International Legal Structuralism: A Primer

International Theory, Vol 8(2), pp. 201-235 (2016)

29 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2017

Date Written: September 1, 2016


International legal structuralism arrived on the shores of international thought in the 1980s. The arrival was not well received, perhaps in part, because it was not well understood. This essay aims to reintroduce legal structuralism and hopefully pave the way for new, and more positive, receptions and understandings. This reintroduction is organized around two claims regarding the broader encounter between international lawyers and critical theory in the 1980s. The first was a jurisprudential claim about how the critics sought to show how international law was nothing more than a continuation of international politics by other means. The second was a historical claim about how the critics wanted to show that international law had never been anything but politics, and that it always would be. In the view of this essay, both of these claims about international legal structuralism were wrong, and they are still wrong today. For despite the tendency to think of it as a cover for postmodern nihilism or relentless deconstruction or both, legal structuralism offers international theorists an enriching and edifying method for rethinking the relation between law and politics on the one hand, and law and history on the other. It is in the effort to carry a brief for a reawakened legal structuralism that the essay brings focus to some of the early works of Koskenniemi and Kennedy, identifies the semiotic foundations of that work, and ultimately suggests the possibility of a second generation of international legal structuralism.

Keywords: International legal theory, International legal history, Structuralism

Suggested Citation

Desautels-Stein, Justin, International Legal Structuralism: A Primer (September 1, 2016). International Theory, Vol 8(2), pp. 201-235 (2016), Available at SSRN:

Justin Desautels-Stein (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

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