Pluralising International Legal Scholarship
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Pluralising International Legal Scholarship

The Promise and Perils of Non-Doctrinal Research Methods

Edited by Rossana Deplano

This unique book examines the role non-doctrinal research methods play in international legal research: what do they add to the traditional doctrinal analysis of law and what do they neglect? Focusing on empirical and socio-legal methods, it provides a critical evaluation of the breadth, scope and limits of the representation of international law created by these often-neglected methodologies.
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Chapter 8: The unfulfilled promises of the data-driven approach to international economic law

Huaxia Lai


A latecomer to the big data boom, international law scholars spare no time in catching up with the big data phenomenon that promises to revolutionize how knowledge is produced. Leading journals on international law in recent years have devoted increasing space to publish data-driven scholarship. These research projects have made a commendable contribution to constructing publicly accessible databases that can be used to investigate a wide range of topics and to promoting more systematic analysis of international law. The data-driven approach proclaims that it brings a number of benefits to the study of international law. For instance, the datadriven approach enables pattern identification, improves causal inference and prediction and facilitates theory development. The data-driven approach also claims the advantage of overcoming the methodological flaws in doctrinal research such as imprecision, subjectivity and anecdotal evidence. With increasing numbers of datasets becoming available and new analytical tools emerging, it has been declared that ‘we are entering the data-driven future’ of international economic law scholarship. The calling to overhaul the classic doctrinal method implies an identity crisis of international law as a discipline. The doctrinal approach to international law is ‘venerable and vulnerable’ as the competing empirical approach is gaining momentum. The big data boom is pushing the turf war between the doctrinal method and the empiricism-oriented interdisciplinary method to a more centered position. Does the future of international economic law scholarship lie in the data-driven method? This chapter explains why we need to take a critical view of the data-driven approach and argues that the data-driven approach is unlikely to fulfill its bold promises of transforming international economic law scholarship. It first explains why international law scholarship embraces the data-driven approach in its empirical turn and surveys the method’s recent application to international economic law (8.2). Despite its popularity, the data-driven approach has proved to be misleading and of limited use for social science in general and international law research in particular (8.3). Among the various pitfalls, the data-driven international law scholarship often relies on flawed measurement devoid of theoretical underpinning (8.4). The chapter then proposes an alternative approach that bridges doctrinal analysis and the empirical agenda and demonstrates its application to the study of regulatory space under international economic law (8.5). Section 8.6 concludes.

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