Since 2001, I have been wondering about the benefits of engaging in a Standing Group (SG). My experience of acting as the convenor of the SISP Standing Group on the European Union (SGUE) and co-convenor of the ECPR Standing Group on Organized Crime (SGOC) has offered me a privileged perspective to understand the role of SGs as actors of the academic environment, and evaluate their performance in Italy and at the European level.
In 2001, the SGOC was established at the Joint Sessions of Workshops in Grenoble; further, various projects were discussed and launched between 2001 and 2014. For example, an electronic newsletter and a website were established during this time. Last year, the SGOC launched a review titled The European Review of Organized Crime. The group meets each year at the ECPR General Conference; it hosts a conference section that has produced several edited volumes. During the ECPR General Conference held in Pisa in September 2007, the SGOC decided to organize its own summer schools; to this end, comprehensive fund-raising activities were subsequently organized. As a result, the Intensive Summer School on Organized Crime (ISSOC) was established in 2009. The ISSOC is an advanced educational program offered to students, young researchers, and practitioners. During 2009-2014, the SGOC organized four summer schools that took place in Catania, Leuven, and Ohrid. Moreover, the ISSOC offers participants the opportunity to enrich their scientific background and to establish and consolidate networks with people with similar working or academic interests. It offers a new generation of researchers and practitioners the chance to engage in the topic of organized crime from a variety of different perspectives, disciplines, and geographical locations. These summer schools have invigorated the SGOC. A new generation of young researchers have been involved in the SGOC’s activities; during 2011, a Facebook group was established in order to offer a less cumbersome version of the blog, and to provide an informal and participative way for people to keep in touch.
In 2014, the SGOC designed an editorial project titled: The European Review of Organized Crime (EROC). This publication was launched in order to provide a forum for the study and analysis of organized crime in its different local, national, and international manifestations by promoting dialogue between the research community and practitioners. How useful is this flood of activities for one’s personal research activities and for the discipline? Actually, the SGOC develops the latest research; it enables participants to exchange ideas, discuss projects, clarify new findings and develop new comparisons on the topic of organized crime. European scholars who are involved in this research topic consider the SGOC to be a core actor, as it facilitates cooperation among stakeholders regarding activities that require the involvement of a network of people, such as the planning of research or educational projects with the aim of applying for joint funding. Most of the grants I have received from European research institutions have funded researches and educational activities that involve the SG on organized crime. These activities enhance the relevance of the SG with regards to broadening members’ personal scientific perspectives. It is a virtuous cycle which is tremendously valuable. It is relevant to note that most of the 44 ECPR SGs have the same experience. They regularly organise common events, propose sections for the ECPR General Conference, and sponsor editorial projects.
My personal experience as coordinator of the SGUE within the SISP framework was a little bit different. I was the coordinator of the SGUE until 2010. It was a very exciting experience, which allowed me to make a contribution to strengthen European Union studies in Italy; it also enabled me to obtain expertise, suggestions, and incentives from Italian colleagues with an interest in European Union studies and who were willing to share their personal interests with the SG’s members. Nevertheless, my personal perception is that the activities of the Italian SGs are less attractive to the Italian academic community, and as a result, less effective.
SISP has 13 different SGs; each SG is comprised of a core group of people who manage different activities. Nevertheless, during my involvement as convenor of the SGUE, my impression was that only a small number of Italian researchers believed (and still believe) that partaking in SGs is a beneficial way to share knowledge, activities, and experiences with scholars and researchers who work on similar topics. While SG convenors work hard to keep alive the SISP SGs, building a stable network of researchers who consider Italian SGs as a reference for their activities has been difficult. Italian SGs have sponsored few regular collective events and few editorial projects.
Why do the SISP SGs play a different role compared to the ECPR SGs? Do the differences stem from structural or cultural constraints?
The ECPR has a very complex structure for governing the SG activities. First, one of the members of the executive committee is responsible for the ECPR SG policy and she/he provides a link between the ECPR central institutions and each SG. The ECPR’s administrative personnel are appointed to manage issues related with the SGs organization details. Moreover, the ECPR supports its SGs by providing resources. In particular, each year, the ECPR offers grants to SGs of up to €500 to cover running costs and travel grants for selected participants in SG summer schools. A number of opportunities are provided, such as opportunities for SG meetings at the ECPR General Conference, an annual meeting of SG convenors and representatives of the ECPR Executive Committee – with travel grants for those convenors who are not involved in the scientific program of the conference, editorial facilities, and contacts with the main European publishers. Since last year, the ECPR established a new ruling system for SGs called the “SG Framework” – this represents a more centralized governance model for SGs. In fact, the SG framework defines some relevant details such as: membership requirements, governance model for the SGs’ internal organization, and financial management of the SGs’ internal budget. On the one hand, it is a policy document aiming to offer SG financial and administrative support; on the other, it is a centralized model which considers SGs as an integral part of the ECPR structure.
SISP adopts a different policy model with regards to SG governance. This is based on minimal requirements; at the same time, it does not provide any resources or specific incentives other than the opportunity to hold SG meetings during the SISP Annual Conference and a dedicated section on the SISP website. It is a “light model” based on few resources and rules, versus a heavy model with additional resources and corresponding rules.
Is this structural difference useful for explaining the different perceptions of the SG’s role in academic life between SISP and ECPR? More resources, more rules, more relevance? Or does the difference rely upon the cultural constraints in providing a possible interpretation of the different role played by SGs in Italy and at the European level? The habit of Italian researchers to work in small homogeneous groups, generally located in the same territorial areas, could explain the minimal role played by the Italian SGs in stimulating cooperation, facilitating information exchange, and providing a platform for the establishment of research networks. It may be a vicious circle: the less the SG is perceived as a useful tool for research activities, the less it is considered as deserving of resources. The less resources it receives, the less it will be able to increase its activities and its total and marginal utility.
In my opinion, the recent experience of the Italian SG of International Relations (SGRI) offers us some critical discussion points. Over the last few years, the SGRI obtained external funding which it used to organize common events. Its annual general conference in Trento is now considered to be very important among Italian political scientists researching international relations and global politics. This event has changed people’s perception of the group: people believe it adds value for personal research and offers a venue for scientific debates. A virtuous circle has been activated.
Finally, my experience as member and convenor of an ECPR SG and a SISP SG is definitively positive and allows me to draw some conclusions. First, the answer to the question: “Would you like to belong to a SG; why or why not?” is definitively positive. SGs are a useful tool for broadening your personal horizons and promoting your individual research experience to a larger number of people, including colleagues and young researchers; this experience is professionally enriching. Second, SGs need to be provided with resources in order to be efficient and effective, however, resources must be raised and translated into appealing activities. Third, SGs are what researchers make of it!