Studying Islands

Island Studies: some history  

The world’s islands and island communities have long been attractive locations and subjects for intellectual enquiry.  Early studies were primarily focused in the disciplines of natural science, physical and human geography, anthropology, ethnology and archaeology but over the last twenty years interest in islands has expanded into an ever-widening range of disciplinary fields.  Environmental studies and biodiversity, cultural history, cultural geography, tourism and heritage studies, geopolitical, ethnic and identity studies, regional development and spatial planning are only a sample of the array of disciplines in which scholarly studies of islands and island communities are to be found. The corpus of island-based studies includes several seminal works in their individual disciplines.

Over the last two decades there has been a slow but steady growth in the number of academic institutes dedicated to the promotion and advancement of Island Studies.  The Institute of Island Studies (IIS) was founded by the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada in 1985.  This was followed in 1989 by the establishment of the Islands and Small State Institute (ISSI) at the University of Malta.  Whereas the UPEI institute initially focused on PEI island affairs (e.g. island culture, sustainable development, land use, the knowledge economy), the Malta-based ISSI took a particular interest in international issues (e.g. governance, international policy and geopolitics) relevant to the interests of small island states.  A specific interest in island cultures has also led to the establishment in 2004 of the Small Islands Cultural Research Initiative (SICRI) at Macquarie University, Australia.

The Institute of Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific, the Centre for Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawaii, the Centre for South Pacific Studies, University of New South Wales, Australia and the Research Center for the Pacific Islands at Kagoshima University, Japan form a further cluster of academic institutes focusing on the issues relating to the island communities of the Pacific. However in SE Asia the Japanese Society of Island Studies, the World Association for Island Studies, Cheju National University, Jeju, South Korea and the Island Studies Launch and Evaluation Center, Taiwan all adopt a global, multi-disciplinary approach.  Within Europe the ISSI on Malta has now been joined in the Baltic-Scandinavian region by the Institute for Island Development on Saaremaa island, Estonia andthe Åland International Institute of Comparative Island Studies on the island of Åland.[1]  Both have a particular focus on economic development and sustainable island communities.

Interest in the emergent field lead to a pioneering series of series of ‘Island Studies’ academic conferences (Vancouver Island 1986, Tasmania 1988, Bahamas 1992) from which emerged the International Small Islands Study Association (ISISA), which has gone on to organise a biennial series of international conferences to provide a focus for the promotion of comparative island studies through the collaboration and shared interests of scholars, researchers, policy-makers, practitioners and providers involved in a wide diversity of islands and island issues. In addition to an expansion of its research interests, the UPEI Institute of Island Studies in Canada now runs a degree programme in Island Studies.  In 2006 it also launched the Island Studies Journal, the first peer-reviewed academic journal exclusively dedicated to Island Studies.  This was joined in 2007 by Shima: the International Journal of Research into Island Cultures, a second online island studies journal published by the Small Islands Cultural Research Initiative (SICRI) established at Macquarie University, Australia in 2004. In 2006 the International Geographical Union approved the establishment of a Commission on Islands and the latter’s inaugural island studies conference was held on Taiwan in 2007.

The definition of what precisely constitutes ‘Island Studies’ has proved as elusively problematic as defining islands themselves.  The concept of ‘Nissology’ as ‘the study of islands on their own terms’ was posited in the early 1990s by Grant McCall, one of the founding figures in ISISA.  Drawing on his own work and experience within Pacific island communities, McCall has proposed that the 21st century be seen as an ‘Island Millenium’ and that Nissology be developed ‘as a rhetorical, subaltern discourse for Islanders as well as for understanding islands in their stewardship of two thirds of the resources of the planet’.  While the concept remains undeveloped and under-critiqued, its loose flexibility has been found useful and it continues to serve as a convenient and recognised referral within the disparate inter-disciplinary community of island studies scholars.  Thus the recently established Island Studies Journal, in following McCall simply states: ‘Island Studies is the global, comparative and inter-disciplinary study of islands on their own terms’.

Against this backdrop of academic development the number and range of resource and support agencies organisations dedicated to servicing the needs of the global spread of island communities has also developed and expanded. The International Scientific Council for Island Development (INSULA) was founded in 1985 with a particular focus on the protection and sustainable development of the environment and heritage of the world’s islands and the economic, social and cultural well-being of island communities.  Within Europe the Conference of Peripheral and Maritime Regions (CPMR) of the EU also maintains its own discrete Island Commission with a full-time Islands Secretariat.

The field of academic island studies is therefore fluid and expanding. While a need for further theoretical and conceptual enquiry is widely acknowledged, the core premise that the issues, the potential and opportunities of islands – particularly the most marginal, peripheral and sparsely populated – should be engaged with from the perspective of the island communities themselves has gained increasing recognition as the basis on which collaborative and comparative academic island studies research should be pursued.  In this context the Scottish academic community and the Scottish island communities have an immense amount both to offer and to  benefit from by active participation in this expanding field of intellectual enquiry and its practical benefits.