A Stranger in a (Not So) Strange Land

I have had the privilege to spend today at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida. I was invited by Phil Steinberg on behalf of the journal Political Geography to comment on a plenary address by Rachel Pain on intimate warfare. On the one hand, walking into AAG looks a lot like walking into ISA: there is a heavy book that describes the panels that are going on, a busy book room, and a number of fascinating and diverse panels. On the other hand, my initial experience with AAG was very different than my experience at ISA: here, I know very few people, and even fewer people know me; at ISA, I have trouble walking five feet without running into friends and colleagues who I’ve missed over the years. Also, here, I am the ‘non-geographer,’ as I imagine the ‘non-political-scientist’ feels at APSA or something – a guest in a particularized world.

I spent my first few hours wandering around the conference feeling lost – I could go to panels, and listen to things I hadn’t heard before, and see books that I don’t know exist, have not heard of, and have not read. I started listening to the goings-on with fascination.

The more I listened, though, the more I figured out that this is not actually a land as I originally thought that it was – instead, there are a lot of commonalities between the discussions here and the discussions at ISA – far beyond what the conference looks like and how it is structured.

Particularly, as I sat in the panel that I was on, I heard citations to my work, to Heidi Hudson’s, to Helen Kinsella’s, to Christine Sylvester’s, and to the work of other political scientists/International Relations scholars whose work inspires feminist geographers’ thinking about gender and conflict in global politics. As I read the papers for the panel, I realized that a significant amount of the work that feminists political scientists rely on in theorizing global politics is either mutually relied on by feminist geography, or even originates there.

The conversations here are in very similar languages to the ones that I am used to talking about these issues in, and I am both teaching and learning about different lenses that broaden thinking about the topic under consideration – the relationship between everyday violence and war. Which makes me wonder – why am I not here more often? Why are these people not at ISA? Even if conferences aren’t the locus of intellectual exchanges, a similar argument could be made about our books, our journals, our blogs, and any other medium of intellectual exchange.

On the one hand, both technology and the proliferation of the availability of scholarly materials mean that the stuff like what I heard today is much more accessible to people like me than it might have been twenty years ago – perhaps the inter-field citation comes from that availability. On the other hand, something – whether it is the pressure for productivity, citation ‘cartels,’ or self-reinforcing circles of engagement, causes us (certainly me, and I think most of us) to read less widely in the (related) fields doing similar work to ours, and even be less aware of the existence of the work to read. The “strange land” here seems just to be another neighborhood very much like ‘mine’ (in scholarly and social terms), yet the insularity of my neighborhood made it initially unrecognizable.

As I leave this conference, invigorated with the knowledge that my (scholarly) community is significantly bigger than I thought it was when I woke up this morning, I’m left without what my former-debater colleagues would understand as a ‘solvency’ mechanism – what to do, given the disciplinary nature of scholarly expectations, and limited time in days/weeks/years to ‘engage’ in scholarly engagement.