Herding Schrödinger’s Cats: The Limits of the Social Science Approach to International Law

11 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2021 Last revised: 13 Jan 2022

See all articles by Simon Chesterman

Simon Chesterman

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law

Date Written: December 1, 2021


The struggle to assert the legitimacy and relevance of international law is integral to its story. Among academics, that tale has seen other lawyers question whether it is “really” law, while scholars of international relations have dismissed it in a bemused footnote. Among politicians, the narrative has been one of efforts to establish international law as more than simply one foreign policy justification among others. The turn to social science offers a double remedy: a rigorous method that will earn the respect of the academy while also demonstrating the discipline’s “real world” impact. This is an elegant answer—to the wrong question. For the problems of international law cannot be solved by adopting an “external” and therefore objective or privileged position. International law’s structure and history make academics necessarily participants as well as observers. An uncritical embrace of social science methods risks losing much of what draws people to international law and what has, over the centuries, given it value. As a work in progress in which academics have a special role to play, a commitment merely to take international law “as it is” is not neutral; it is a value statement in itself.

Keywords: international law, social science, method, empiricism, International Court of Justice

JEL Classification: F53, F54, K33, K38

Suggested Citation

Chesterman, Simon, Herding Schrödinger’s Cats: The Limits of the Social Science Approach to International Law (December 1, 2021). Chicago Journal of International Law 22 (2021), 49–58, NUS Law Working Paper No. 2021/007, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3811119

Simon Chesterman (Contact Author)

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law ( email )

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