The Power of Scale: International Law and Its Microhistories

By Vadi, Valentina | Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

The Power of Scale: International Law and Its Microhistories


Vadi, Valentina, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy


God is in the details. Aby Warburg

I. INTRODUCTION

The history of international law has come of age. Once the domain of elitist historians and international lawyers, it has become a fertile field of study. Investigating the histories of international law can help understanding the past, present, and future trajectories of international law. The recent success of certain international legal histories shows that interest in international law and its histories is not the reserve of international lawyers or legal historians. Rather, the history of international law attracts the interest of the broader public and can have societal relevance. (1) Fostering education about international law contributes to "build peace in the minds of men," (2) "strengthe[n] international peace and security[,] and promot[e] friendly relations and co-operation among States." (3) In parallel, knowledge of international legal history is a condition of the respect, critical assessment, and reform of international law.

The recent 'turn to history' of international law, (4) the parallel 'international turn' of legal history, (5) and the resulting emergence of international legal history as a field of study have all determined an unprecedented interest in methodological questions in international legal history. (6) While international lawyers have increasingly explored the origins of their field to understand its current trajectories and address future challenges, legal historians have increasingly explored international phenomena. These parallel trends have converged and determined the emergence of international legal history as a promising field of study at the crossroads between international law and legal history.

Because of its interdisciplinarity and relative novelty, the field of international legal history has raised a number of methodological questions. Should international legal histories focus on the specific or the general? Should international legal historians focus on the details or should they investigate big issues? Can the narration of international legal histories be accessible to the many or should it be elitist and addressed to the few?

This article contributes to the emerging debates on the methodology of international legal history focusing on the power of scale. Historical research can be conducted using different scales of analysis. Depending on the selected scale of analysis, international legal history can be macro or micro.

Macro-history seeks out large, long-term trends in international legal history, looking at multiple events and concepts over the course of centuries. (7) It studies the past on large scales and relies on quantitative analysis. (8) Macro-history is about people as collectives, nations, or states rather than as individuals. As noted by a historian, "macrohistory takes a long view of history, looking at multiple societies and nations over the course of centuries to reach broad-ranging conclusions about the march of history." (9)

Microhistory typically reduces the scale of analysis and focuses on given events, legal items, or individuals. (10) It explores interactions among peoples rather than states. (11) It pushes individual destinies to the forefront of international historical investigation. Microhistories are more ambitious than they might look at first glance. (12) They ask big questions in small places. (13) Despite their small scale, such stories can epitomize the behaviors, logics, and motives characterizing a given society. (14) Microhistories can bridge the worlds of international law, literature, and history. (15)

Most international legal historians have adopted a telescope rather than a microscope in investigating historical events and their legal outputs. (16) International legal histories have approached events on a grand scale and investigated international relations among states. (17) In this macro conceptualization of international legal history, the individual disappears and becomes irrelevant. …

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