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What’s wrong with international political economy?

- March 4, 2009

Marty Finnemore and I have a piece in a “new special issue”:http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/title~db=all~content=g909101337~tab=toc of _Review of International Political Economy_ (paywalled) on the current state of play in American IPE. We’re somewhat critical, complaining about “a certain degree of aridity in much of the bread-and-butter work of the American school of international political economy.” But as it turns out, we’re less critical than some. Kate McNamara notes that:

bq. monocultures in agriculture can be dysfunctional if they exhaust resources and leech out soil nutrients in their pursuit of uniform productivity. Polyculture, the planting of diverse crops and multiple uses, is required to enrich the fields rendered arid. Intellectual monocultures, where one theoretical perspective, ontological position, and method are used exclusively, may well result in a similar desiccation of the field of study. Although rarely stated in polite company, there are many in IR who believe that IPE has reached this point.

Kate Weaver worries that:

bq. Today, IPE as a global field still exhibits the diversity of thought which Strange so clearly prized. Yet, within the United States this diversity seems to be disappearing. We are witnessing the homogenization, or at least the emergence of a clear hierarchy that strongly privileges one epistemology, one methodology, and one paradigm over others. The key questions on my mind in this regard are why and to what end? And perhaps also, to use another of Strange’s favorite questions, ‘cui bono?’ – who benefits by this narrowing? I ask these questions as an early career United States scholar and as an IPE journal co-editor. For my part, I perceive – and fear – that this emerging American IPE monoculture, as characterized by many in this special issue, is more than just the manifestation of Kuhnian progress in social science, wherein one approach becomes dominant because of the apparent superiority of its results. The monoculture we observe today also seems to me to be the product of a competitive academic environment in which we are compelled to live by the mantra of ‘publish or perish’.

Peter Katzenstein, Robert Wade and Randall Germain express related concerns, and only David Lake mounts a spirited defence of the dominant approach in American IPE (which he characterizes as OEP or ‘open economy politics’). This near-uniformity of critical tone may in part be the result of who participated in this special issue, but only in part. Robert Keohane, who perhaps more than anyone is associated with the development of the modern subfield of IPE is also highly critical of what it has become.

bq. I was not one of the people who formulated OEP, although Helen Milner, one of its leading advocates, was both an undergraduate student and PhD advisee of mine, and is one of my closest friends. Much of the OEP work has direct links to my rationalist argument in After Hegemony (1984), and it is also consistent with the methodological program laid out in Designing Social Inquiry (King et al., 1994), works that almost bracket my own years at Harvard (1985–1996). It would be understandable, therefore, for me to identify with Randall Germain’s social construction of the ‘Harvard School’, and to see OEP as a natural continuation of my earlier work that should properly dominate the IPE field. Yet despite my sympathy with many aspects of the OEP model, and my great respect for its leading proponents, I view it with a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction.

bq. On the positive side of the ledger, many of the disputes of the 1970s and 1980s are no longer salient because they have actually been resolved. … One of the great virtues of the open economy politics model described by Lake is that it integrates IPE and CPE into a common framework. … Yet as Peter Katzenstein argues in more detail, a price has been paid. In particular, there is too little emphasis on how ‘interests’ are constructed … I have been disheartened by this suppression of the ‘I’ in IPE, … Substantively, what is missing for me in contemporary IPE is the _synthetic interpretation of change._ Nye, Strange, and I saw huge changes taking place before our eyes and we tried – in intuitive and not very scientific ways – to interpret them.

So are these criticisms fair ones? Is IPE incapable of tackling the major changes taking place in the global economy? The floor is open …