Stephen Kobrin’s publishing career spanned more than 45 years, with his first work being published in 1975 and his last published in 2021. Fittingly for a scholar who has made such an impact on the field of International Business, his first journal article was published in 1976 in the Journal of International Business Studies, whilst his last journal article was published in the Journal of International Business Policy in 2020. Kobrin’s collective scholarly work has been cited more than 10,000 times in Google Scholar, with a h-index of 36. He wrote nearly all of his highly influential work alone, much of it in the form of books and book chapters or even magazines such as Foreign Policy.

His Wharton memoriam relates that “his family and closest colleagues described Kobrin as a Renaissance man who had vast interests and a voracious appetite for learning. He followed politics and current events […] and was an early adopter of technology […]”. As shown below, this is clearly reflected in his academic work. It is impossible to do justice to the breadth and depth of Kobrin’s scholarly contributions in this short overview. Therefore, below is a very selective review of his scholarly work, focusing on his early and most recent work, both of which will be less familiar to many.

Political Risk

Kobrin is perhaps best known for his strong interest in Political Economy in general and political risk in particular. Thanks to MIT’s digitalization efforts, Kobrin’s early scholarly work in this field provides us with some fascinating glimpses in the pre-computer age of scholarship. His first publication in 1975 (The environmental determinants of foreign direct investment: an empirical analysis) is an MIT working paper. It has been digitalized, complete with a picture of its red bound cover, which shows it can be found in the basement of the MIT library. Most academics working in this field, however, will recognise the title from Kobrin’s 1976 article in Journal of International Business Studies, a journal in which he continued to publish regularly during his long publishing career.

In the next couple of years Kobrin published five more MIT working papers on related themes, all available through Google Scholar.

The last working paper also found its way into the Journal of International Business Studies in 1979 under the same title and became Kobrin’s second most highly cited work, with over 1,000 citations to date. This was followed by a book on Managing political risk assessment [1982] which evidenced his strong engagement with managerial practice: “My interest in political risk assessment was aroused by a discordance between research results and managerial perceptions.”

A range of articles on this theme followed in the first decade of his academic publishing career, including highly cited articles on Foreign enterprise and forces divestment in LDCs [1980],  Expropriation as an attempt to control foreign firms in LDCs [1984], Diffusion as an explanation of oil nationalization [1985] and Testing the bargaining hypothesis in the manufacturing sector in developing countries [1987]. This stream of work had a strong impact, not only in International Business, but also International Relations and International Political Economy. His empirical tests of the obsolescing bargain hypothesis by Ray Vernon (and Lou Wells) were a particularly important contribution to the field.

MNC Strategy and Organization

In the late 1980s Kobrin expanded his interests to include MNC strategy and organization. This led to a range of publications in this area, including three highly cited articles in which Kobrin ventured into publishing in related disciplines such as Human Resource Management and Strategic Management.

E-commerce, State Sovereignty and Globalization

From the late 1990s onwards Kobrin explored three interrelated themes: e-commerce, state sovereignty and globalization. It is easy to forget how novel e-commerce was around the turn of the century. Back then Amazon was only an online bookstore and still had to turn its first profit. Kobrin was one of the first IB scholars to study e-commerce with a series of studies that linked e-commerce, global integration, and state sovereignty.

Globalization Backlash and an Enduring Legacy?

Finally, at the end of his publishing career – when he was in his mid-seventies to early eighties – Kobrin published four essayistic articles under the broad umbrella theme of globalization backlash. They reproduced here with their full abstracts. They reflect on and integrate his life’s work and are likely to significantly shape the future of our field. It is clear we have lost a great visionary.

Is a global nonmarket strategy possible? Economic integration in a multipolar world order [Journal of World Business, 2015]

Technology has changed the underlying structure of the world economy, increasing the cost of autonomy and making devolution unlikely. On the other hand, the increasing number of players, a multipolar world system and the rise of non-liberal powers make multilateral agreements increasingly problematic. Thus, there is an asymmetry between the MNC’s market environment (an integrated international economy) and its nonmarket environment (a fragmented international political system). This paper argues that a cross-border nonmarket strategy is inconsistent with a globally integrated strategy and argues that a global nonmarket environment requires multilaterally accepted norms and rules. Issue-based multilateralism is suggested as a way out of this dilemma.

Bricks and mortar in a borderless world: Globalization, the backlash, and the multinational enterprise [Global Strategy Journal, 2017]

Globalization, increased interconnectedness, and deep integration resulted in significant increases in trade and FDI from 1989 through 2008. The recession marked the end of that trend and the rise of a broadbased opposition that has economic, social, and political components. This article explores the backlash, arguing that is driven by sociotropic perceptions. While globalization can be explained as a cyclical or structural phenomenon, I argue that technological change results in a networked global economy, the transition from a space of places to a space of flows, and increases the potential cost of devolution to the point where economic independence is no longer feasible. Nonetheless, I conclude that MNCs face a period of prolonged uncertainty and develop implications for firm strategy.

How globalization became a thing that goes bump in the night [Journal of International Business Policy, 2020]

For almost 200 years, globalization has been seen as a positive development, albeit with costs and benefits, and as progress and modernization, a broadening of humanity’s scope from the local and parochial to the cosmopolitan and international. That changed dramatically with the Great Recession, the waves of migration of the last decade, and the global Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic of 2020. For many, globalization now connotes economic dislocation, increasing inequality, unwanted immigration, and a vehicle for the transmission of disease. The pandemic reminds us that most economic activity takes place within national borders. It has emphasized the dangers rather than the benefits of efficient linkages between markets, laying bare the dangers of complex global supply chains where any node can become a “choke point”, and the risks of overspecialization or the concentration of technological knowledge and/or production capacity in a single country or region. A more positive view of globalization will require restoring the balance between independence and integration, mitigation of its costs within and between countries, and dealing with redundancy and supply risk.

Is a Networked World Economy Sustainable? [EIBA Book series: Progress in International Business, 2021]

Economic nationalism and the COVID-19 pandemic have led many to question the future of globalization. Given the fragility of the second wave, this chapter asks whether globalization is cyclical, sustainable only under the most propitious economic or political conditions or whether technological developments, especially the digital revolution, have changed the underlying structure of production in ways that markedly increase the cost of renationalization. Global production networks (GPNs) are discussed as an example of structural change, the emergence of a networked world economy that is both more extensive and intensive than in the past. The chapter concludes that the international economic environment will be unstable, as attempts to restore national independence and disaggregate GPNs run up against the reality of mutual dependence. While we are unlikely to return to independent national markets, the future shape of globalization is uncertain.

Professor Anne-Wil Harzing
Middlesex University London
United Kingdom
AIB Fellows Bibliometrician