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Why Study Political Economy?

by Troy Henderson on February 24, 2015

So you’ve just kicked off your uni adventure at Sydney and maybe you’re not 100% sure what majors and minors you should choose. That’s fine. Like many people, you might want to look around and see what’s on offer before you decide on the main focus of your studies. If that’s the case for you, here are a few reasons to consider Political Economy (PE) @ Sydney.

What is Political Economy?

Stilwell-Political-Economy-3e-372x480Good question!

I had no idea what PE was until someone suggested I study it. I asked my politics lecturer where I could go to study economics to help me argue with economists. He recommended PE @ Sydney. It was good advice.

Let’s start with the economy.

Political economist Frank Stilwell defines the economy as: “the means whereby goods and services are produced, exchanged, and distributed among the members of society. Incomes and wealth are generated through these processes of production, exchange, and distribution”.

“Economics”, writes Stilwell, “is the discipline that studies these processes”.

So what’s the difference between economics and political economy?

According to Stilwell, political economy rejects a narrow focus on “pure markets” in favour of a “broader view of economic enquiry, its social purpose and its political application”.

It’s an approach that stresses the importance of historical processes, structural forces and institutions in shaping economic outcomes.

PE also acknowledges the role values play in influencing what economists choose to study, how they conduct their investigations, and the policy implications of their research.

Why study PE?

Great question!

PE starts by providing you with a firm foundation in the key theoretical approaches to studying the economy.

econguysYou’ll study the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the radical critique of capitalism developed by Karl Marx, the dominant neoclassical school, the ‘Keynesian revolution’, and the analysis of power and institutions associated with economists like Thorstein Veblen and J.K. Galbraith.

After being introduced to these fundamentals you’ll have the choice of studying a wide variety of subjects, covering topics such as inequality, development, the history of capitalism, the tension between economic growth and ecological sustainability, economic cycles, neoliberalism and the role of finance in the economy.

To give you some more insights, I asked some postgrad students why they study political economy. Here’s what they said.

Political economy challenges me to be critical and to cut through simplistic or propagandistic ways of seeing the world. Political economy is fundamentally about how we organise our lives and provide for our basic (and more complex) needs. It makes a practical difference in people’s lives. Political economy cares about questions of class that we don’t often hear about in our daily life. Don’t let anybody tell you that we live in a classless society! — Claire, PhD candidate

Economics is more than neoclassical economics. Economics is not just about mathematics; it’s also about economic history and the history of economic thought. PE teaches pluralism of approaches as opposed to Economics & Business which teaches THE economic truth. To learn about inequalities, the place of financial markets, the advantages and disadvantages of free trade, globalisation, and economic development, mainstream economics is not enough. If you think economics is a social science then you have to study PE. — Raúl, PhD candidate

Political Economy gives you the tools to understand the issues facing the world and allows you to focus on – and break down – those issues into their important components. It is one of the best things you can do for your analytical skills and knowledge. — Annie, Honours student

It’s not hard to see economics as the critical foundation upon which all social and political life is built, and if so, we deserve a better, more critical understanding than that offered by “mainstream” approaches that are patently failing a majority of people at the behest of a minority. — Matthew, PhD candidate

What’s so good about Political Economy @ Sydney?


Political Economy Now!Political Economy @ Sydney is taught by the largest grouping of political economists at any Australian university. It offers the most developed and integrated undergraduate and graduate courses and is recognised as a leading centre of economic analysis and research.

PE also has an active presence on campus. From running conferences and seminars to the Wheelwright Annual Lecture that brings renowned international political economists to Australia. ECOPSOC (the PE students’ society) also has regular events that combine PE, beer and pizza! And PE has a proud history of struggle for the right to teach alternative economics at the University as told in the book Political Economy Now!

Again, I asked some more postgrads what they like about PE @ Sydney.

Economics is the language of government. Working as a policy advisor, I realised I needed to understand the economy. But I wasn’t convinced the best way to do it was spending two years solving equations. Sydney University’s political economy program offered a strong conceptual approach to economics, integrating knowledge from other disciplines. It was the only program of its kind, which made the decision easy. — Matt, PhD candidate.

I chose to do my PhD at the University of Sydney because of its reputation as a supportive and engaged department. That the department and the student clubs run regular forums, conferences and events has been one of the highlights studying here. I feel part of a community of researchers, committed to pursuing key questions in political economy and engaging with others inside and outside the university. — Elizabeth, PhD candidate.

Traditional political science and economics departments try to model what is. The Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney asks: what should be? This department attracts talent (both professors and students) from around the world. This is one of the few departments on the planet where one can still study political science, economics, and moral philosophy together as one discipline. — Toby, PhD candidate.

What can you do with a Political Economy major?

A lot! 

Political Economy graduates have gone on to occupy a wide variety of positions in various professions and industries. From academic economists, prominent public intellectuals and leading financial journalists, to politicians, union organisers, businesspeople, activists, public servants and lawyers. 

Studying PE @ Sydney offers students a unique opportunity to deepen their understanding of the economic processes and relationships that profoundly affect both their own lives, and the lives of people around the world. If that sounds interesting to you check out the units of study and consider enrolling in ECOP1001 today!

Troy Henderson
Troy Henderson is an economist with a particular interest in the past, present and future of work in Australia. He received a Bachelor of Economics and Social Sciences and a Master of Arts (Research) in Political Economy from the University of Sydney. He is completing his PhD in 2019. His Masters research focused on The Four-Day Workweek as a Policy Option for Australia, while his PhD thesis explores Basic Income as a Policy Option for Australia. He has published academic articles and book chapters on these and other work-related topics, and has undertaken economic consulting work for Public Services International. He has presented at national and international conferences, and is a regular media commentator. He is passionate about fair work, social justice, cricket and the NBA. Twitter: @TroyCHenderson
Leave a response
  • Darren Rodrigo
    February 24, 2015 at 7:48 pm

    Great article Troy. I couldn’t agree more. Political Economy was by far and away the most important and useful discipline I studied at the University of Sydney. It taught me how to think, critique and how to write. It completely shaped my intellect and the person I am today, for the better. Its interdisciplinary approach and academic rigour has been utterly invaluable in my job as a political staffer. Most importantly, PE’s unique and proud tradition of activism taught me why I needed to fight and how. If anyone is considering studying PE and perhaps weighing their options I have two words of advice. Do it!

  • Troy Henderson
    February 27, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks Darren. Great to have your feedback, especially given all your own work promoting PE through the alumni network.

  • ozgur usenmez
    April 3, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    If I can make contribution to the subject from İstanbul,Thesis Eleven of Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach states “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. When I was an economics student, that statement triggered my quest for answers since most of the stuff that I learned in economics departments was technical stuff and neoliberal ideological baggage which naturalizes the existing order and markets in every way you can imagine. By deciding to study Political Economy, starting with Robert W. Cox and Gramscian theory, I began to understand that the economy like all other fields is theory-laden and all approaches have a purpose of their own. So, in order to find ethical answers to change the existing reality, you need an inter-disciplinary program that explains to you the culture, geography, history and sociology of all past social formations. Especially historicizing the current social and political relationships is of utmost importance as Marx once said in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” At least, for me, Political Economy opened up the horizon to investigate that past and present in an inter-disciplinary way and provide more fruitful discussions for the future, which ensued thereon.

  • Bruno
    April 20, 2016 at 9:26 pm

    I’m a Nigerian. I studied Economics uptil MSC here in a federal University. Can I have information on what it takes to study political economy here in term of cost and CGPA requirements.

  • Gary Matthews
    October 12, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Good article. I would love to study P.E. at Sydney Uni but I live in North Queensland and it’s not offered externally.

    • Ney
      October 17, 2017 at 7:26 am

      Interesting article. I study PE in Venezuela. I am on the second year of the degree and certainly everything you put in the text is super enriching since it helps any student who does not know how to study and love PE.

  • Abdulsalam Dahiru
    August 16, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    Quite apt

  • omara samuel
    December 15, 2018 at 9:24 pm

    What can one do after studying PE ,degree student at Bugema University Uganda.

  • Tadesse Abreha
    April 21, 2019 at 2:43 pm

    The political economy implemented here in Ethiopia is very complicated in a way that two extremes (the rich and poor people) can not trust, at least for the future.

  • dawit
    December 5, 2019 at 8:35 am

    Really Tadesse that is also my own understanding regards with our country and the subject matter

  • Nkwo Emmanuel Okechukwu
    March 26, 2020 at 12:29 am

    Though a graduate of a political Science, I am impressed with the succinct explanations and lines drawn to differentiate between Economics and Political Economy as fields of studies. The scope of the merger given to the course and related courses to provide a balance to the interdependence and connectivity existing among social sciences in the interpretation of simple to complex issues in human, national and international interactions which result from struggles to proffering solutions to insatiable and ever increasing/unfolding wants. in my country the elements that plays prominent role in determining which policies and programs that evolve and thrive are such that exchange programs is obviously very important with your university and highly versed researchers. — Nkwo, Emmanuel Okechukwu- nogeria

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