World-Systems Analysis, by Immanuel Wallerstein

Posted: June 3, 2008 at 8:30 am in nonfiction

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A friend suggested that I learn more about Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis, as it is also derived from the Annales historical school that spawned Bruno Latour’s work that I like so much. This is a brief 90-page introduction to the concept which nonetheless provides a good overview of the field.

Let me quote from the glossary to summarize world-systems analysis:

A world-system is not the system of the world, but a system that is a world and that can be, most often has been, located in an area less than the entire globe. World-systems analysis argues that the unities of social reality within which we operate, whose rules constrain us, are for the most part, such world-systems (other than the now-extinct small minisystems that once existed on the earth). World-systems analysis argues that there have been thus far only two varieties of world-systems: world-economies and world-empires. A world-empire (such as the Roman Empire, Han China) is a large bureaucratic structure with a single political center and an axial division of labor, but multiple cultures. A world-economy is a large axial division of labor with multiple political centers and multiple cultures.

Wallerstein uses the text to expand on this concept, and to describe the extant capitalist world-economy which he identifies as having been the dominant world-system since the sixteenth century. He defines a capitalist system as being one in which priority is given to the “endless accumulation of capital”. Based on these assumptions, he explains how the capitalist world-economy fits together, why new innovations start as “core” products that can extract high profits due to an oligopoly of producers (either through patents or trade secrets), before becoming “peripheral” products, as others copy the innovation and it becomes a commodity (the technology S-curve in another form). He separates states by whether they are primarily core producers or peripheral producers (instead of the more traditional developed and undeveloped monikers) and uses the term semi-peripheral to indicate those states that have a mix of such products (e.g. India or Brazil).

He also spends a chapter examining the nation-state in light of this worldview. Nation-states arise in this view essentially as a mechanism by which companies can assure themselves of the conditions necessary for the continued accumulation of capital. If the state is too weak, then it becomes corrupt, and bribes and “taxes” suck up the surplus value a firm might accumulate (as happens in many developing countries). The right balance is a state that assures the right of a firm to keep most of the surplus value it generates, but collecting enough taxes to provide a rule of law, security, sovereignty, etc. There’s a delicate balance among the states – states would prefer to dominate others (as they did during the colonial period), but the states also benefit from holding together the system as it exists so that prosperity can continue to increase.

Another chapter was devoted to trans-national movements, or ideologies. He views the French Revolution as a key turning point in the rise of ideologies, as earlier nation-states had ruled by fiat. The French Revolution introduced a new ethos to the world, one where “political change was not exceptional or bizarre but normal and thus constant” and one where sovereignty was decided by the “people who, alone, could legitimate a regime”. Ideologies are, in this view, a set of “competing long-term strategies of how to deal with change and who should take the lead in dealing with it”. Conservatives are reactionary and generally anti-change, liberals are in favor of equality of opportunity and meritocracy, and radicals want to throw the whole system out.

The interesting part of this chapter to me was that these competing ideological movements created the need for social science. As Wallerstein observes, “If political change was normal and the people were sovereign, it mattered very much to understand what the rules were by which the social arena was constituted and how it operated.” An ideology that could support its agenda with scientific support would have an advantage in its political maneuverings.

Wallerstein also observes how the social sciences immediately fractured into several branches, including history, economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, etc. The university system accelerated this fracture, as doing original work to get a PhD required ever-increasing specialization to find new territory. As Wallerstein describes, “World-systems analysis was an attempt to combine coherently concern with the unit of analysis, concern with social temporalities, and concern with the barriers that had been erected between different social science disciplines.” Pull down the barriers, take a step back, and look at the whole system, rather than looking for ever-smaller nuances within a discipline.

As a generalist, I like the idea of world-systems analysis as a concept, of looking across disciplines to understand the larger forces that shape the world that we live in. Wallerstein has assembled a reasonably compelling story of how the various pieces fit together in his analysis of the world. I am not entirely convinced of his objectivity, though, as hints of his political agenda appear throughout the book, and it seems as if world-systems analysis may be just another way to support a political ideology. While he claims to be looking at the whole world as a system, his analysis is necessarily a simplification, and the elements he chooses to include in his simplified story tell their own story.

I’m also somewhat amused by his last chapter, where he describes how the current capitalist world-system is breaking down and examines the new world-systems that might replace it. He dates the shock to the system to the cultural revolutions of 1968. The reason this amuses me is that this world-system that has survived massive upheavals of culture and technology for four centuries according to his reckoning is now heading into decline, coincidentally at just the time he’s around to analyze it. It reminds me of one of my friends quipping that it was interesting that predictions that immortality would be achievable in twenty years were always coincidentally made by people in their mid-forties, like Ray Kurzweil. I obviously haven’t done the research to question Wallerstein’s findings or conclusions, but my first reaction is that it’s curious that he happens to be writing at a time when the world-system is in crisis, and might be influenced by his writing to change to a new system that happens to more closely match his democratic egalitarian leanings.

Overall, I liked the book. It provides a good overview of how ideas from several social disciplines can be drawn together to tell a story about the way the world works. I don’t have the academic grounding to know how accurately Wallerstein represents those social disciplines and their conclusions, but the story made sense to me, and provides a useful way of looking at the world. And collecting new perspectives is one of my goals in life, so it was great to get this new perspective in a slim well-written book.

6 Responses to “World-Systems Analysis, by Immanuel Wallerstein”

  1. Beemer Says:

    So under this system, what would a world-system with essentially a single culture but multiple political centers, axial division of labor look like? (That being the logical third possibility.)

  2. Eric Says:

    I think Wallerstein would argue that situation would be an improbability. Without a unifying political center, the cultures surrounding core versus periphery production would diverge. Agrarian regions and industrial regions would develop different cultures as they prioritize different things. Nation-states can overcome this by using the myths of nationalism to create a single culture, but without a political center, the culture would fragment.

  3. Beemer Says:

    Well, I’m thinking in a speculative context, so I’m interested in barriers to reaching that state, not overall likelihood of getting there. So I guess that implies that to have such a system, you’d need some kind of advanced social tech to help keep things glued together despite divergent priorities. Probably also depends on what is meant by “political center”; I imagine there are variations on that idea that might mitigate divergence as well.

    Hmm, there’s another logical possibility, which is not to have axial division of labor, but totally homogeneous production, so that every region is equally core (and/or periphery). Arguably appropriate for post-scarcity civilizations…

  4. Eric Says:

    Yeah, I think he was describing the existing world, so things like “advanced social tech” and “post-scarcity civilizations” didn’t come into play, although it’s interesting to speculate how societal systems would evolve under those conditions.

    Homogenous production I think is where he wants things to head, to give each state an equal chance at being a core producer, with states specializing in certain areas. I think this is the direction things are starting to move, with “semi-peripheral” states like Brazil, India and China closing in fast on the already-core group of America, Europe, and Japan.

  5. Beemer Says:

    What’s the point of describing the existing world if not to speculate wildly about how things might be different? Hello!

    I wonder if we’re moving toward homogeneous production, or just toward the decentralization of products, so that everyone is producing something wanted by somebody somewhere, and there’s nothing that everybody has to have. That’s what the long-tail effect and the continuing development of custom/computer fabbing sort of feels like it’s pushing toward to me. Hyperfragmentation of the market until it’s all just point-to-point producer direct to consumer, and everything interesting has to do with connecting the two together…

  6. Phil Henshaw Says:

    There’s a corresponding general natural systems science that seems to correspond to this, with a somewhat more rigorous empiracal method, that asks equally open questions.

    Complex systems and their organization are environmental learning processes one can study by their developmental paths, and exhibit a predictable sequence that helps direct questions about future turns in their development.

    General notes start on my domain page, and my research work is linked from my consulting page too,


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