Political Science Hegemony
Mark Beeson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0101


The word “hegemony” is of Greek origin and originally referred to the dominant or preponderant position of one state over others in the international system. For many commentators, especially realists, this remains a useful working definition. However, the notion of hegemony has become more controversial—and, for some, more useful—because it is seen as capturing a much broader set of relationships and processes than simple state-to-state relations. There are now a number of other approaches that seek to directly or indirectly utilize the notion of hegemony or dominance to explain contemporary international relations. Some liberal scholars, for example, focus on the role of institutions, especially those established under the auspices of “American hegemony” following World War II, to explain the way particular international orders are associated with the dominant position of one country. Not all liberals are comfortable with the term, however, and some prefer to talk of “leadership” rather than domination or hegemony because of hegemony’s negative connotations and contemporary association with critical scholarship. Other observers, working in a broadly Marxist tradition, emphasize the class interests they think transcend national borders but that overwhelmingly benefit and reflect the power of a dominant state. Various schools of thought and disciplinary traditions also tend to emphasize different possible aspects of hegemonic power. Geographers and political economists, for example, have focused on the spatial and economic aspects of hegemony. Realists, by contrast, stress the importance of military might and the continuing possibility of conflict. Liberals and others point to the growing importance of economic strength in explaining hegemonic decline, challenge, and possible transition. An interest in ideational influence and “soft power” is also evident in the analyses of liberals and what have been described as “neo-Gramscian” scholars. All of these approaches are united by their efforts to explain the pivotal role played by the most powerful state of a specific era in underpinning particular international orders.

General Overviews

There are a number of useful introductions that provide overviews of the literature, albeit from specific perspectives. Clark 2011 provides an excellent historical survey of the theory and historical development of hegemonic orders but one that is based in the “English school” with its focus on international society. A number of single-author texts have exerted a significant influence on the development of debates about hegemony from a number of distinct perspectives. If any single writer’s work can lay claim to triggering contemporary interest in hegemony, it is Kindleberger 1973 in its masterly analysis of the Great Depression. Kindleberger was an economist, and Kindleberger 1973 is difficult to categorize, but the definitive realist position on hegemony was laid out by Gilpin 1981. Growing interest in the possibility of hegemonic transition has seen renewed interest in the pioneering work Organski 1958. A very influential and important early contribution from a broadly Marxist perspective was Cox 1987, a work that highlighted the continuing potential relevance of Antonio Gramsci’s ideas. One of the most important early contributions from a liberal perspective can be found in Keohane 1984, despite the rather ambiguous title of this key work. Agnew 2005, a more recent analysis, looks at American hegemony in some detail and analyzes its links with economic “globalization.”

  • Agnew, John A. Hegemony: The New Shape of Global Power. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.

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    Theoretically sophisticated with an emphasis on the spatial realization of American economic power and influence, this is an important recent contribution to the literature.

  • Arrighi, Giovanni. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times. London: Verso, 1994.

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    Marxist reading of the historical development of capitalism, the interstate system, and the importance of hegemony in stabilizing particular social orders.

  • Clark, Ian. Hegemony in International Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199556267.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Historically grounded overview of the development of hegemonic orders and their role in underpinning “international society.”

  • Cox, Robert W. Production, Power, and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

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    Seminal, highly influential contribution from a broadly Marxist perspective that utilizes the ideas of Antonio Gramsci to explain the historical creation of world orders.

  • Gilpin, Robert G. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511664267Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Definitive realist statement on hegemonic power that explains what is seen as the inevitability of war in periods of hegemonic rise and decline.

  • Keohane, Robert O. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

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    Groundbreaking analyses of international cooperation and order based on assumed American decline. Remains important despite continuing debate about the timing of any diminution of US power.

  • Kindleberger, Charles P. The World in Depression, 1929–1939. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

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    More than any other book, Kindleberger’s analysis of the Great Depression triggered interest in the role of hegemony. Kindleberger argued the absence of leadership by a dominant state was largely responsible for the interwar economic catastrophe of the 1930s.

  • Organski, A. F. K. World Politics. New York: Knopf, 1958.

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    The sophisticated, historically informed model of “power transition” has recently gained new admirers following the rise of China and the possible decline of the United States.

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