The world-systems perspective is a strategy for explaining social change that focuses on whole inter-societal systems rather than single societies. The main insight is that important interaction networks (trade, information flows, alliances, and fighting) have woven polities and cultures together since the beginning of human social evolution. Thus explanations of social change need to take intersocietal systems (world-systems) as the units that evolve. But intersocietal interaction networks were rather small when transportation was mainly a matter of humans carrying loads on foot. Globalization, in the sense of the expansion and intensification of larger interaction networks, has been increasing for millennia, albeit unevenly and in waves.
The intellectual history of world-systems theory has roots in classical sociology and Marxian political economy. But in explicit form, the world-systems perspective emerged only in the 1970s when Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank, and Immanuel Wallerstein began to formulate the concepts and narrate the analytic history of the modern world-system.
The idea of the whole system means that all the human interaction networks small and large, from the household to global trade, constitute the world-system. It is not just a matter of “international relations” or global-scale institutions such as the World Bank. Rather, at the present time, the world-system is all of the people of the Earth and all of their cultural, economic, and political institutions and the interactions and connections among them. The world-systems perspective looks at human institutions over long periods of time and employs the spatial scales required for comprehending these whole interaction systems.
Structurally, the modern world-system is an intersocietal hierarchy composed of economically, culturally, and militarily dominant core societies (themselves in competition with one another) and dependent peripheral and semiperipheral regions, a few of which successfully improved their positions in the larger core/periphery hierarchy, while most have simply maintained their relative positions. This structural perspective on world history allows the analysis of the cyclical features of social change and the long-term patterns of development in historical and comparative perspective. The development of the modern world-system can be seen as driven primarily by capitalist accumulation and geopolitics in which businesses and states compete with one another for power and wealth. Conditioning competition among states and capitals are the dynamics of struggle among classes and the resistance of peripheral and semiperipheral peoples to domination and exploitation from the core. In the modern world-system, the semiperiphery consists of large and powerful countries in the developing world (e.g., Mexico, India, Brazil, and China) as well as smaller countries that have intermediate levels of economic development (e.g., the East Asian newly industrialized countries). The history of social change cannot be understood without a consideration of both the strategies and technologies of the winners and the strategies and forms of struggle of those who have resisted domination and exploitation.
It is also difficult to understand why and where innovative social change emerges without a conceptualization of the world-system as a whole. New organizational forms that transform institutions and that lead to upward mobility most often emerge from societies in semiperipheral locations. Thus all the countries that became hegemonic core states in the modern system had formerly been semiperipheral (the Dutch, the British, and the United States). This is a continuation of a long-term pattern of social evolution that Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas D. Hall called “semiperipheral development” in 1997. Semiperipheral marcher states and semiperipheral capitalist city-states had acted as the main agents of empire formation and commercialization for millennia. This phenomenon arguably also includes organizational innovations in contemporary semiperipheral countries (e.g., Mexico, India, South Korea, and Brazil) that may transform the now-global system.
This approach requires that we think structurally. We must be able to abstract from the particularities of the game of musical chairs that constitutes uneven development in the system to see the structural continuities. The core/periphery hierarchy remains, though some countries have moved up or down. The interstate system remains, though the internationalization of capital has further constrained the abilities of states to structure national economies. States have always been subjected to larger geopolitical and economic forces in the world-system, and as is still the case, some have been more successful at exploiting opportunities and protecting themselves from liabilities than others.
In this perspective many of the phenomena that have been called “globalization” correspond to recently expanded international trade, financial flows, and foreign investment by transnational corporations and banks. Much of the globalization discourse assumes that recent, separate national societies and economies have now been superseded by an expansion of international integration driven by information and transportation technologies. Rather than a wholly unique and new phenomenon, globalization is primarily international economic integration, and as such, it is a feature of the world-system oscillating as well as increasing for centuries. Recent research comparing the 19th and 20th centuries shows that trade globalization is both a cycle and an upward trend.
The Great Chartered Companies of the 17th century were already playing an important role in shaping the development of world regions. Certainly the transnational corporations of the present are much more important players, but the point is that “foreign investment” is not an institution that only became important since 1970 (nor since World War II). Finance capital has been a central component of the commanding heights of the world-system since the 14th century. The current ebb and flow of world money are typical of the late phase of very long “systemic cycles of accumulation.”
World-systems scholars contend that leaving out the core/periphery dimension or treating the periphery as inert is a grave mistake, not only for reasons of completeness but also because the ability of core capitalists and their states to exploit peripheral resources and labor has been a major factor in deciding the winners of the competition among core contenders. And the resistance to exploitation and domination mounted by peripheral peoples has played a powerful role in shaping the historical development of world orders. Thus world history cannot be properly understood without attention to the core/periphery hierarchy.
The abandoning of Keynesian models of national development led to a new (or renewed) emphasis on deregulation and opening national commodity and financial markets to foreign trade and investment. The term many prefer for this turn in global discourse is neoliberalism, but it has also been called “Reaganism/ Thatcherism” and the “Washington Consensus.” The structural basis of the rise of the globalization project is the new level of integration reached by the global capitalist class and the crisis of overaccumulation that emerged in the 1970s when Germany and Japan had caught up with the United States in the production of high-technology commodities.
The world-system has now reached a point at which both the old interstate system, based on separate national capitalist classes and states, and new institutions, representing the global interests of capital, exist and are powerful simultaneously. In this light each country has an important ruling class fraction allied with the transnational capitalist class. The big question is whether or not this new level of transnational integration will be strong enough to prevent competition among states for world hegemony from turning into warfare as in the past, during a period in which a hegemon (now the United States) is declining.
The insight that capitalist globalization is a cycle as well as an upward trend and that periods of deglobalization follow these waves of integration has important implications for the future. Capitalist globalization increased both intranational and international inequalities in the 19th century and did the same thing in the late 20th century. Those countries and groups left out of the “beautiful epoque” either mobilize to challenge the hegemony of the powerful or retreat into self-reliance, or both.
Globalization protests emerged in the non-core with the anti-International Monetary Fund riots of the 1980s. The several transnational social movements that participated in the 1999 protest in Seattle brought globalization protest to the attention of observers in the core, and this resistance to capitalist globalization continued and grew despite the setback that occurred in response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., in 2001.
An apparent tension exists between those who advocate deglobalization and delinking from the global capitalist economy and the building of stronger, more cooperative and self-reliant social relations in the periphery and semiperiphery, on the one hand, and those who seek to mobilize support for new (or reformed) institutions of democratic global governance. Self-reliance by itself, though an understandable reaction to exploitation, is not likely to solve the problems of humanity in the long run. The great challenge of the 21st century will be the building of a democratic and collectively rational global commonwealth. World-systems theory can be an important contributor to this effort.
- Amin, Samir. 1997. Capitalism in the Age of Globalization. London: Zed.
- Arrighi, Giovanni. 1994. The Long Twentieth Century. London: Verso.
- Chase-Dunn, Christopher. 1998. Global Formation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Chase-Dunn, Christopher and Thomas D. Hall. 1997. Rise and Demise: Comparing World-Systems. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- McMichael, Philip. 2008. Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.
- O’Rourke, Kevin H. and Jeffrey G. Williamson. 2001. Globalization and History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Shannon, Thomas R. 1996. An Introduction to the World-Systems Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2000. The Essential Wallerstein. New York: New Press.
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