Opportunity and Impasse: Social Change and the Limits of International Legal Strategy

Lee McConnell*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

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A diverse range of actors, from practitioners and academics to civil society groups and activists, appear to see hope in international law for the advancement of their causes. This article examines whether this optimism is well-founded. It explores whether international law can serve as an agent of social change, and whether it can accommodate radical changes in social order. It begins by exposing a formalist stance that is immanent to much ‘legal activist’ discourse. It then explores links between this mode of jurisprudential thought and idealist epistemology. Drawing from the philosophy of Theodor Adorno, and in particular his notion of ‘identity-thinking’, it uncovers structural connections between formalism, idealism, law and economy that call into question international law’s socially-transformative potential. The perspective advanced in this article falls somewhere between the polarities of opportunity and impasse, seeking to acknowledge the importance of legal strategies in safeguarding the disenfranchised, while remaining alive to their potential dangers and limitations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-56
Number of pages32
JournalInternational Theory
Issue number1
Early online date25 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 14 Feb 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Cambridge University Press.

Structured keywords

  • LAW Centre for International Law


  • international law
  • legal theory
  • adorno
  • critical theory
  • positivism
  • marxism
  • kelsen
  • business and human rights
  • epistemology
  • philosophy of science


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