• Matthew Smylie

How does critical IPE challenge mainstream theoretical perspectives?

The field of IPE relies heavily on mainstream theoretical perspectives when addressing important questions. This post investigates how Critical IPE can pose a challenge to these mainstream perspectives.

Photo Credit: https://www.isanet.org/ISA/Sections/IPE

A central claim of critical theory is its ability to ‘stand back’ from mainstream perspectives to assess dynamics and activities from outside ‘the boundaries of current traits of the global political economy’ (Abbott & Worth, 2002: 1). This post investigates how, if at all, critical IPE challenges mainstream theoretical perspectives. The central claim of this post is that critical IPE does not pose a challenge to mainstream theoretical perspectives. The transatlantic debate suggests that the ‘critical’ British school can challenge the American school by introducing a broad range of perspectives which extend well beyond applying the traditional theories of International Relations (IR) to the global economy. Yet, in reality, American scholars already engage with many different perspectives and the distinction between two separate schools has only served to exclude critical theories. Similarly, treating critical IPE as a distinct discipline suggests that these perspectives can challenge the mainstream by theorising radically different world orders, rather than finding solutions that fit into the world existing system. Yet, critical IPE has failed to achieve such goals; unable to develop its own agenda and posing little threat to mainstream approaches.

The Transatlantic Divide

IPE came into existence as an academic discipline during the 1970s. As a relatively new field of enquiry, IPE developed as a critique of IR scholars and their failure to address the international economy (Dickins, 2006: 479). It was during this period, with the collapse of Bretton Woods and issues such as the 1973 Oil Crisis, that scholars became increasingly aware of the close interactions between economics and politics at the international level; realising that an adequate investigation of such issues would require an integration of the two disciplines (Leiteritz, 2005: 51). Yet, many scholars have argued that IPE developed in very different ways either side of the Atlantic, to the point where we can speak of two separate and very distinct approaches to IPE; the ‘American’ and ‘British’ schools (Cohen, 2007; Dickins, 2006; Murphy & Nelson, 2001).

The IPE of the American school developed as an extension of IR theory and has become the dominant version of IPE across the world (Cohen, 2007: 198). Rooted firmly within the core theories of IR- Liberalism, Realism and Marxism- the American school promotes mid-level theory building, aimed at the explanation of phenomena and the identification of causality, with a focus on positivism and empiricism (Cohen, 2016: 2). Initially, the American school was dominated by Realism, as championed by Gilpin. However, key in the development of American IPE was the work of Keohane and Nye, two prominent scholars who rejected the Realist approach which viewed states as the only significant actors in global politics, preferring a theoretical framework that would incorporate the growing importance of transnational actors and individuals (Cohen, 2007: 202-203). Resultantly, Liberal Institutionalism became the dominant metatheoretical orthodoxy in the U.S. (Leiteritz, 2005: 54; Maliniak & Tierney, 2009: 15). As such, American IPE has become akin to neoclassical economics, with the majority of American IPE scholars accepting that actors within the global political economy are driven by material interests and that the rational, self-interested behaviour of actors should act as the basis for substantial theory building (Leiteritz, 2005: 55).

One of the virtues of the American school is that the metatheoretical consensus around Liberal Institutionalism allows for ‘cumulative scientific progress within clearly defined boundaries of research’ (Leiteritz, 2005: 56). Here, a well-defined theoretical framework allows scholars of the American school to build upon each other’s work in order to further knowledge and identify new dynamics within the global political economy. This is further facilitated by the fact that the American school’s reductionist approach allows for the smooth flow of ideas because of their simplistic nature (Cohen, 2007: 207). However, the key charge against U.S. IPE is that its narrow focus and lack of systemic theory, along with its exclusion of Constructivist and Marxist ideas, renders it unable to expand its scope of inquiry and ask ‘the right questions’ (Cammack, 2011: 150; Winecoff, 2017: 1).

Conversely, starting with the work of Susan Strange, the British school adopted a distinctly ‘critical’ approach to IPE which promotes open thinking and is highly sceptical of the orthodox, mainstream theories of IR (Cohen, 2007: 209). Rather than adopting specific theoretical frameworks, such as Realism, British IPE promoted a framework for thinking, a general way of approaching the discipline, which rejected the state-centric and positivist stance of the American school in favour of historical, philosophical and normative approaches (Worth, 2011a: 125). Resultantly, scholars of the British school are heterogeneous in their approach to studying and theorising the global political economy; interpretation and qualitative analysis are championed, and a huge range of perspectives and disciplines are consulted, including psychology, anthropology, gender studies and environmentalism (Cohen, 2008: 53).

Thus, there appears to be a considerable divide between the dominant American school, which promotes mainstream theoretical perspectives such as Institutional Liberalism and Realism, and the British school, which takes a critical stance and employs a wide range of perspectives that go against the prevailing orthodoxy. As a result of this divide, Scholars such as Cohen (2008) have called for a bridging of the gap between the two schools. In Cohen’s mind, the ‘critical’ British School can play an important role in challenging the orthodoxy of the narrow approach of the American school in order to restore the vitality of American IPE (Cammack, 2011: 159). For example, in approaching questions such as ‘who governs?’, British IPE can challenge the American school’s state-centric ontology, expanding the scope of powerful and influential agents to include financial markets, rating agencies and so on (Cohen, 2008: 114-117). Concurrently, mainstream theoretical perspectives can challenge the critical approach of British IPE, pressuring these scholars to limit what is brought into the discussion so as to become more focused and coherent (Cohen, 2008: 141).

It, therefore, appears that through interacting with and challenging one another, the ‘critical’ British school and the dominant, mainstream American school can learn from one another. However, such a situation is unrealistic. Firstly, the schools seem to engage in very little dialogue. It appears that the two schools are so different in their ontological and epistemological positions that they are completely incompatible (Higgott & Watson, 2007: 5). Similarly, Strange was highly sceptical of how much of a challenge the British school could pose to the American school, arguing that Americans ‘are deaf and blind to anything that's not published in the USA' (Strange, 1995: 290). Yet, a more critical reading of the transatlantic divide illuminates the fact that the idea of two distinct schools within IPE is vastly overstated. Blyth (2009: 334) asserts that in his experience, American scholars have been far more pluralistic and intellectually open when approaching the global political economy than their British counterparts, who, regardless of the question, apply the same theories of hegemony, social forces and historical materialism again and again without appealing to other theoretical perspectives. Further, Cammack (2011: 158) argues that the idea of a ‘British’ school has been constructed in order to create ‘pluralistic debate within the confines of the respectable mainstream’. This construction serves to side-line the genuine challenge that Marxist and related critical perspectives could offer to mainstream IPE (Ibid).

Cox and Critical IPE

The preceding debate suggests that critical IPE has limited scope in challenging mainstream theoretical perspectives, with American scholars already engaging with a variety of theories and the construction of a ‘British’ school serving only to side-line particular critical perspectives. However, Murphy (2009: 362) argues that the field of IPE should not be drawn as an American-British division, but as a tension between scholars who are satisfied with the status quo and those who are critical of the current global political economy. As such, ‘critical IPE’ should be treated as a distinct research project in its own right, entirely separate from territorial debates over methodology (Worth, 2011a: 125). In this light, ‘critical IPE’ is understood as a distinct form of enquiry which, drawing on the works of thinkers such as Gramsci and Polanyi, seeks to highlight problems within the current global political economy and theorise alternative orders aimed at bringing about progressive transformation and more equitable social relations (Worth, 2011a: 118; Worth 2011b: 359). This is not to suggest that proponents of mainstream theoretical perspectives, such as liberal institutionalism, are satisfied with the current conditions of the global political economy. Rather, scholars working with these theoretical frameworks seek ‘to explore possible solutions to challenges within the existing system’ (Cohen, 2007: 199), rather than exploring how existing systems can be transcended.

A useful way to distinguish between ‘critical IPE’ and mainstream theoretical perspectives, and to highlight the challenge that critical perspectives can provide, is through Robert Cox’s distinction between ‘problem-solving theory’ and ‘critical theory’. In these terms, problem-solving theories, such as the mainstream perspectives of Liberalism and Realism, take the world as they find it and seek to make existing relationships and institutions work more smoothly in order to address challenges within the global political economy (Cox, 1981: 129). Such theoretical approaches set parameters and limit variables to allow for ‘close and precise examination’ (Ibid). Conversely, critical theory addresses the ‘social and political complex as a whole’ and calls into question existing institutions, looking at their origins as well as whether they are in the process of changing (Ibid). As such, critical theory continually adjusts its understanding of the world and acts as a guide for action away from the prevailing order (Cox, 1981: 130). Critical theory thus challenges mainstream theoretical perspectives by questioning the existing system and searching for feasible alternatives.

This distinction between problem-solving and critical theory is evident in approaches to climate change. Problem-solving approaches have investigated how the world population can be supported by industrial means through channels that will not pollute the planet (Cox, 2010). Scholars investigating the issue from the mainstream Liberal-Institutionalist approach, including (Haas et al, 2001) and (Young, 1994), promote the virtues of cooperation between states and the effectiveness of international institutions in fighting climate change. From this perspective, self-interested states interacting within an institution can develop cooperative behaviour (Vogler, 2010: 2683); this allows them to tackle climate change as a collective, sharing information and skills to combat pollution as well as being able to punish those who are not protecting the environment (Haas et al, 2001: 18-23). Scholars such as Grubb (1990: 81) have also adopted typically liberal approaches, promoting the theoretical efficiency of markets and their ability to achieve targets at low-cost to argue for the establishment of carbon markets as a way to combat emissions.

Conversely, critical theory poses a challenge to these mainstream perspectives, digging deeper and taking into account the ‘web of relations in which humanity is only part of the world’ (Cox, 2010). As such, critical perspectives on climate change may suggest that humans need to fundamentally change the way in which they operate, understanding what it means to be part of the biosphere and no longer treating nature as something to be dominated (Ibid). Thus, rather than extending the market logic to carbon trading, or building institutions that seek to reduce pollution, a critical approach to climate change would involve theorising about alternative world orders. For example, one may adopt a neo-Polanyian approach to climate change, investigating how environmental damage can be alleviated through a strategy of de-growth (Stuart et al, 2019). Such an approach envisages an entirely new world order whereby consumer culture and the capitalist fetish for economic growth are abandoned in favour of a considerable downscaling of production and consumption to enhance the wellbeing of both humans and the environment.

Being Critical of Critical IPE

As the previous section highlighted, critical IPE poses a challenge to mainstream theoretical perspectives by questioning the existing world order and promoting feasible alternatives in the search for a more equitable state of affairs. Yet, the idea that critical IPE poses such a challenge must be contested. Firstly, critical IPE has a tendency to accept, implicitly, the State/Market dichotomy in which markets and states are assumed to have intrinsic and autonomous properties (Bruff, 2011: 86). Consequently, critical approaches have not gone far enough in challenging mainstream theoretical perspectives, treating categories such as ‘the state’ as ‘real’ rather than ‘socio-historically produced’ (Bruff, 2011: 87). Further, critical IPE has been charged with favouring the work of Polanyi and Gramsci whilst other theoretical perspectives, including those of the Frankfurt School, have been excluded (Bruff & Tepe, 2011: 356). This calls into question whether we can call such an approach ‘critical’ since much of the effort carried out in the name of critical IPE has focused on building upon existing work rather than uncovering new avenues of enquiry (Ibid). Indeed, even the theories provided by thinkers such as Polanyi and Cox have only impacted upon the dominant theoretical frameworks to a limited degree, meaning that critical IPE ‘remains on the fringes of the mainstream’ (Griffin, 2007: 724).

Indeed, the simplistic distinction that Cox drew between ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical’ theory must also be challenged. Such a distinction relies on the assumption that theorists that support the status quo ‘cannot reason about their broader circumstances or question any element of the institutional order that they support’ (Cammack, 2007: 5). Yet, it has been the mainstream ‘problem-solving’ scholars who have challenged views on the existing world order and have incorporated factors such as the agency of social forces, and the ‘implications of different configurations of state-society complexes’, into their analysis of the global political economy (Cammack, 2007: 13). Meanwhile, critical perspectives have failed to forward their own agenda; critical IPE has become far too concerned with debates over metatheory and specific subject matter rather than engaging in substantial theory building that would bring about a radical transformation in the global economy (Leiteritz, 2005: 59; Worth, 2011a: 129). Going forward, critical IPE must commit to critiquing and transforming the global political economy, clearly distinguishing itself from other research, if it is to pose a meaningful challenge to the mainstream (Worth, 2011b: 361).


This post has argued that while critical IPE, in theory, can challenge mainstream theoretical perspectives, it has failed to do so. In distinguishing between the British and American schools, it was shown how the critical approach of British IPE is meant to expand the parameters of debate beyond the American approach which relies on theories carried over from IR. Yet, it was shown that in reality American scholars already engage with a wide variety of perspectives. Rather, the transatlantic debate has been used to effectively exclude genuine critical perspectives altogether. Treating critical IPE as a distinct field of enquiry, separate from territorial debates over methodology, it was shown how critical perspectives can challenge the mainstream by imagining radically alternate world orders. Thus, while mainstream perspectives tend to solve problems within the existing world order, critical perspectives challenge this by theorising how existing systems can be transcended to bring about better outcomes. Yet, it was shown that critical IPE has failed in its mission; too often this approach does not go far enough in its critique, drawing on a small set of ideas and becoming side-tracked from substantive theory-building, while the mainstream has demonstrated its ability to critique and re-conceptualise the global political economy.


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