What is IPE?

It isn’t a new face in the field of social sciences but in my view still is rarely touched in terms of academic teachings and common understanding. Its route have traditionally said to be sown within the field of International Relations and has long been taught in universities in that course and not as a separate subject are (today this is still the case in many universities, even those ranked high on the global academic tables).

The founding mother of IPE is that of Susan Strange who first rigorously championed for the subject as a distinctive part of international studies. The backdrop of her work was the financial environment of the Gold Standard and evolution of Keynesianism and other economic perspectives (see the section on Susan Strange ). IPE became known as a study beyond that of politics and economics but more a combination of social science study of the relationships in economic and economic linked activities. A more formal definition is from John Ravenhill—“International Political Economy is… a subject matter whose central focus is the interrelationship between public and private power in the allocation of scarce resources’ (Ravenhill, 2005: 17).

IPE today covers many of the broad areas the layman lumps together in the term “globalization”. Some of the common themes include: economic history (in order to understand relationships in IPE), economic systems—central banking macroeconomy, international trade, international finance—including capital markets, bonds, stock markets, “the offshore world”, regionalisation, globalization—economic linked theories and perspectives, international organizations, foreign aid. Other themes that are associated with economic-linked activities include feminism, the environment, morality and ethics (as would be explained below)—This list is not exhaustive!

What further distinguishes IPE from the quantitative and statistical nature of economics are the various debates within IPE. The table below presents the “mainstream” debates in IPE:

Main Actors Main Goal View of Relationships Classic Authors
Liberalism Individuals Individual Liberty Positive-Sum Adam Smith,David Ricardo
Realism* Nation-States National Security Zero-Sum Thomas Hobbes,Friedrich List
Marxism Classes Emancipation Exploitative Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels

* Realism applied to the economic realm is more commonly known as mercantilism
(taken and partly from O’Brien and Williams, 2005)

Beyond this, today’s IPE academics today also consider critical IPE. Critical IPE emerged as a critique of ‘rationalist’ or ‘problem-solving’ IPE. Rather than aiming for theoretical parsimony, Critical IPE explicitly embraces theoretical diversity. It has sought to expand the subject matter of IPE, by studying a wider range of actors and processes beyond the traditional focus on ‘states and markets’. Such areas of include Neo-Gramscian IPE, Feminist IPE, Constructivist IPE, Post Strtucturalist IPE (this list goes on). Such topics [pstr several questions such as:

Who drives change in the international economy?

How has the evolution of the international economy shaped the contemporary era?
Who gets what, when, and how in international political economic struggles?
How do different ways of understanding IPE inform recommendations for policy change?

Another area of contemporary IPE rests deals with trends. O’Brien and Williams (2007: 412-415) painted three different trends—“consolidation”, “integration” and “expansion”. The second, “integration” is particularly interesting as it attempts to link IPE with the school of Classical Political Economy (Adam Smith, Karl Marx) as well as other Political Economist such as Karl Polanyi and Thorstein Veblen who dealt with societal interaction and not the rigid economistic type of economics. Matthew Watson (who was my first year IPE lecturer) has approach IPE through Polanyi and Smith especially.

Other approaches to IPE include the principal-agent theory which itself is also used widely International Relations. This theory is similar with the definition from the economics school dealing with “principals” (countries/member states or termed as “shareholders”) delegating tasks to “agents” (regional or international organisations). This is very useful when examining the actions of the World Bank, IMF or even the UNDP (see Catherine Weaver (2008) for example).

This is of course not a complete summary of IPE but is a good start. If you like to know more, read the texts (especially O’Brien and Williams (2007)) in the following references.


Hawkins, D.G., Lake, D.A., Nielson, D.L., Tierney, M.J., 2006, “Delegation under anarchy: states, international organizations and principal-agent theory” in Hawkins, D.G., Lake, D.A., Nielson, D.L., Tierney, M.J. (eds.) Delegation and Agency in International Organizations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.3-28

O’Brien, R. and Williams, M., 2007, Global Political Economy: Evolution and Dynamics, Second Edition, Basingstoke: Palgrave

Ravenhill, J. (eds) 2005, Global Political Economy, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Weaver, C., 2008, Hypocrisy Trap: The World Bank and the poverty of reform, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press

NB.: Never ever use idiotic sites like Wikipedia to understand International Political Economy. Always use textbooks or materials written by experienced IPE academics.


2 Responses to What is IPE?

  1. Emily Pearson says:

    Thank you! I was having a hard time figuring out where critical IPE fit into theories of IPE.

  2. Pingback: IPEG@40: 40 years of IPE and counting… | Ipeanddevelopment's Blog

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