Spotlight on: Stephen Legg


Our new Spotlight series introduces members of the Centre and their research. We hope that these ‘spotlights’ will highlight the breadth of research conducted within the Centre and start dialogues between researchers from different academic disciplines. 

The first in the series features Stephen Legg, Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham.

What are you currently working on?
I am currently PI on a four year AHRC grant working alongside Professor Mike Heffernan as CI and Dr Jake Hodder as Research Fellow. The project is entitled “Conferencing the International: a cultural and historical geography of the origins of internationalism, 1919-1939”. We are looking at the emergence of international conferences as the key site in which internationalism was articulated in the interwar years. We each focus on a different type of conference. I am looking at the Round Table Conference (1930-32) between representatives of Britain and India. Jake is looking at Pan-African Congress meetings (Paris, 1919; London/Paris/Brussels, 1921; London/Lisbon, 1923; New York, 1927) bringing together African-Americans and African campaigners. Mike is examining 12 International Studies conferences organised in various cities by the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC) within the League of Nations (Berlin 1928 to Bergen 1939). The project combines archival work on and across these conferences, with “impact” work and knowledge exchanges with community groups, teachers, and professionals engaged in contemporary conference provision or event organising.

What have been some of the key findings of your research so far?
One of our main findings has been that the liberal form of the international conference was shared across these very different types of organisation. While pioneered and propagated by the League of Nations, the British Government and Pan-African Congress took up and adapted the protocols, look and even the feel of this new liberal form. In each of these organisations the conferences produced outcomes that were not as radical (or progressive) as anticipated. We are exploring the extent to which the form of the conference produced the content of the internationalism that resulted.

How does ‘internationalism’ feature in your research?
We are interested in how new but historically-dependent forms of internationalism emerged in the interwar period. We are keen to give attention to the exciting and innovative forms of internationalism that were emerging outside of Europe, although always in dialogue with European forms. Pan-Africanism and Indian anti-colonial internationalism are at the heart of our project. But we are also keen to show these forms of internationalism also contained radical and conservative components, elite and subaltern.

One of our frames for approaching this question was to use Fred Halliday’s (1988) three concepts of internationalism: hegemonic/imperial, radical and liberal. Our three case studies seemingly fit well into these categories: the imperial Indian example, radical Pan-Africanism and liberal League internationalism. In practice these conceptualisations and identities blurred into each other, producing figures like the elite Pan-Africanist intellectuals WE DuBois, anti-colonial British campaigners like CF Andrews and prominent League delegates like the General Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh of Bikaner, India.

How does your work challenge or complement other work in your field?
As geographers we are particularly interested in the places in which internationalism took place, and the sites that it managed to interconnect. In particular we are keen to explore how the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ interconnected in the material and social spaces of the conference. Materially, we are interested in how a space was assembled to meet the competing demand of the conference delegates. How were typists and translators arranged? Where did delegates stay and eat? In what informal spaces did they meet to continue their discussions? Beyond infrastructural questions we are also trying to think of conferences as multi-sensory spaces. What was the role of food, music, and dress? How can we recreate the ‘atmosphere’ of the conference, 80 to 90 years after the event?

What is the most frequently asked question you get asked about your research?
“Didn’t they fail?” What most people assume about the conferences we look at, and the forms of internationalism that they proposed, is that they didn’t work! The League of Nations failed to stop another World War, the Pan-African Congress did not bring about inter-war decolonisation of Africa or a united, international black consciousness, while the failure to bring on board Gandhi’s Congress party led to accusations that Round Table Conference failed to create a representative new constitution for the Indian people. Given the immensity of these objectives, the conferences were perhaps bound to fail. We are seeking out the many other ways in which they succeeded, often with unanticipated outcomes and outputs.

What has been the most controversial aspect of your research?
The story of each conference has often been dominated by a particular figure. Looking at what happened at these conferences often leads to new and revisionist perspectives on these figures. Winston Churchill lead the ‘Die Hard’ Conservatives against any substantial concession to Indian reformers at the Round Table Conference (to the desperate annoyance of the Government of India as well as liberal Tories) while Gandhi proved to be a difficult, uncompromising and (to many) disappointing colleague, even to his supporters.

The annual International Studies Conferences (ISCs) involved an expanding cast of prominent academics, politicians, diplomats and journalists from around the world, many of whom invested considerable time and effort preparing voluminous reports on different aspects of the large overarching conference themes: world peace, international trade, international security and so on. Despite their mostly liberal and socialist inclinations, ISC participants espoused a form of internationalism that was often openly suspicious of democratic accountability. At a time when democracy seemed a less than certain means of ensuring benign, tolerant and enlightened forms of government, ISC participants exemplified an elitist, ‘top-down’ interwar internationalism which some have argued was the dominant ethos in the League of Nations and in other international organisations, including those that developed after 1945. This ‘democratic deficit’ provides interesting – and controversial – parallels with current debates about the possibility of a fully democratic international governance.

The Pan-African Congress often elicits an emotive response which reflects the wider politicised role of black history and rethinking its legacy provokes difficult discussions. For some, the Congress represents a tradition of black internationalism which continues to be marginalised but, for many more, it is emblematic of an elitist politics of racial uplift, distinguished by its conservatism and moderation. Much of this project has tried to radicalise the congress therefore, showing how the framework of conferencing enabled those on the margins to mimic and re-imagine diplomacy. Whilst cosmetically this required a moderation of tone and message, structurally it demanded a significant revision of racial hierarchies. In so doing, however, the research reappraises the radical politics and empowering legacy of the congress in precisely those groups already privileged in international history – elite, Western, and largely male voices – which were so central to this kind of respectability politics. Yet our initial choice to include the Pan-African Congress was explicitly to decentre these biases.

What has been your proudest achievement to date?
Our hope in the project was to help other researchers working on internationalism to realise the significance of conferences to their own study. These sites, their records and their outputs, sit at the centre of many studies of internationalism but have functioned often as backgrounds, or static sites in which people made speeches or noted minutes. In bringing conferences to the foreground we hope other scholars will start to think in richer and more rewarding ways about the benefits that a richer geographical approach to the sites of internationalism can bring.

Are there any aspects of your work that could be particularly relevant to scholars from other fields or practitioners in other areas?
We hope that historians and IR scholars will find our geographical approach rewarding. This applies to both the micro-scale of our conference studies but also to the broader geographical range of the internationalisms we are exploring. The League brought together internationalists from all over the world, of course, but the Round Table and Pan-African meetings allowed the articulation of exciting, thoroughly worked through visions of the international that stand to compliment existing works on Euro-American visions of the (implicitly ‘white’) international.

Where do you see your work going next?
We will be writing co-authored pieces of interwar internationalism as well as separate pieces on the conferences we are studying and the particular methodological challenges they have raised. These may include, for instance, the benefits and challenges posed by work within and beyond cultural geography on the historical study of social and inter-personal ‘atmospheres’, the new forms of ‘black knowledge’ created by black internationalism, and the pedagogic campaigns for international thinking launched by the League.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Focus as much on the unanticipated things you’ve done as the things you hoped to, but haven’t…

What would you like to ask the next person to be featured in the spotlight series?
Do you think that the final centenary of the First World War, in November 2018, will create a new appetite for thinking about internationalism, as public attention turns towards the centenaries that followed (Versailles, the founding of the League, and others)?