Strategy is perhaps the oldest concept in International Relations. It comes from the Greek strategos, which means leading an army. Several theorists have tried to define what strategy is, from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, written in the 5th Century B.C., to Liddell Hart’s Strategy, via Clausewitz’s On War. But the practice of strategy is probably as old as humankind. First applied to the conduct of war, strategy is now widely used to describe human behavior in economics, political science, business, and sociology. The rationalist assumptions of military strategy have spread to these fields of social inquiry. Game theory and rational choice theory, for instance, find their roots in Cold War strategic studies.
In other words, strategy is both a category of analysis and a category of practice. In this paper, we borrow from the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu to explore how social agents strategize (the practice) about military strategy (the concept). For Bourdieu, a strategy is the practice of trying to reproduce one’s position in a social field. Neither intentional nor fully determined, strategy comes from a sense of the game that is generated by one’s habitus. In contrast to dominant understandings of strategy in rational choice theory or strategic studies, Bourdieu’s anthropological conceptualization is not a consequentialist one. It focuses on struggles of position and position-takings in agonistic social fields. In this perspective, we should expect the military strategy of a country to reflect and reinforce the views of those who dominate the military-intellectual field for cultural, social or political reasons. We should also expect that challengers are able to promote alternative doctrines only when the field is subject to an external shock, for example military defeat.
Frédéric Mérand (PhD, Berkeley) is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Montréal and Deputy Director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies. His work on the social networks and social representations of security actors in Europe has been published in the Journal of Common Market Studies, Security Studies, European Societies, Cooperation and Conflict, European Security and in a book, European Defence Policy: Beyond the Nation State (Oxford University Press, 2008). He has also published theoretical work in Comparative European Politics, the Canadian Journal of Political Science, and Politique européenne.