International Legal Positivist Research Methods

Rossana Delplano, Nicholas Tsagourias (eds), Research Methods in International Law: A Handbook (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2020, Forthcoming)

11 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2020

See all articles by Jörg Kammerhofer

Jörg Kammerhofer

University of Freiburg - Faculty of Law

Date Written: December 13, 2019


This chapter looks at legal positivism and its methods. In international legal scholarship, we are confronted with a paradox: while most international lawyers would say they employ broadly ‘positivist’ methods to find out what the law prescribes, its methods are among the least reflected. Positivism is seldom practised in a manner that is coherent with the theory of legal positivism. This leads to a bifurcation: default positivism and theoretical positivism.

Default positivism is not a deeply reflected theoretical approach, but rather the default solution. Fealty to the law is important, but not in an overly formalist and strict manner. Default international legal positivism is a result of processes of socialisation and adaption, founded on a largely subconscious culture of orthodoxy: a pragmatic mindset of submission to and accommodation of widely accepted practices and methods. Its methods reflect that mindset and I briefly analyse two: precedent-following and interpretation. On the one hand, the power of precedents in international law (acknowledged not to be a common law) is taken so seriously that arguing against the ICJ is virtually impossible – the ICJ cannot err on an important issue. On the other hand, the role which the Vienna rules on interpretation play is curiously formalistic and does not sit well with the idea of interpretation as finding out what a text means.

Theoretical positivism, using the Pure Theory of Law as an example, is theory-laden and much less pragmatic. It is primarily a theory of how legal scholarship can stay true to the ideal of (legal-)‘scientific’ cognition. Its methods, in turn, are structural analysis and frame-determination. The analysis of the structure of the international legal order, the relationship of different norms and sources is central to any legal-scholarly enterprise and helps to avoid admixing it with ideological precepts. The frame-determination method of interpretation avoids the impossible task of eliminating the vagueness of natural languages and the inevitable freedom to decide. Scholarly interpretation is not an attempt to tell courts how to decide a case, it rather shows the (structural) limits of the law to be applied.

Keywords: Positivism, international law, Pure Theory of Law, interpretation, sources of law, methods of scholarship, orthodoxy, Stufenbau, hierarchy of law, treaty law, customary international law

Suggested Citation

Kammerhofer, Jörg, International Legal Positivist Research Methods (December 13, 2019). Rossana Delplano, Nicholas Tsagourias (eds), Research Methods in International Law: A Handbook (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2020, Forthcoming). Available at SSRN: or

Jörg Kammerhofer (Contact Author)

University of Freiburg - Faculty of Law ( email )

D-79098 Freiburg

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