Saturday, 7 October 2000

From "The Transatlantic Divide: Why are American and British IPE So Different?"

By Benjamin Cohen.

In the “American school,” priority is given to scientific method – what might be called a pure or hard science model. Analysis is based on the twin principles of positivism and empiricism, which hold that knowledge is best accumulated through an appeal to objective observation and systematic testing. In the words of Stephen Krasner, one of the American school’s leading lights: “International political economy is deeply embedded in the standard methodology of the social sciences which, stripped to its bare bones, simply means stating a proposition and testing it against external evidence” (Krasner 1996: 108-109). Even its critics concede that the mainstream American version of IPE may be regarded as the prevailing orthodoxy.

But it is not an orthodoxy that goes without challenge. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world – above all, in Britain – an alternative version of IPE emerged that, from its earliest days, was quite distinct from the American school. Across the pond, scholars are more receptive than in the United States to links with other academic disciplines, beyond mainstream economics and political science; they also evince a deeper interest in normative issues. In the British style, IPE is less wedded to scientific method and more ambitious in its agenda. The contrasts with the mainstream American approach are not small; this is not an instance of what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” Indeed, the contrasts are so great that it is not illegitimate to speak of a “British school” of IPE, in contrast to the U.S. version


in terms of ontology, the American school remains determinedly state-centric, privileging sovereign governments above all other units of interest. The British school, by contrast, treats the state as just one agent among many, if states are to be included at all. For the American school IPE is essentially a subset of IR, sharing the political science discipline’s central preoccupation with public policy. The core object of study – the field’s “problematique,” to use a term favored more by British scholars than by Americans -- is limited to questions of state behavior and system governance. The main purpose of theory is explanation: to identify causality. The driving ambition is problem solving: to explore possible solutions to challenges within the existing system. For the British school IPE is more inclusive – more open to links to other areas of inquiry. The problematique is more ecumenical, concerned with all manner of social and ethical issues. The main purpose of theory is judgment: to identify injustice. The driving ambition is amelioration: to make the world a better place. Where the American school aspires to the objectivity of conventional social science, the British school is openly normative in the tradition of pragmatism and classical moral philosophy.

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