International Political Economy: a pluralistic field of study – by Benjamin J. Cohen

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What is International Political Economy (IPE)?  Even for specialists, that is not an easy question to answer.  IPE is a widely recognized field of academic study.  Yet being multidisciplinary by nature, it is also difficult to define.  Clearly, IPE has something to do with economics (economy).  It also has something to do with politics (political).  And it somehow relates to the world beyond the confines of the individual state (international).  On these three elements, all scholars concur.  But that is about as far as agreement reaches.  In practice there seem to be many conceptions of IPE – a cornucopia of alternative views about what questions to ask and how to answer them.  The field is notoriously diverse.  In a new Elgar Advanced Introduction, I provide a guide to the remarkable pluralism that characterizes the study of IPE across the globe.

American and British schools

As a field of study, IPE is both very old and very young.  It is old because the connections between economics and politics in international affairs have long been recognized and explored by keen observers.  But it is also young because, until recently, it had not yet achieved the status of a formal, established academic specialty.  The modern field of IPE, as we know it today, has actually been in existence for less than half a century.

Credit for pioneering modern IPE, back in the 1960s and 1970s, is shared more or less equally by small cadres of innovative scholars in the United States and Britain.  Gradually two “schools” of thought coalesced, which I have characterized as the American school and the British school, each with its own distinct features and interests.

In the United States, IPE has been mostly seen as a sub-specialty of the study of International Relations (IR) – in effect, a branch of political science.  Foremost, this means that IPE is, above all, about sovereign states.  Analysis tends to concentrate on two major sets of questions.  One is the issue of state behavior.  How do we understand the policies of national governments in the global economy?  The other is the issue of system governance.  How do states cope with the consequences of economic interdependence?

Further, mainstream scholarship in the United States tends to hew closely to the norms of conventional US social science.  Priority is given to scientific method – what may be called a hard science model.  Research is based on the twin principles of positivism and empiricism, which hold that knowledge is best accumulated through an appeal to objective observation and the systematic evaluation of evidence using rigorous quantitative or qualitative methodologies.  Normative concerns, for the most part, are downplayed.  The purpose of analysis is to explain and understand how the world works, not to judge it.  Moreover, grand conceptualization is generally eschewed.  Instead, most emphasis is placed on mid-level theory concentrating on key relationships isolated within a broader structure whose characteristics are unquestioned and assumed, normally, to be stable.

In the British style, by contrast, scholars work from a distinctly different vision.  In Britain, research tends to be more inclusive and multidisciplinary than in the United States.  The state is just one actor among many.  The British school also tends to be more critical of established orthodoxies and more engaged with social issues; more impatient with the status quo and more eager to change attitudes or practices.  The main purpose of research is judgment: to identify injustice.  The driving ambition is amelioration: to make the world a better place.  Where the mainstream American school aspires to the objectivity of conventional US social science, the British school is openly normative in the tradition of classical moral philosophy.

Other popular conceptions

And these two versions are not all.  Across the globe, the American and British schools tend to stand out in terms of broad scholarly appeal.  The influence of the British school, not surprisingly, is best seen in other parts of the “Anglosphere,” such as Canada and Australia, where academic traditions are similar to those back in Britain.  Elements of the American style are evident throughout the Western hemisphere as well in parts of continental Europe and, most recently, China.  But other popular conceptions of IPE can also be found in diverse locales around the world.

In the United States, for example, alongside the mainstream American school, an alternative version of IPE competes for attention, frequently labeled “heterodox” or “radical” to contrast with the prevailing US orthodoxy.  Central to heterodox IPE is a rejection of the state centrism of the American school.  Priority, rather, is given more to the evolution of the global system as a whole, understood in terms of vast and complex social structures, with particular emphasis on transcendent issues of inequality and economic development.  The purpose of research, as in the British school, is normative.  Theoretical inspiration is drawn less from economics and political science and much more from a host of other related disciplines – not least, sociology and history.  And the hard science model of conventional US social science is replaced by analysis that is more interpretative, even intuitive, in nature.  Mid-level theory is considered timid.  Grand conceptualization is not eschewed but celebrated.

In places like Germany or Switzerland, yet other approaches prevail.  One is classical Marxism with its focus on the structure and dynamics of the global capitalist system.  Another is the long-standing tradition of historical institutionalism, which uses complex social institutions to understand sequences of political and economic behavior and patterns of change over time.  Similarly, in Latin America many analysts still hark back to an older tradition of dependency theory, with its emphasis on the allegedly pernicious impact of global economic structures on the economic development of poor countries.  And even in China, where scholarship has only recently begun to open up to outside influences, a conscious effort is under way to develop a unique brand of IPE “with Chinese characteristics.”

Competition of ideas

What are we to make of such remarkable diversity?  For some, the pluralism of IPE is to be deplored for sowing confusion and discord.  The field is criticized for being schizoid, perhaps even inchoate.  For others, however, the multiplicity of approaches – encouraging a lively competition of ideas – is precisely what makes IPE such a rich source of insight.  IPE has been defined as a “question-asking” field of study.  Separate traditions ask different questions and approach their common subject from different perspectives.  The more specialists learn about these differences, the better able they will be to answer the questions that interest them.  What has long been lacking to students and scholars is a useful roadmap through the fragmented thickets of the field.  To provide such a guide is the modest aim of my newly published Advanced Introduction to International Political Economy.  My hope is that with the help of this global survey, greater appreciation of the pluralism of IPE will result.

Benjamin J. Cohen photoBenjamin Jerry Cohen is Louis G. Lancaster Professor of International Political Economy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Author of fourteen books, he has been named Distinguished Scholar by the International Political Economy Section of the International Studies Association.

'Advanced Introduction To International Political Economy' book coverMore information about our Elgar Advanced Introductions series can be found on our website.

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