World Systems Theory

Much of the intellectual credit of World -System theory has to go to Immanuel Wallerstein, and his 1976 rewriting of the world’s history as  cycles of expansion and collapse of economic system (Wilk and Cliggett 2007). The earliest adaptation of this theory came out of dependency theory. The primary differences with these two theories, was that dependency theory was interested in the underdeveloped periphery.  Where as world-systems theory was interested with systems as a system and the dynamics and processes happening at the “developed” core (Roseberry 1988). Essentially asking: what are the dynamics of the capitalist world economy as a complete social system? Also, that Technology is a critical element in  region’s positioning in the core or the periphery (Martinez-Vela 2001).

Wallerstein proposed that the global geography could be divided up into “cores” that accumulated wealth and “peripheries” that were drained from the “cores”. He was trying to achieve  ““a clear conceptual break with theories of ‘modernization’ and thus provide a new theoretical paradigm to guide our investigations of the emergence and development of capitalism, industrialism, and national states (Skocpol 1977:1075)”

Intellectual Proponent

Immanuel Wallerstein

Considered the founder of world-system theory, He entered Columbia University, where he earned his BS, MA and PhD degrees. His primary mentor was C. Wright Mills where he learned historical sensitivity. His exposure during field school in Africa (the third world) had a great impact on his work. During much of his work, the dominant approach to understanding development and modernization theory was coming under fire. It was from this, he dedicated to take time too create an alternative explanation. His research outlined five major subjects: the functioning of the capitalist, world-economy as a system, the how and why of its origins, its relations with non-capitalist structures in previous centuries, comparative study of alternative modes of production, and the ongoing transition to socialism (Martínez-Vela 2001).

From Marx, Wallerstein drew five building block in order to revise Marxism (Martínez-Vela 2001:3):

  1.  the fundamental reality if social conflict among materially based human groups,
  2.  the concern with a relevant totality
  3.   the transitory nature of social forms and theories about them
  4.  the centrality of the accumulation process and competitive class struggles that result from it
  5.   a dialectical sense of motion through conflict and contradiction.

References Cited

Martínez-Vela, Carlos A.
2001       World Systems Theory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Roseberry, William
1988       Political Economy. Annual Review of Anthropology 17:161-185.
Skocpol, Theda
1977      Wallerstein’s World Capitalist System: A Theoretical and Historical Critique.  American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 82. N. 5. 1075-1090.
Wilk, Richard R. and Lisa C. Cliggett
2007       Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology. Second Ed. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.


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