Date of Award

June 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Mark Rupert


Constructivism, Historical Structural Theory, IMF, Post Washington Consensus, Principal Agent Models, Reform

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


Through use of rationalist, constructivist, and historical structural theory, this study of IMF Low Income Country (LIC) policy change from 1996 to 2010 identifies potential causal variables and mechanisms that drive contemporary reform in the institution toward its poorest member states. Patterns uncovered through principal-agent analysis suggest that coalition formation between at least two actors is a necessary condition for LIC policy reform. Principal-agent analysis also establishes that discontinuity among powerful states gives IMF management and staff greater openings to initiate or block reform efforts. Constructivist analysis assesses if shifts in thinking among IMF insiders and the broader epistemic community of development economists have causal effect on LIC policy reform. Evidence gathered through process tracing methods shows that reform occurred after economic ideas that underwrote previous policy positions lost legitimacy among influential elites within and outside the IMF. Thus while IMF staff self -identify as rational technocrats, they are also driven by concerns of pursuing what the broader elite community deems as appropriate policy choices. When the boundaries of appropriateness change, we can expect reforms that are consistent with new frames of acceptable policy choices to emerge.

Stepping outside of mainstream IR theory, historical structural analysis of IMF reform focuses on the interrelation of contemporary capitalist crisis, hegemony, and "inclusive neoliberal" development models. Here, the IMF is understood to hold a central role in the creation and perpetuation of the current geopolitical order underwritten by globalizing capitalism. Recent IMF LIC reforms that champion more participation, flexibility, and a nod toward Keynesian practices thus are seen as one component of a broader political project pushed by global elites to undermine potential challenges to the contemporary world order. Evidence gathered through discourse analysis and interviews shows that IMF staff and management were cognizant of growing resistance to Washington Consensus reforms and embraced less coercive and more participatory means to increase LIC buy in into concessionary lending programs. The scope and character of contemporary IMF reforms paralleled similar calls for rethinking how to `do' development among global elites. This suggests that a component of IMF policy response in LICs is tied to a broader political project focused on building a more inclusive and hegemonic form of globalizing capitalism.

The juxtaposition of three theoretical frameworks to examine the same phenomenon also provides a platform to evaluate current IR theory focused on IMF reform. Rationalist and positivist oriented constructivist approaches provide clear analytical roadmaps to cut through the complex dynamics found in the IMF, identify potential causal variables and mechanisms, and develop testable predictive hypotheses related to institutional reform. However, if studies of IMF LIC reform rely solely on current mainstream frameworks, explanation and analysis of how Fund policy change is interrelated with shifts and tensions in capitalist social structures and the power relations therein remain unexamined. This proves particularly critical when exploring why certain ideas considered market distorting remained off limits in contemporary IMF debates and how post Washington Consensus reforms reflect attempts by global elites to manage crisis points in the contemporary historical structure. In conclusion, I assess the merits of IMF research open to the use of positivist and historical relational paradigms. Such an approach will not produce one correct answer and suffers at some level from divergent baseline understandings of the social world. However, I maintain that despite this tension, the complexity of that world and processes of change within it merit space for mainstream and critical ontologies. Future studies of the IMF should explore more fully how diverse paths of inquiry can be effectively used to explain policy reform.



Open Access