A Postcolonial Practice Theory? (Post)colonial Fields and the Global Circulation of Policing Practices

Lou Pingeot (McGill University)

International practice theory has proven a productive way of studying issues ranging from diplomacy to piracy to international organizations. In importing concepts coming from the sociology of Bourdieu, Boltanski and others to make sense of international phenomena, scholars have often consciously deconstructed the idea of ‘international practice theory,’ reflecting on what ‘practice’ encompasses and what ‘theory’ is. Perhaps ironically, there has been less reflection on what the ‘international’ part of the equation means. What makes a practice an ‘international practice?’ Is it the fact that it takes place within an international organization, such as the United Nations or NATO? That it pertains to an international issue, such as nuclear deterrence, military intervention, peace operations? That it involves international actors, such as Amnesty International? Or is a practice international because the person who studies it identifies as an international relations scholar?

This piece is an invitation to reflect on what the ‘international’ in ‘international practice theory’ stands for. In particular, I argue that international practice research would benefit from engaging with postcolonial understandings of the ‘international.’ Postcolonialism proposes an understanding of the ‘international’ that emphasizes mutual constitution (between the colonies and the metropole, the periphery and the center) and the agency of a priori dominated actors. It challenges narratives that separate ‘the West’ from ‘the rest,’ in particular the Eurocentric ‘Big Bang Theory’ of world history that assumes that modernity emerged endogenously in Europe before radiating outwards (Hobson 2012). Instead, postcolonialism emphasizes the way European identity and history are the result of encounters with other nations and peoples, in particular in the context of colonialism. In International Relations and in security studies, postcolonial scholars bring to the forefront ‘the mutually constitutive nature of world politics, the numerous and diverse ways in which the weak and the strong are bound’ (Barkawi and Laffey 2006: 345) and adopt a ‘processual ontology through which international relations of diverse kinds constitute the entities and phenomena that populate world politics’ (Barkawi and Laffey 2002: 114).

This way of understanding the social world shares many affinities with international practice research. Both practice theory and postcolonialism are based on a relational ontology that emphasizes the relations between things and actors rather than assuming their essential characteristics. Both reject methodological nationalism, the idea that nation-states are the natural containers of social relations. But what would it mean for practice theory to adopt postcolonialism’s understanding of the international? What would an ‘international’ practice look like when seen through the lens of postcolonialism?


The birth of modern policing

A postcolonial approach to international practice research emphasizes the processes of mutual constitution by which practices come about. It means that a practice is international not because of who carries it out or because of where it occurs, but because its genealogy is international. A good example of this is policing. How is policing an international practice, as understood through a postcolonial lens? Scholars have shown that policing tends to be increasingly globalized and transnationalized. In a context where states see a convergence between outside and inside threats (such as in the case of terrorism), the traditional divide between police at home and military abroad appears to be eroding. But the idea that policing is becoming transnational in response to contemporary developments is missing part of the story. Policing has always been transnational, because modern policing was forged in the crucible of colonialism and imperialism. Processes of state formation in the metropole and colonies were intertwined, in particular when it came to the creation of the state security apparatus. Importantly, this process was not a one-way street, with metropoles exporting policing to colonies. Looking at the example of US colonization of the Philippines, Alfred McCoy (2009) shows that US experience in setting up a police force in the Philippines was highly influential in the creation of US domestic policing capacity. Similar dynamics existed in the British and French empires.

How did this process of mutual constitution happen? Individuals circulated between the colonies and the metropoles, importing and exporting experience from one context to another. In the case of the US, August Vollmer and Smedley Butler are two well-known examples of this dynamic. Vollmer served in the Philippines and went on to become chief of police in Berkeley, California, and wrote a highly influential textbook on modern policing. Butler created the Haitian police during the US occupation of the country and then served as police chief of Philadelphia in 1924, where he led a campaign of modernization. Looking at the more recent period of the Cold War, Stuart Schrader (2019) documents how many of the US police trainers sent to ‘allied’ states during the Cold War went on to occupy positions in US domestic law enforcement.

Mutual constitution also occurred because those in power established homologies between populations to be governed in the colonies and populations to be governed ‘at home.’ Ideas about race, class and gender were constructed through the colonial experience in ways that intertwined metropoles and colonies. As Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler (1997: 9) argue, there was a ‘resonance and reverberation between European class politics and colonial racial policies.’ For instance, ‘in nineteenth-century South Africa or turn-of-the-century East Africa, the British used a vocabulary to describe Africans remarkably like that used at home to describe the lowest elements of the class order, “the residuum”, the degraded class of criminals and casual laborers of Victorian cities’ (Cooper and Stoler 1997: 27). This was a two-way street, involving both the racialization of class representations and the transfer of racial discourses to class politics. The migration of colonial populations to metropoles in the 20th century intensified these homologies. In the US, ‘[…] political elites and urban upper and middle classes viewed these minority populations [urban immigrants including African Americans, Japanese and Chinese] in the same racialized terms that they classified colonized peoples’ (Go 2020b: 1214).


For a postcolonial international practice research

The birth of modern policing challenges the distinction between local and international, between national and transnational. Modern policing should be understood as a postcolonial field marked by the international circulation of policing practices. The concept of field was developed in Bourdieu’s practice theory, and although Bourdieu did not explicitly address transnational or global phenomena, several scholars argue that the concept is particularly well-placed to do so. In the last few years, there has been a conscious effort to try and ‘scale up’ Bourdieu’s field theory to think about transnationalism (Go and Krause 2016; Schmidt-Wellenburg and Bernhard 2020). According to Monika Krause (2020: 99), ‘Bourdieu’s work offers significant resources for a social science that seeks to escape methodological nationalism and, with that, seeks to overcome the a priori divide between the national and the interna­tional toward a more open investigation into patterns of the world’.

I argue that postcolonialism provides a particularly good lens to scale field theory up in a way that overcomes traditional dichotomies between national/international and inside/outside. Postcolonialism invites us to see how the ‘international’ is at play even in fields that seem a priori domestic (such as policing), by stressing two important dynamics: mutual constitution, and the agency of the subaltern. In this sense, practices are not international because they are diffused from one locale to another, but because they are constituted through international encounters.

Dominated groups such as colonial subjects played a key role in shaping modern policing during these international encounters. Although the colonial field of policing was characterized by sharp inequalities, we cannot understand it if we focus only on those who hold power. A postcolonial approach thus leads to de-emphasizing the role of elites (such as diplomats or security professionals) that is shared by much of the work done in international practice research, to interrogate how those against whom power is wielded shape practices.

In the case of the birth of modern policing, the agency of the subaltern is apparent from the responses that it generated. In his history of how tear gas came to be used for crowd control in the British empire and eventually in the UK itself, Erik Linstrum shows that there was originally strong resistance from imperial officials to deploy tear gas even against colonial populations. While proponents presented it as both ‘more humane’ and less likely to produce martyrs than more traditional responses to unrest and rebellion, chemical weapons were still associated with German actions during WWI. It is only as anticolonial movements from Punjab to Palestine put increased pressure on the empire in the 1920s that resistance was overcome, and gas was used for the first time against a crowd in Burma in 1939 (Linstrum 2019). The use of tear gas for crowd control is a practice that has an international genealogy, and which has been shaped by the agency of those who are policed.



Does it make sense to think of the contemporary world in postcolonial terms? Is the contemporary field of policing postcolonial? The idea that colonial patterns of power persist in our contemporary world is of course at the center of postcolonialism. As others have argued, the field of global policing today is still characterized by ‘multi-directional travelling of practices across the globe as well as the active agency and participation of seemingly “marginal” actors in producing and co-constituting what is conventionally thought of as “Western” policing practice, knowledge and institutions’ (Hönke and Müller 2016).

If we indeed live in a postcolonial world, a postcolonial international practice research can help us illuminate how the practices of domestic and international security are mutually constituted, how governing ‘at home’ and intervening ‘abroad’ are intimately linked, and how the production of domestic social order and global order go hand in hand.


Barkawi, Tarak, and Laffey, Mark (2002). ‘Retrieving the imperial: Empire and international relations’, Millennium, 31(1): 109–127.

Barkawi, Tarak, and Laffey, Mark (2006). ‘The postcolonial moment in security studies’, Review of International Studies, 329–352.

Cooper, Frederick, and Stoler, Ann Laura (1997) (eds). Tensions of empire: colonial cultures in a bourgeois world. University of California Press.

Go, Julian (2020). ‘The imperial origins of American policing: militarization and imperial feedback in the early 20th century’, American journal of sociology, 125(5): 1193–1254.

Go, Julian, and Krause, Monika (2016). ‘Fielding Transnationalism: An Introduction’, The Sociological Review, 64(2): 6–30.

Hobson, John M. (2012). The Eurocentric conception of world politics: Western international theory, 1760–2010. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


Hönke, Jana, and Müller, Markus-Michael (2016) (eds).  The Global Making of Policing: Postcolonial Perspectives. Routledge.

Krause, Monika (2020). ‘The post-national analysis of fields’, in Schmidt-Wellenburg, Christian  and Bernhard, Stefan (eds), Charting Transnational Fields: Methodology for a Political Sociology of Knowledge, Routledge, 98–112. 

Linstrum, Erik (2019). ‘Domesticating chemical weapons: Tear gas and the militarization of policing in the British imperial world, 1919–1981’, The Journal of Modern History, 91(3): 557–585.

McCoy, Alfred W. (2009). Policing America’s empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the rise of the surveillance state. University of Wisconsin Press.

Schmidt-Wellenburg, Christian, and Bernhard, Stefan (2020) (eds). Charting Transnational Fields: Methodology for a Political Sociology of Knowledge. Routledge.

Schrader, Stuart (2019). Badges without borders: How global counterinsurgency transformed American policing. University of California Press.

About the Author

Lou Pingeot is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montréal, and a graduate of McGill University (PhD, 2020) and Sciences Po Paris (MA, 2010).  She is broadly interested in questions of global governance and global justice. Her current research explores the co-constitution of global and domestic social orders, of external and internal security, by investigating the role of police and prisons in international relations.

Contact: lou.pingeot@mail.mcgill.ca

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