Practice Theory, Tacit Knowledge, and Changes in Peacekeeping Practice

Marion Laurence (Canadian Defence Academy)

In 2018, the United Nations Secretary-General launched the Action for Peacekeeping initiative (A4P), which aims to renew engagement with UN peacekeeping among member states, the Security Council, host countries, troop- and police-contributing countries, regional partners, and financial contributors. The A4P initiative seeks to improve peacekeeping and overcome a variety of challenges, including unfocused mandates, more complex threat environments, personnel and equipment shortages, and political obstacles to conflict resolution. Like many reform efforts that have come before, A4P is largely a top-down initiative. It calls on member states and the UN Secretariat to make peace operations ‘fit for the future’ by implementing a series of commitments in eight priority areas, thereby driving change at the field level. This understanding of change is incomplete, however. High-level decisions are certainly important, but recent scholarship shows that much of what peacekeepers do on a daily basis is best understood through the lens of practice. Instead of basing their actions of conscious decisions about how to implement specific rules or policies, blue helmets rely on tacit knowledge that is rooted in experience. This knowledge provides ‘automatic responses’ to the world around them; alternative ways of thinking and acting are, in many cases, not even considered (Autesserre 2014: 32).

A practice-based approach helps us recognize the wide-ranging impact of tacit knowledge in UN peace operations. It overcomes the ‘representational bias’ of other theories by foregrounding the habits and taken-for-granted routines – practices like writing reports and going on patrol – that constitute peacekeeping (Pouliot 2008: 258). To date, however, practice theory has mostly been used to explain continuity in peace operations. In doing so, it yields important insights that can help address many of the weaknesses and contradictions that afflict contemporary peacekeeping (Barnett and Finnemore 2004: 154–155; von Billerbeck 2020: 15).  Yet peacekeeping practices do change, and gaps remain in how practice theorists account for those changes. One of the most pressing questions concerns the extent to which change flows from conscious reflection or from incremental, ‘unthinking’ adjustments in practice that accumulate over time (Hopf 2018: 2). Drawing on evidence from UN missions in Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I find that practice change can occur through both reflection and small, reflexive adjustments.

Change occurs through reflection when peacekeepers critically examine existing practices and choose to embrace new patterns of action, often by re-combining familiar practices. They might, for example, recognize that existing practices related to protection of civilians are not working and then collectively reflect on how to improve them. In contrast, ‘unthinking’ change occurs when practitioners make a series of small, gradual changes to existing practices without reflecting on their broader implications. Small changes like this are ubiquitous. Peacekeepers must constantly adjust their practices to suit shifting circumstances, using their own judgment and inventiveness as they go. In Sierra Leone, for instance, blue helmets adjusted their interpretation of the mission’s rural outreach policy based on interactions with different communities [1]. These incremental changes can quickly become precedents that other practitioners use to guide future action, potentially leading to dramatic changes in practice.

Evidence from UN peace operations also helps us understand when we are likely to see one type of change or the other. Three findings stand out. First, moments of crisis are conducive to change through reflection. Practice theorists – like many other scholars – have long argued that there is a close relationship between crisis, reflection, and change. Crises tend to bring the ‘undiscussed into discussion’ (Bourdieu 1977: 168). This does not mean that crises will always lead to change. Still, as one peacekeeper told me, crisis can disrupt established patterns of action that would otherwise pass unremarked; failure can force blue helmets to reflect and understand why familiar practices have stopped ‘working.’[2]

Recognizing that crisis fosters change through reflection does not tell us very much about the process by which it unfolds. Here, there is a second finding that highlights the interplay between reflection and ‘unthinking’ types of change. Even when peacekeepers deliberate, that process is shaped by other habits and predispositions that continue to operate in the background (Schmidt 2014: 820). In the context of UN peacekeeping, one such habit is a tendency to rely on specialized knowledge and thematic expertise. For example, high-level expert reports like the Brahimi Report or the 2015 HIPPO Report supply concepts and narratives that UN personnel can invoke to justify new patterns of action. They serve this purpose – functioning as ‘change management’ tools – because peacekeepers collectively view them as authoritative and take their implementation to be a worthwhile and legitimate activity (Andersen 2018: 5).

Finally, evidence from UN peace operations suggests that some peacekeepers are more likely to drive change through reflection than others. Those who occupy senior positions in the mission hierarchy – especially Special Representatives of the Secretary-General and Force Commanders, for instance – are more likely to engage in critical reflection about existing practices. Again, this does not mean that every senior leader will do so. Large bureaucracies like the UN are prone to inertia, and many will not. Rather, it shows that senior leaders have a degree of authority and autonomy that makes it easier for them to question established patterns of action. In contrast, peacekeepers who occupy more junior positions are more likely to be constrained by an organizational culture that prizes rule-following. This pattern underlines the role of power differentials when it comes to explaining practice change.   

These findings are not exhaustive. More research is needed to refine our understanding of practice change in UN peace operations and beyond. For now, though, two things are clear. First, applying the lens of practice to peace operations provides critical insights patterns across time and space in UN missions, including habits and practices that undermine peacekeepers’ effectiveness (Autesserre 2014: 35–36). These insights can be leveraged to address problems that would otherwise be poorly understood. Second, a detailed examination of day-to-day peacekeeping practices can improve our understanding of how practice change occurs, thereby contributing to wider conversations among practice theorists. Perhaps more importantly, it can supplement top-down theories of change in international organizations and provide a more nuanced understanding of how to bring about concrete changes at the field level. 


[1] Confidential interview with a former UNAMSIL peacekeeper, interview by the author. November 2013, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

[2] Confidential interview with a UNOCI official, interview by the author. April 2015, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.


Andersen, Louise Riis (2018). ‘The HIPPO in the room: the pragmatic push-back from the UN peace bureaucracy against the militarization of UN peacekeeping’, International Affairs 94(2): 1–19.

Autesserre, Séverine (2014). Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Barnett, Michael N. and Finnemore, Martha. (2004). Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hopf, Ted (2018). ‘Change in International Practices’, European Journal of International Relations, 24(3): 687-711.

Pouliot, Vincent (2008). ‘The Logic of Practicality: A Theory of Practice of Security Communities’, International Organization, 62(2): 257–288.

Schmidt, Sebastian (2014). ‘Foreign Military Presence and the Changing Practice of Sovereignty: A Pragmatist Explanation of Norm Change’, American Political Science Review, 108(4): 817–829.

von Billerbeck, Sarah (2020). ‘No Action Without Talk? UN Peacekeeping, Discourse, and Institutional Self-Legitimation’, Review of International Studies, 46(4): 477-494.

About the Author

Marion Laurence is an Assistant Professor working in the Dallaire Centre of Excellence for Peace and Security within the Canadian Defence Academy. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto and she is a research associate with the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research examines norm and practice change in global security governance, with a primary focus on United Nations peace operations.

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