The Research Connection: A Brief History of SIETAR USA & IAIR

iair november 2020 research connection sandy fowler sietar usa Nov 16, 2020



Throughout most of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, if you were professionally involved in intercultural work and looking for connections with like-minded colleagues there was SIETAR International. If diversity was your focus, there was a small group of people focused on diversity issues within SIETAR, but at that time, it was a marginal component of the Society. The DEI group has grown considerably in the recent decade, but that’s a story for another time. Many of the early members of SIETAR were college professors involved in both teaching and intercultural research, so the research arm of SIETAR was larger than the other two groups combined. That has not been the case for many years. The impetus for many intercultural researchers migrating from SIETAR to join IAIR went like this…

In those days, groups or individuals who were interested in hosting a SIETAR conference submitted proposals to SIETAR’s Governing Council. The GC would deliberate at the annual conference and make a decision regarding which proposal to accept for the following year. It happened one year that Dan Landis (a social psychologist very much engaged with equal opportunity issues) proposed that the next conference be held in Oxford, Mississippi on his campus at the University of Mississippi—Ole Miss. His beautifully prepared proposal to host the conference was accepted by the Governing Council and announced to the participants at the conference.

Dan immediately left the conference and returned to Mississippi to inform the faculty, deans etc. at Ole Miss that their campus would be hosting an international conference the following year. In the meantime, a serious—sometimes heated—conversation began at the SIETAR International conference. Mississippi and the University in particular, were known to be a hotbed of racial discrimination. Holding a SIETAR International conference at Ole Miss became a contentious issue. Protests broke out in the hotel hallways and ballroom, with the outcome being an agreement to hold a town hall meeting that very day for everyone to be able to speak their mind, followed by a vote of the participants to decide whether to rescind the acceptance of Dan’s proposal.

All voices were heard, and I was proud of SIETAR using such an inclusive process to determine the best outcome. An array of opinions was voiced. Some people felt that convening our conference on the campus in Oxford would be an opportunity to provide alternatives to the racist rhetoric found in the Old South. Others said that holding our SIETAR International meeting there tacitly supported the racism prevalent in the South. Some said they would not attend the conference as their way to protest the decision. Others felt it was important to check out the situation in person and suggested having a diversity themed conference.

After several hours of discussion, a vote was held. The decision not to go to Oxford, MS prevailed. I had to call Dan and tell him what had happened—not an easy call to make. He was deeply, deeply disappointed. 

Subsequently, Dan decided to form IAIR. Was it an outgrowth of SIETAR’s decision? It did feel that way at the time, and in the beginning, the relationship between SIETAR and IAIR was distant and decidedly cool. Dan as editor of IJIR (International Journal of Intercultural Relations), which had been the official journal of SIETAR International, kept the journal and moved it with him to IAIR. Most of the researchers in SIETAR did indeed leave to join IAIR. Some, such as Janet Bennett, remained members of both organizations. Suddenly the practitioners in SIETAR International were a clear majority and ever since, trainers/consultants/coaches have remained the largest group within SIETAR USA.

Despite some members in common, there have been limited connections between the two organizations throughout the past 25 years. That has changed slightly; for example, Dan was named and accepted the honorary chair of the research track at the SIETAR USA conference in San Diego in 2017. We cooperate to inform each membership about our respective conferences. IAIR announces SIETAR USA conferences, as we do theirs. When a known figure in the intercultural field dies, we share obituary information.

The associations differ in several distinct ways. IAIR, being international, has members from all over the world. The SIETAR USA membership is primarily (but not exclusively) from the United States. IAIR has educational and experience membership requirements, whereas SIETAR USA asks only that members ascribe to our mission and goals. SIETAR USA has a broad focus; IAIR is focused on research.

The article in this issue by the IAIR president elect, Adam Komisarof, is one way to increase our connection with a sister organization. We have a similar goal: wanting to provide a “home” for people in the intercultural field. Disseminating information such as the IAIR Podcasts is a benefit to SIETAR USA members who might not otherwise hear about them. Likewise, the members of IAIR will be hearing about our Webinar series. Continuing to build this bridge will be a worthy goal for my term as Immediate Past President!

Sandra M. Fowler
President, SIETAR USA