Configuring the World: A Critical Political Economy Approach

Universiteit Leiden, University of Geneva

In today’s world, politics and economics are inextricably interconnected, but what is the nature of this connectivity? What are the power relationships that shape the world economy today and create new challenges for international institutions facing globalization? What makes some countries wealthier than others? Do we face cultural diversity or fragmentation? Does the type of governance effect economic development and social change or is it the other way around? How do we measure it and how trustworthy is the data? These issues and many more will be examined in this course along with up-to-date sources and biting criticism.

The course is composed of eight modules that together will introduce students to the influences that shape the world in which we live today and to some of the political economy concepts used to explain them. It will examine the forces that explain the differences between success and failure in economic development and effective government in different countries. It will view how these forces also interact in the global economy. 

The course will adopt a ‘critical political economy approach’ in two ways.  It will criticize the data that are employed by social scientists to test their hypotheses on questions of governance and economic development.  However, it will also raise the prospect that the problems in economic development might lie at a more fundamental, systemic level. 

Video clip from CtW 1 - Prof. Richard Griffiths talks about the multinational corporations, how big they really are, and who controls most of them...

Video clip from the 'Configuring the World' MOOC Google hangout–Prof. Richard Griffiths and students discuss the change in the rank of Nepal in the Human Development Index, how it happened and the meaning of it to social scientists and statisticians and politicians.

Extracts from the CtW1 DiscussionForum:

“I was surprisingly fascinated with this course… and do not get positively surprised very often. The degree of commitment, the interest with which Professor Griffiths teaches, is admirable. He cares about the threads, the questions that arise in discussions and tries to make a massive open course participative and interesting or every one with success. Finally, I would like to say that this is one of the best and most motivating courses I have ever taken, including my whole university career.”(Elizabeth Nagy, Lawyer, Uruguay) 

“I have to admit that I suspicious at first. But the ripping apart of the data indices is so interesting and useful that I can do nothing more than recommend this course. It is a great antidote to those that want to use statistics without any examination whatsoever of how the data was collected, what was collected, and how the indices were derived. What a breath of fresh air in the area of political economy, policy, and politics…” (Karl Shepard, Professor of US and European history, USA)

“From the first minute of the first video, I was hooked. After then it got better. I appreciate and enjoy the style and content of the course… I feel that the instructor has a gift for eloquent discourse presented in a direct way that makes sophisticated content intellectually available to anyone who cares to listens.(James P. Reefe, USA) 


This course is part of the Specialization track 'The Challenges in Global Affairs', which contains three courses and a capstone project. The courses do not have to be taken in any particular order. 

1. Configuring the World. What do we know of the world? Mostly we know where most people live and whether they are richer or poorer. This module reexamines the patterns of world demographics and economic development.

2. Trust. Underlying all human activity is the concept of trust. At the extreme, the complete absence of trust, individuals fall back on closed circles of friendship and kinship and they will ‘privatise’ their involvement in public institutions. It the ensuing uncertainty, businesses will cut back their planning perspectives and societies will start to fragment.

3. Inequality and Fragmentation. Cultural differences can enrich societies, but under different circumstances, they also serve to undermine social cohesion, and weaken the foundations of trust.  Extremes in income distribution, whether geographically or individually, may also have negative effects for society as a whole.

4. Governance. Governance is the channel through which trust is linked to policy outcomes, such as growth and prosperity (and egalitarian policies). Poor institutional quality undermines trust, which in turn impacts on growth and prosperity. It also affects the ability of states to fulfil their international obligations.

5. Economic Development and Social Change. Helping to promote economic development in other countries has been an international concern since the end of the second World War. Having seen decades of  failure of development aid to close the income gaps, the current orthodoxy is prioritizing the implementation of market oriented institutional reform.

6. Globalisation. Over the past half century or more, the World has become more interdependent. In the ‘hyperglobalist’ literature this is attributed to a reduced role of the state and the victory of market forces. But economic markets are political constructions, without which transactions will not happen.

7. (International) Institutions. The globalized economy is controlled and regulated by a network of international organizations. There is some debate about the extent to which they serve to modify state behavior, and it is also important to reflect that  they are also reflect the international power balance.

8. The Locus of Control. Despite the focus of so much literature and analysis on the level of nation states, it is businesses that trade, not states. And it is international finance, rather than international trade that is responsible for most of the qualitative transformation of the world economy.

The course will offer two tracks. One for those following the course and taking the tests and the other for students preparing individual assignments. 

Recommended Background

No background is needed. 

We will be introducing the tools and expertise you need to read and manipulate the CtW databases at the start of the course. For students who wish to familiarize themselves in advance, the following YouTube video provide a useful starting point:

Microsoft Excel Tutorials for Beginners #1:

Excel 2010: Charts getting Started:

Other programmes follow basically the same system.

Some students have also used ‘R’… A wonderfully powerful and flexible stats and graphics package that runs on pretty much anything!
Or in slight more user friendly form
Or even more powerful and sometime more sometimes less friendly

Course Format

Each week short video- lectures will introduce a new subject accompanied by required reading and a weekly quiz.  For the Advance Track students there will also be a Peer Assignment, which will allow students to refine and develop their skills in data-management and presentation. The course will be completed with a 25-35 questions multiple choice final exam, which will be based on the video lectures, and for the Advance Track students, also on the reading material. 


1. Will I get a certificate or Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.

2. Do I earn Leiden University credits upon completion of this class?

No. The certificate of completion is not part of a formal qualification from Leiden University.

3. What resources will I need for this class?

Currently we are negotiating to get all necessary reading material to be downloadable for free from the course web site.

4. What are the learning outcomes of this course and why should I take it?

After this course you will be able:

-To describe the interrelationships between society, politics and economics from different perspectives, disciplines and geographical areas.

-To explain research methods social scientists use to measure societal variables.

-To identify the limitations of social science indices and the effect on the credibility of subsequent statistical analysis.

-To criticize important relationships in political economy by using theoretical notions and practical examples.

-To design your own comparative research into a region of the world by applying data base management and visualization techniques.

-To discuss societal issues using your own empirical analysis experience.

5. Why do you offer this course for free?

Leiden University is grounded in a long standing tradition in providing students the space for obtaining a thorough and multifaceted education. This MOOC offers us the possibility to share our knowledge globally.

  • 14 September 2015, 8 weeks
  • 9 February 2015, 8 weeks
  • 1 September 2014, 8 weeks
  • Details to be announced
Course properties:
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  • Paid:
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  • Language: English Gb


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