University of South Carolina, and Brigham Young University. Currently, the Executive Offices are headquartered at the University of Arizona under the Executive Directorship of Thomas Volgy. They have been in residence in Arizona since Professor Volgy's appointment in 1995.

The Early Years

ISA was formed in the late 1950s in response to dissatisfaction with the standard content of the American Political Science Association and its leadership. The Association, for understandable reasons, was dominated by American politics. As the “behavioral revolution” strengthened its position in the Association, later to be tagged as successful, the direction of the Association became increasingly American in orientation. For a critical component of the ideology of behavioralists, as some of the liked to be called, was hard data, which wee, of course most easily accessible in the U.S. Another aspect of behaviorism was its micro orientation, breaking down processes and institutions into their smallest part, which logically progresses to individuals. International studies in contrast, deals with wholes, indeed the international system or world and as such requires analyzing micro phenomena in macro contexts.


The fact that ISA was a west coast organization is not irrelevant to its intellectual development. Accessibility to the East and Washington where most political scientists lived physically or intellectually made a regional alternative attractive. Official statements asserted ISA to be a group of scholars and practitioners; the scholars were to be interdisciplinary, to distinguish it from political science and the practitioners were to governmental officials residing in the U.S. and the UN.

ISA was founded with amateur enthusiasm and kept going through the mental and physical contributions of a few people, such as Charles McClelland, who initially was the organization and its publisher. It was a regional organization with few resources to expand.

In 1962 Vincent Davis took over the organizational functions. Grants from the Carnegie Endowment from 1964-1967 provided the means for a professional staff at the University of Denver, an Executive Director, Vincent Davis, and an Association Director, Maurice A. East. Its early membership of about two hundred had dropped to less than 60 paid members by 1963. From 1964-1970 ISA grew to about 1,000 members. John Turner became Executive Director in 1970. By 1973 membership grew to about 1,900. Growth in the 1960s involved the transformation of ISA from a regional group of international relations scholars to a national organization with several regions and diversified intellectual pursuits. Growth and diversification, however, created a major identity crisis.

ISA and the Scholarly Community in North America

ISA became a national organization by what for the times was very heavy external subsidization. It reconciled its regional origins with its national aspirations by establishing a set of regional sections whose histories have been marked by rises and falls in organizational and intellectual prosperity. It also became partly international by establishing both a Canadian and Caribbean region. The main accomplishment of the ISA leadership in the 1960s was a national organization.


An identity crisis was beginning in the late 1960s. If ISA were to become a scholarly community of individual scholars dealing with common problems, then region and nation could not be limiting conditions of its growth. Related to this were divisions, which never emerged into open conflict among ISA scholars with the increasing involvement of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. The question was how to relate to scholars outside of North America. This was a tough issue also because the early ideology of ISA was to combine the perspectives of scholars and “practitioners” and those practitioners were mainly from the U.S. agencies of state, defense, and intelligence.

The beginning of the 1970s marked a clear turning point in the intellectual direction of ISA toward the world. What ISA was up to that time was largely scholars of the international system, mostly political scientist, almost all from the U.S. with a sprinkling of Canadians, many of whom had academic ties to the U.S., and about a dozen members from the Caribbean. Now efforts were to be undertaken to internationalize ISA.

One organizational-intellectual question was how ISA should deal with scholars from other countries – as individual colleagues or as members of a country. Because of experiences with the growing international professional societies in political science and sociology, there was strong inclination against delegations from countries and the inevitable national politics of irrelevance to scholarship.

Policies on this issue were formulated at a meeting in the spring of 1971 at the Mershon Center under the leadership of R.C. Snyder. ISA had support for expansion form the Ford Foundation, including exploring how we would deal with the outside world. The basic decisions were that ISA was to be an individually based organization, an international community of scholars, identified with no government or nation.

To test its capacity to internationalize ISA organized conference at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio in 1971. Its purpose was to discuss with selected Europeans what ISA should do to relate its membership and activities to European scholars. Those were difficult years because of the growing estrangement of European scholars from their U.S. colleagues. The only clear message was that cooperation would depend on the independent status of ISA and the openness of its activities to public scrutiny.

Intellectual Diversity

The first non-political scientist elected President, Kenneth Boulding, tried to integrate intellectually the comparative and international aspects of ISA by making speeches about the relationship between the problems of the international system and general human problems that had no clear national boundaries, such as the environment, ethnicity, world culture, and the human condition in general but that was before interdependence, would system and global human rights concepts became fully accepted in the academic community. ISA was ahead of the energy crisis of 1973-74, but loss of its leadership to smaller groups in better position to change their descriptions of the world.


Under the leadership of John Turner in the earlier 1970s the membership not only grew numerically but also in diversity. Non-north American scholars joined ISA, the political science proportion of the total membership dropped, and several comparative scholars became active. The core, however, persisted and the political debates that dominated the early years of the executive directorship of Carl Beck were between those who wanted to emphasize the core interests with strong personal relationships and those who wanted to diversify rigorously. The differences that separated those wanting a small, intimate ISA and those seeking expansion and diversification became more conflictive in the late 1970s. For more than a decade ISA had external subsidy for its organizational expansion (Carnegie, Ford, NEH). Those funds had run out and the membership fees as well as the institutional indirect subsidy (University of Pittsburg) limited ISA’s growth.

ISA (North America)

During the 1970s’ attempts were made to recruit individual scholars outside of North America by inviting them to special meetings, subsidizing their travel to conventions, appointing them to the Editorial Board of ISA, and encouraging members to recruit them.


As professional social science grew in other countries, they too began differentiating themselves into special organizations, including those for international studies. By the middle 1970s ISA began to change the institutional basis of its international character from individual membership to organizational affiliation. The new Constitutional required that one of the Vice-Presidents be from a country outside of North America. That provision officially recognized ISA as ISA “North America.” ISA began to affiliate with similar organizations in other countries; the first one, Great Britain, and the second, Japan; the third, Poland. This process accelerated after 1980.

ISA was now not only global but also a part of a network of international scholars. It would participate not only with other scholars in other countries but would also promote international studies in the U.S. by affiliating with the American Association for the Advancement of Science; by efforts to support Congressional funding for the United Nations University; by participating in committees of UNESCO; and by joining with others in certain programs of the United Nations. This departure led to the “two faces” of ISA: ISA as a free standing global organization of individual scholars to ourselves and ISA North America to others. This ambivalence is reflected in the ISA pattern of affiliations. Other international studies associations and organizations petition to affiliate with ISA, the “parent” organization. ISA, however, petitions UN agencies for affiliation and acts as a U.S. body on U.S. commission for UNESCO.

Theoretical and Ideological Tolerance

Openness has been and continues to be the dominant organizational style of ISA. Although ISA is not without its theoretical biases, it is open to all perspectives and as ISA reaches to more scholars in different national and cultural contexts, it will become increasingly theoretically diverse.

Of course, all academic organizations are fragile, vulnerable to external events. But that does not diminish from pursuing our responsibility to create a global community of scholars encompassing the full range of human experience and aspiration for human development. 


Historical Narratives

We have collected a few historical narratives about the early history of ISA.

  • Henry Teune: "The ISA". (1982). This narrative, from former ISA President Henry Teune, provides details on the early history and development of the organization.
  • Ole Holsti: "Present at the Creation". (2014). This narrative, from former ISA President Ole Holsti, details the historical contexts of ISA and discusses key leaders involved in the organization and ISA-West in particular.


The International Studies Association

Representing over 100 countries, ISA has more than 6,500 members worldwide and is the most respected and widely known scholarly association in this field. Endeavoring to create communities of scholars dedicated to international studies, ISA is divided into 6 geographic subdivisions of ISA (Regions), 29 thematic groups (Sections) and 4 Caucuses which provide opportunities to exchange ideas and research with local colleagues and within specific subject areas.
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