International Law’s Invisible Frames Symposium: The Dispositional Formations of International Lawyers – A Commentary on Akbar Rasulov’s ‘The Discipline as a Field of Struggle: The Politics and the Economy of Knowledge Production in International Law’ Part I

International Law’s Invisible Frames Symposium: The Dispositional Formations of International Lawyers – A Commentary on Akbar Rasulov’s ‘The Discipline as a Field of Struggle: The Politics and the Economy of Knowledge Production in International Law’ Part I

[Dr. Adil Hasan Khan is a Senior Research Fellow with the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at the Melbourne Law School, The University of Melbourne.]


Professor Akbar Rasulov has contributed a remarkably erudite and challenging chapter to the edited collection International Law’s Invisible Frames. In this chapter Rasulov further develops upon a fecund line of enquiry initiated by him in several earlier works. Overall, he is interested in sociologically examining the fate of several ‘failed’ heterodox projects in the disciplinary field of international law, as well as providing a materially grounded examination of potential strategies that might be availed by heterodox ‘critical scholars’ to transform said field. This line of enquiry, with its animating concern of contesting the ‘abstract idealism’ that characterises much of the international legal literature currently engaging in similar enquiries, is an extremely compelling one. In this review I want to draw out how attending to different traditions of dispositional pedagogy might benefit this project. 

Bourdieu as ‘Invisible Frame’ 

One of the intriguing developments in this latest iteration of Rasulov’s project has been the displacement of his earlier explicit taking up of the theoretical concepts formulated by the late French sociologist of knowledge, Pierre Bourdieu. Instead it is to Bourdieu’s generational predecessor, the inter-war era German sociologist Karl Mannheim and his concept of ideology, that Rasulov now turns to. Essentially what is sought is an account of the sociology of the discipline of international law that avoids the threat of ‘vulgar materialism’ by making room for the ‘relative autonomy’ of knowledge production, while also asserting the ‘objectively socially conditioned’ character of any knowledge production by being particularly attentive to its institutional context. My emphasis on the overt character of this displacement seeks to bring to the reader’s attention that this displacement is a surface level phenomenon. The influence of Bourdieu is still writ large, especially when it comes to the latter’s influential concept of field

This point also seeks to acknowledge the underappreciated continuities between Mannheim and Bourdieu, and their respective projects of developing a sociology of knowledge that avoided the opposing extremes of sociogenesis and psychogenesis.

This however leads me to query a somewhat more consequential omission. Namely, Rasulov’s lack of attention to Bourdieu’s essential concept of habitus (or its equivalents) in developing his analysis of the struggles of the disciplinary field of international law. With habitus, Bourdieu influentially combines an account of the contingent historicity of complex social structures (moving beyond hermetic self-sufficiency) with their flexible durability (moving beyond simple mechanical reproduction), by introducing and emphasising the vital role played by embodied practical dispositions (habitus) of agents participating in social fields. These dispositions are cultivated through internalising as “second nature” (p. 56) ‘external’ determinations impressed upon agents by their social conditions. With these “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” (p. 53) Bourdieu’s sociology of knowledge integrates the sociogenesis and psychogenesis of knowledge production – though, as I will show, very much by subsuming the latter within the former!  

In the next section I offer some reflections on this apparent oversight, and some of its consequences for the account that is produced by Rasulov.

‘Anxiety of Influence’ and Embodied Materiality 

Rasulov’s chapter really comes into its own when it is engaged in a conversation with (and against) the American international legal scholar David Kennedy. Of Kennedy’s corpus, the “greatest inspiration” is provided by his pathbreaking foray into writing a sociology of the disciplinary field of international law at the turn of the millennium (‘When Renewal Repeats itself: Thinking Against the Box’). The imprints of Kennedy’s piece, and the choices it makes, are present in both acknowledged and unacknowledged form throughout this chapter, including in its interest in taking stock of the fate of heterodox projects in the disciplinary field of international law. It is also the piece that this chapter is very much ‘thinking against’, especially when it comes to the former’s account of what counts as being a ‘sociology’ of the international legal profession. 

For Kennedy this ‘sociological’ component of his description of disciplinary politics is its practice-oriented aspect, which in turn is juxtaposed to the more semiotic structural component focusing upon the shared vocabulary of the discipline. For Kennedy, practice is the point at which structure meets the agent. The result is an account of disciplinary practice in which the sociologist of the international legal field describes what Kennedy calls ‘people with projects’ – an account which is rather thin when it comes to the determining sociological conditions for these practices (with the role of determining conditions, it seems, still played by the linguistic structures). In a nod to the more existentialist commitments present in Kennedy’s overall approach, he emphasises (p. 375): 

The political and personal projects of particular international lawyers – their intellectual commitments and aversions, their professional affiliations and disaffiliations, their wills to power and to submission…

It is this ‘blind spot’ in Kennedy’s sociology that Rasulov (rightly) challenges for failing to address the underlying social conditions of the discipline – i.e., for its lack of attention to the social materiality of the discipline and disciplinary production of international legal knowledge.

However, here resuming my concern with Rasulov’s lack of a developed account of habitus, I wish to draw out two inheritances from Kennedy in this chapter that are symptomatic of this lack. The first of these pertains to Rasulov’s limited interest in carefully observing and (‘thickly’) describing what international lawyer’s regularly do – i.e., their practice (the Bourdesian method for discerning the determining ‘logic’ of such routinised actions, including the particular habitus of these international lawyers). Instead of developing his social theorising from a description of these practices, Rasulov often substitutes it with pre-constructive borrowings from accounts of international legal practice produced by others (especially Kennedy), without adequate attention to their specificity.

This absence of engagement for me explains Rasulov’s inattentiveness to what constitutes the distinctiveness of the practice of international legal scholars. We are given a very thin account here, with the author more interested in schematising static and code-like structural principles, rather than in describing the generative force of practice (and the structures instantiated through it). The result, quite understandably, is that the fine balance produced by Bourdieu by displacing the binaries of mechanical reproduction (sans agency) of structure (structuralism) and untrammelled individual creative agency (rational choice theory), gets disrupted. What we are left with is essentially a structuralist account of the force of the disciplinary field of international law, wherein different competing ‘schools’ and ‘actors’ cannot not be naïve, and passively enact pre-constructed scripts. More on the role of naivety later. 

Consequently, Rasulov’s descriptions of the ‘internal’ struggles of the disciplinary field of international law fails to draw out a plausible set of determining logics that are either distinctive (‘internal’) from other disciplinary fields or are commonly shared in said field. For instance, regarding the former, none of the described disciplinary “standard social forms and socialisation protocols” are particularly distinctive to the disciplinary field of international law (e.g., hiring committee membership, journal editorship, research grant disbursement, or doctoral theses examination). They are at work (and get ‘struggled over’) throughout Euro-American academia. As regard to the latter, it is highly questionable that the entirety of the field’s theoretical labourers (i.e., both the disciplinary orthodoxy and heterodoxy) have the common logic of simply producing “a body of expert knowledge relating to global governance”. This is not to deny that there might well be such a common logic that reproduces the limits of said disciplinary field through its perceived desirability, but rather to question (with an eye towards actual practice) the plausibility of this claim, especially when it comes to the theoretical production of heterodox international legal scholars. This is a case of a borrowing from Kennedy – who, with his more post-structuralist orientation, identified this particular logic through a careful description of the specific practices of a generation U.S. international lawyers positioned as the disciplinary orthodoxy.

The second symptomatic borrowing from Kennedy is an inherited lack of appreciation for the embodied material conditions for international legal knowledge production. Thus, while Kennedy’s formulation of international lawyers as ‘people with projects’, makes much of their ‘backpack of ideas’, it utterly lacks any sense of their differentiated capacitation or burdening through embodiment. Similarly, Rasulov’s account of social situatedness of knowledge exclusively directs our attention towards the determinations arising out of the necessary institutional embeddedness of any international legal knowledge production (e.g., the relations of production), and not towards how such determining ‘objectifications’ are also inscribed in durably incorporated bodily dispositions of the producers of said knowledge. Apart from other things, this failure to take processes of embodiment seriously helps explain why Rasulov does not grasp how racialisation and gendering always already inflect “the politics that is truly indigenous to the discipline as a distinct social form”, and are not simply ‘external political forces’ that come up against “an effectivity limit” of a relatively autonomous disciplinary field. International legal scholars are racialized and gendered (with their attendant racialized and gendered embodied dispositions) as international legal scholars operating in the disciplinary field of international law.  

Despite his issues with ideational abstraction, the account of ideological reproduction provided by Rasulov ends up being crudely Cartesian in its narrow ‘mental’ (a “cultural software”) bias, such that no account is offered of the role of the embodied (‘hardware’) in generating durable “cognitive and motivating structures” (p. 56).  Consequently, he ends up missing out on what is perhaps the most valuable contribution made by not only Bourdieu, but also Althusser (another theorist of great significance for Rasulov’s larger project) to the traditions of ideology critique and the sociology of knowledge. “Practical belief” as Bourdieu memorably observes, “is not a ‘state of the mind’…but rather a state of the body” (p. 68). In the second part of this commentary, I provide a more critical reading of Bourdieu and what he might have to offer to Rasulov’s project. To wit, as a corrective to what I argue is Bourdieu’s restrictive conceptualisation I use the scholarship of the anthropologists Saba Mahmood and Talal Asad to put forward a more positive conceptualisation of habitus, as well as introducing the related concept of tradition. After this, and working with these concepts, I offer a redescription of Bourdieu (and Rasulov’s) theoretical practices as practicing specific (Christian) historical forms of dispositional pedagogy or training to form ‘critical scholars’. I then conclude by gesturing towards the significance of acknowledging rival historical forms of dispositional pedagogy, as well as the ongoing projects for their recovery and practice being undertaken by Southern international lawyers.

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