Objectivity in International Legal Research: Troubles with the View from Nowhere

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Objectivity is a crucial aspect of any scientific research. But what should academics embracing critical approaches on international law (CAIL) do to ensure objectivity in their research. And what does objectivity in critical legal research even mean? The idea for this piece came after I saw disapproval directed against the use of personal pronouns in a CAIL publication. When asked what was wrong with it, the answer was that “it was not objective.” I pressed the question. While the following responses were less consistent, they revealed a fuzzy split between “objectivity” and “reality” on one side and “subjectivity” and “false appearances” on the other. That conversation revealed one of those blind spots that all of us have when bridging theoretical knowledge to our practical activities — in this case, researching. We are well aware of the linguistic turn and the consequences it brought to our understanding of language. Nonetheless, there is still a gap between some notions stuck in a locked philosophical box in our brains and what we do when researching international law.
It is not a problem with style. There is nothing wrong with ditching first-person pronouns by favouring “the author” or the unapproachable “the one.” The fact of the matter is the reason why these pronouns were abandoned. They were rejected because they were insufficiently detached. And detachment, it seems, would be a central foundation for objectivity. I believe that such a view of objectivity is widespread with orthodox international legal research. And I am under the suspicion that it is linked to a dismissive opinion against perspectival research like CAIL. “Critical Approaches to International Law? It’s somewhat interesting, but it’s not real legal research.” — “Why not?” — “It’s polluted with subjectivity. Real research is neutral, detached, uninterested, and apolitical.”
In this piece, I will argue against this detached view. My central claim is that the conception of objectivity as the removal of everything subjective is epistemically inadequate. I will begin by considering what the detached view holds to be the appropriate stance when doing legal research. That will allow us to point out that it equates objectivity with non-subjectivity. We will then consider two different conceptions of objectivity, the narrow and the wide conception. By criticising the narrow conception’s attempt to reach a transcendental standpoint — arguing that it is both unmanageable and inconsequential — I will advance the wide conception’s claim that objectivity is inter-subjectivity. Finally, we will see how the wide conception does not entail free-for-all subjectivity. We should not approach our international legal research as an exchange of subjective opinions or our profession as neutral archaeology. I will argue that our goal as researchers and practitioners is to advance an argument within an ongoing debate between different actors, each with their particular background and conflicting interests. In those terms, claims made by perspectival legal research are not only objective but can be more intellectually honest than those held by research that pretends to be free of subjectivity.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNarratives of International Law
Publication statusPublished - 20 May 2021
EventNarratives of International Law - Online, Maastricht University, Maastricht, Netherlands
Duration: 20 May 202120 May 2021


WorkshopNarratives of International Law
Internet address

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