International Organization

Research Article

The Reductionist Gamble: Open Economy Politics in the Global Economy

Thomas Oatleya1

a1 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. E-mail:


International political economy (IPE) should transition to “third-wave” scholarship because Open Economy Politics (OEP), which dominates current American IPE scholarship, can generate inaccurate knowledge. OEP can produce inaccurate knowledge because it studies domestic politics in isolation from international or macro processes. This methodological reductionism is often inappropriate for the phenomena IPE studies because governments inhabit a complex social system. As a result, the political choices that OEP strives to explain are typically a product of the interplay between domestic politics and macro processes. When OEP omits causally significant macro processes from empirical models, the models yield biased inferences about the domestic political relationships under investigation. Although scholars tolerated such errors when the gains from OEP were large, these errors are less tolerable now that OEP has matured. Consequently, the field should transition toward research that is nonreductionist, problem-driven, and pluralistic.

Thomas Oatley is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. E-mail:


I thank Oliver Buntrock, Jeffrey Chwieroth, Benjamin J. Cohen, Henry Farrell, Kate McNamara, Gary Marks, Andrew Pennock, Susan Sell, Amir Stepak, Terry Sullivan, William K. Winecoff, participants in the Institute for Global and International Studies Seminar at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, as well as the editors and anonymous reviewers of International Organization for comments and suggestions that improved this article substantially. I also thank Helen Milner, Keiko Kubota, David Leblang, and William Bernhard for making their data available to me, and I thank Beth Simmons and Jens Hainmueller for allowing me to draw heavily on some of their unpublished research. Replication materials are available at my home page: