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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Downloads (Pure)


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
Pages (from-to)216-235
Number of pages20
JournalInternational Relations
Issue number2
Early online date12 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2021


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

Cite this