Why we should see international law as a structure: Unpicking international law’s ontology and agency

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This article identifies how three dominant ideas of international law (as a process, an institution and a practice) see its agency, concluding that all three share a reluctance to see international law as doing anything more than enabling the operation of other actors, forces or structures. This article argues that we should see international law as a structure because it possesses both the surface structure of rules, principles, processes, personnel and material elements of the international legal system and a deep structure of values that sits deep within our subconscious. As Shklar’s idea of legalism shows us, legalism plays a powerful role in shaping all our understandings of ourselves and the world that surrounds us. Seeing international law as a structure enables us to see how it locates actors within a social hierarchy and how it behaves in similar ways to recognised structures like capitalism and racism.


Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Relations
Early online date12 May 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 May 2020


    Research areas

  • agency, international law, law as an actor, law’s agency, legalism, structure

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