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The ‘turn to history’ and sources doctrine in international law: disruption, democratisation, and distress

Conference contribution
Authors Miriam McKenna
Matilda Arvidsson
Published in ESIL Interest Group on the History of International Law Symposium : Evaluating the Turn to History of International Law. Naples, 6 September 2017.
Publication year 2017
Published at Department of Law
Language en
Keywords history of international law, the turn to history in international law, international law's sources doctrine
Subject categories International law


It is common to describe the ‘turn to history’ in international law as arriving at a juncture of crisis and rapid transformation for the discipline. The rise of international legal history and historiography is depicted as the assumption of a necessary distance to the discipline, a sort of crucial ‘step back’ which allows scholars to understand the current state of international law by examining how it came to be. This paper considers an alternate narrative, one that instead observes the field of international legal history as a catalyst to these changes, a strategy that has been actively pursued by some scholars in the field in different ways, rather than a passive response to a changing world and discipline. In the paper, drawing on the work of Rose Parfitt, we ask how the ‘turn’ or ‘turns’ to history have impacted the discipline of international law, and in particular its sources doctrine. While several authors have surveyed the impact of non-traditional scholarship on the sources doctrine more generally in international law, this paper argues that the growth of the field of international legal history and historiography has a productively disruptive, democratising, yet at the same time distressing impact on the doctrine of international law and the discipline as a whole. History, we argue, becomes a strategy for opening up the field of international law to quite diverse ends. While new stories in international law will always come and go the lasting effects of ‘the turn to history’ on international law as a discipline resides in changing the fundamental structures of methodologies of the field – in particular the question and doctrine of sources.

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