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World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction

World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction

by Immanuel Wallerstein

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In World-Systems Analysis, Immanuel Wallerstein provides a concise and accessible introduction to the comprehensive approach that he pioneered thirty years ago to understanding the history and development of the modern world. Since Wallerstein first developed world-systems analysis, it has become a widely utilized methodology within the historical social


In World-Systems Analysis, Immanuel Wallerstein provides a concise and accessible introduction to the comprehensive approach that he pioneered thirty years ago to understanding the history and development of the modern world. Since Wallerstein first developed world-systems analysis, it has become a widely utilized methodology within the historical social sciences and a common point of reference in discussions of globalization. Now, for the first time in one volume, Wallerstein offers a succinct summary of world-systems analysis and a clear outline of the modern world-system, describing the structures of knowledge upon which it is based, its mechanisms, and its future.

Wallerstein explains the defining characteristics of world-systems analysis: its emphasis on world-systems rather than nation-states, on the need to consider historical processes as they unfold over long periods of time, and on combining within a single analytical framework bodies of knowledge usually viewed as distinct from one another—such as history, political science, economics, and sociology. He describes the world-system as a social reality comprised of interconnected nations, firms, households, classes, and identity groups of all kinds. He identifies and highlights the significance of the key moments in the evolution of the modern world-system: the development of a capitalist world-economy in the sixteenth-century, the beginning of two centuries of liberal centrism in the French Revolution of 1789, and the undermining of that centrism in the global revolts of 1968. Intended for general readers, students, and experienced practitioners alike, this book presents a complete overview of world-systems analysis by its original architect.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“At a time when globalization is at the center of international debate from Davos to Porto Alegre, an introduction to ‘world-systems analysis,’ an original approach to world development since the sixteenth century, is timely and relevant. This is a lucidly written and comprehensive treatment of its origins, controversies, and development by Immanuel Wallerstein, its undoubted pioneer and most eminent practitioner.”—Eric Hobsbawm, author of Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life and The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991

“Immanuel Wallerstein’s mind can reach as far and encompass as much as anyone’s in our time. The world, to him, is a vast, integrated system, and he makes the case for that vision with an elegant and almost relentless logic. But he also knows that to see as he does requires looking through a very different epistemological lens than the one most of us are in the habit of using. So his gift to us is not just a new understanding of how the world works but a new way of apprehending it. A brilliant work on both scores.”—Kai Erikson, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of Sociology and American Studies, Yale University

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World-Systems Analysis

An Introduction

By Immanuel Wallerstein

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2004 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9901-8


Historical Origins of World-Systems Analysis

From Social Science Disciplines to Historical Social Sciences

World-systems analysis originated in the early 1970s as a new perspective on social reality. Some of its concepts have been in use for a long time and some are new or at least newly named. Concepts can only be understood within the context of their times. This is even more true of whole perspectives, whose concepts have their meaning primarily in terms of each other, of how they make up a set. New perspectives are, in addition, generally best understood if one thinks of them as a protest against older perspectives. It is always the claim of a new perspective that the older, and currently more accepted, one is in some significant way inadequate, or misleading, or tendentious, that the older one therefore represents more a barrier to apprehending social reality than a tool for analyzing it.

Like any other perspective, world-systems analysis has built on earlier arguments and critiques. There is a sense in which almost no perspective can ever be entirely new. Someone has usually said something similar decades or centuries earlier. Therefore, when we speak of a perspective being new, it may only be that the world is ready for the first time to take seriously the ideas it embodies, and perhaps also that the ideas have been repackaged in a way that makes them more plausible and accessible to more people.

The story of the emergence of world-systems analysis is embedded in the history of the modern world-system and the structures of knowledge that grew up as part of that system. It is most useful to trace the beginning of this particular story not to the 1970s but to the mid-eighteenth century. The capitalist world-economy had then been in existence for some two centuries already. The imperative of the endless accumulation of capital had generated a need for constant technological change, a constant expansion of frontiers—geographical, psychological, intellectual, scientific.

There arose in consequence a felt need to know how we know, and to debate how we may know. The millennial claim of religious authorities that they alone had a sure way to know truth had been under challenge in the modern world-system for some time already. Secular (that is, nonreligious) alternatives were increasingly well received. Philosophers lent themselves to this task, insisting that human beings could obtain knowledge by using their minds in some way, as opposed to receiving revealed truth through some religious authority or script. Such philosophers as Descartes and Spinoza— however different they were from each other—were both seeking to relegate theological knowledge to a private corner, separated from the main structures of knowledge.

While philosophers were now challenging the dictates of the theologians, asserting that human beings could discern truth directly by the use of their rational faculties, a growing group of scholars agreed about the role of theologians but argued that so-called philosophical insight was just as arbitrary a source of truth as divine revelation. These scholars insisted on giving priority to empirical analyses of reality. When Laplace in the beginning of the nineteenth century wrote a book on the origins of the solar system, Napoleon, to whom he presented the book, noted that Laplace had not mentioned God once in his very thick book. Laplace replied: "I have no need of that hypothesis, Sire." These scholars would now come to be called scientists. Still, we must remember that at least until the late eighteenth century, there was no sharp distinction between science and philosophy in the ways in which knowledge was defined. At that time, Immanuel Kant found it perfectly appropriate to lecture on astronomy and poetry as well as on metaphysics. He also wrote a book on interstate relations. Knowledge was still considered a unitary field.

About this time in the late eighteenth century, there occurred what some now call the "divorce" between philosophy and science. It was those defending empirical "science" who insisted upon this divorce. They said that the only route to "truth" was theorizing based on induction from empirical observations, and that these observations had to be done in such a way that others could subsequently replicate and thereby verify the observations. They insisted that metaphysical deduction was speculation and had no "truth" value. They thus refused to think of themselves as "philosophers."

It was just about this time as well, and indeed in large part as a result of this so-called divorce, that the modern university was born. Built upon the framework of the medieval university, the modern university is really quite a different structure. Unlike the medieval university, it has full-time, paid professors, who are almost never clerics, and who are grouped together not merely in "faculties" but in "departments" or "chairs" within these faculties, each department asserting that it is the locus of a particular "discipline." And the students pursue courses of study which lead to degrees that are defined by the department within which they have studied.

The medieval university had had four faculties: theology, medicine, law, and philosophy. What happened in the nineteenth century was that almost everywhere, the faculty of philosophy was divided into at least two separate faculties: one covering the "sciences"; and one covering other subjects, sometimes called the "humanities," sometimes the "arts" or "letters" (or both), and sometimes retaining the old name of "philosophy." The university was institutionalizing what C. P. Snow would later call the "two cultures." And these two cultures were at war with each other, each insisting that it was the only, or at least the best, way to obtain knowledge. The emphasis of the sciences was on empirical (even experimental) research and hypothesis testing. The emphasis of the humanities was on empathetic insight, what later was called hermeneutic understanding. The only legacy we have today of their erstwhile unity is that all the arts and sciences in the university offer as their highest degree the PhD, doctor of philosophy.

The sciences denied the humanities the ability to discern truth. In the earlier period of unified knowledge, the search for the true, the good, and the beautiful had been closely intertwined, if not identical. But now the scientists insisted that their work had nothing to do with a search for the good or the beautiful, merely the true. They bequeathed the search for the good and the beautiful to the philosophers. And many of the philosophers agreed to this division of labor. So, the division of knowledge into the two cultures came to mean as well creating a high barrier between the search for the true and the search for the good and the beautiful. This then justified the claim of the scientists that they were "value-neutral."

In the nineteenth century, the faculties of science divided themselves into multiple fields called disciplines: physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, zoology, mathematics, and others. The faculties of humanities divided themselves into such fields as philosophy, classics (that is, Greek and Latin, the writings of Antiquity), art history, musicology, the national language and literature, and languages and literatures of other linguistic zones.

The hardest question was into which faculty one ought to place the study of social reality. The urgency of such a study was brought to the fore by the French Revolution of 1789 and the cultural upheaval it caused in the modern world-system. The French Revolution propagated two quite revolutionary ideas. One was that political change was not exceptional or bizarre but normal and thus constant. The second was that "sovereignty"—the right of the state to make autonomous decisions within its realm—did not reside in (belong to) either a monarch or a legislature but in the "people" who, alone, could legitimate a regime.

Both of these ideas caught on and became widely adopted, despite the political reversals of the French Revolution itself. If political change was now to be considered normal and sovereignty was to reside in the people, it suddenly became imperative for everyone to understand what it was that explained the nature and pace of change, and how the "people" arrived at, could arrive at, the decisions they were said to be making. This is the social origin of what we later came to call the social sciences.

But what were the "social sciences" and how did they situate themselves in the new war between the "two cultures"? These are not easy questions to answer. Indeed, one might argue that these questions have never been satisfactorily answered. Initially what one saw is that the social sciences tended to place themselves in the middle between the "pure sciences" and the "humanities." In the middle, but not comfortably in the middle. For the social scientists did not evolve a separate, third way of knowing; rather they divided themselves between those who leaned toward a "scientific" or "scientistic" view of social science and those who leaned toward a "humanistic" view of social science. The social sciences seemed tied to two horses straining in opposite directions, and pulled apart by them.

The oldest of the social sciences is of course history, an activity and a label that go back thousands of years. In the nineteenth century there occurred a "revolution" in historiography associated with the name of Leopold Ranke, who coined the slogan that history should be written wie es eigentlich gewesen ist (as it really did happen). What he was protesting against was the practice of historians to engage in hagiography, telling tales that glorified monarchs or countries, including invented tales. What Ranke was proposing was a more scientific history, one that eschewed speculation and fable.

Ranke was also proposing a specific method by which such history might be written—by searching for documents describing events that were written at the time of the events. Eventually, such documents would come to be stored in what we call archives. It was the assumption of the new historians when they studied the documents in the archives that actors at the time had not been writing for future historians but were revealing what they really thought at the time or at least what they wanted others to believe. Of course, the historians acknowledged that such documents had to be handled carefully, to verify that there was no fraud, but once verified, these documents were considered largely exempt from the intrusive bias of the later historian. To minimize bias further, historians would insist that they could write history only of the "past" and not of the "present," since writing about the present inevitably bore the imprint of the passions of the moment. In any case, archives (which were controlled by the political authorities) were seldom "open" to the historian until a long period had passed (fifty to a hundred years), so they normally did not have access in any case to the important documents about the present. (In the late twentieth century, many governments came under pressure from opposition politicians to open their archives much more quickly. And while this openness has had some effect, it seems also true that governments have found as well new ways of guarding their secrets.)

Nonetheless, despite this more "scientific" bent, the new historians did not choose to be located in the faculty of science, but rather in the faculty of humanities. This might seem strange, since these historians were rejecting the philosophers because of their speculative assertions. In addition they were empiricists, and thus one might have thought they would feel sympathetic vibrations for the natural scientists. But they were empiricists who were by and large suspicious of large-scale generalizations. They were not interested in arriving at scientific laws or even formulating hypotheses, often insisting that each particular "event" had to be analyzed in terms of its own particular history. They argued that human social life was quite unlike the physical phenomena studied by the pure scientists, because of the factor of human will, and this emphasis on what we today call human agency led them to think of themselves as "humanists" rather than "scientists."

But which events were worthy of their regard? Historians had to make decisions about objects of study. That they were relying on written documents from the past already biased what they could possibly study, since the documents in archives were written largely by persons linked to political structures—diplomats, civil servants, political leaders. These documents revealed little about phenomena that were not marked by political or diplomatic occurrences. Furthermore, this approach presumed that the historians were studying a zone in which there existed written documents. In practice, historians in the nineteenth century tended therefore to study first of all their own country, and secondarily other countries which were considered "historical nations," which seemed to mean nations with a history that could be documented in archives.

But in which countries were such historians located? The overwhelming majority (probably 95 percent) were to be found in only five zones: France, Great Britain, the United States, and the various parts of what would later become Germany and Italy. So at first, the history that was written and taught was primarily the history of these five nations. There was in addition a further question to decide: What should be included in the history of a country like France or Germany? What are its boundaries, geographic and temporal? Most historians decided to trace back the story as far as they could, using the territorial boundaries of the present, or even the boundaries as they were claimed at present. The history of France was thus the history of everything that had happened within the boundaries of France as defined in the nineteenth century. This was of course quite arbitrary, but it did serve one purpose—reinforcing contemporary nationalist sentiments—and it was therefore a practice encouraged by the states themselves.

Still, it followed from the historians' practice of restricting themselves to studying the past that they had little to say about the contemporary situations facing their countries. And political leaders felt in need of more information about the present. New disciplines therefore grew up for this purpose. There were mainly three: economics, political science, and sociology. Why, however, would there be three disciplines to study the present but only one to study the past? Because the dominant liberal ideology of the nineteenth century insisted that modernity was defined by the differentiation of three social spheres: the market, the state, and the civil society. The three spheres operated, it was asserted, according to different logics, and it was good to keep them separated from each other—in social life and therefore in intellectual life. They needed to be studied in different ways, appropriate to each sphere—the market by economists, the state by political scientists, and the civil society by sociologists.

Again the question arose: How can we arrive at "objective" knowledge about these three spheres? Here, the response was different from that given by the historians. In each discipline, the view that came to dominate was that these spheres of life—the market, the state, and the civil society—were governed by laws that could be discerned by empirical analysis and inductive generalization. This was exactly the same view as that which the pure scientists had about their objects of study. So we call these three disciplines nomothetic disciplines (that is, disciplines in search of scientific laws) as opposed to the idiographic discipline which history aspired to be—that is, a discipline that is predicated on the uniqueness of social phenomena.

Again, the question would be posed, where should one focus the study of contemporary phenomena? The nomothetic social scientists were located primarily in the same five countries as the historians, and in the same way studied primarily their own countries (or at most they made comparisons among the five countries). This was to be sure socially rewarded, but in addition the nomothetic social scientists put forward a methodological argument to justify this choice. They said that the best way to avoid bias was to use quantitative data, and that such data were most likely to be located in their own countries in the immediate present. Furthermore, they argued that if we assume the existence of general laws governing social behavior, it would not matter where one studied these phenomena, since what was true in one place and at one time was true in all places at all times. Why not then study phenomena for which one had the most reliable data—that is, the most quantified and replicable data?

Social scientists did have one further problem. The four disciplines together (history, economics, sociology, and political science) studied in effect only a small portion of the world. But in the nineteenth century, the five countries were imposing colonial rule on many other parts of the world, and were engaged in commerce and sometimes in warfare with still other parts of the world. It seemed important to study the rest of the world as well. Still, the rest of the world seemed somehow different, and it seemed inappropriate to use four West-oriented disciplines to study parts of the world that were not considered "modern." As a result, two additional disciplines arose.


Excerpted from World-Systems Analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein. Copyright © 2004 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Immanuel Wallerstein is a Senior Research Scholar at Yale University and Director of the Fernand Braudel Center at Binghamton University. Among his many books are The Modern World-System (three volumes); The End of the World as We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-first Century; Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century; and Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms. He is the recipient of the American Sociological Association’s Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award and is a former president of the International Sociological Association.

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