Modern World-System Analysis

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Modern World-System Analysis

On the surface, world-system analysis, as eloquently formulated by the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein (b. 1930) in the 1970s, appears deceptively simple. Wallerstein's world-system analysis is a grand narrative of world historical development from the sixteenth century to the present, with boundaries, structures, member groups, rules of legitimation, and coherence. The world-system is dynamic and constantly evolving, with "conflicting forces which hold it together by tension, and tear it apart as each group seeks externally to remold it to its advantage" (Wallerstein 1974, p. 347).

Wallerstein's modern world-system is specifically a capitalist world economy with capitalism defined as "the endless accumulation of capital" (Wallerstein 2004, p. 24). Using a metaphor that recalls the theories of Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790), Wallerstein defines the world-system as a geographical division of labor. While the basic linkage is economic, the system is reinforced by political and cultural factors.


Wallerstein's world-system divides the nations and areas of the world into three units, designated core, peripheral, and semiperipheral (in the past some areas remained external to the system). These normative units are systemic and relational within the capitalist world economy. All parts of the system are dependent upon and interact with each other; any change in the system will impact upon the system as a whole.

Core nations dominate the economic structure of their historical time and strive to maintain or expand this authority. One fundamental element of a core nation is the ability to produce and distribute products. Another characteristic is a strong state machinery linked to a unified national culture. The state supports economic influence wielded by private businesspeople, merchants, and financial institutions, which play a vital role in core nations. Culture often serves as an ideological justification for dominance. The state also provides military force to protect and expand economic interests. Contemporary core nations dominate high technology, financial institutions, and high-profit industries. Within the context of the world-system, core nations compete among themselves for economic advantage.

Peripheral areas or nations (often colonies from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries and defined as underdeveloped or semideveloped for a brief time in the twentieth century) serve the interests of the core nations. Peripheral areas provide agricultural products, luxury goods, raw materials, and cheap sources of labor. At times peripheral areas gained prominence, serving as key geographically located posts to protect trade routes between the core and the periphery. Peripheral areas are dependent upon core nations and have often been a source of conflict between core nations. Core methods of domination range from various forms of colonialism to anticolonial imperialism and economic dependency.

Last in the tripartite world-system are semiperipheral nations and areas. These serve as intermediate trading areas between the core nations and the peripheral areas. They also have small manufacturing sectors, geared to either local or international trade, and some capital accumulation.

Historically, some areas remained external to the world-system either by choice or neglect. By the twentieth century virtually every region on the globe had been consolidated into the modern capitalist world-system.

A closer examination of the three components of the world-system reveals the complexity of this analytical framework. Core, periphery, and semiperiphery are, in Wallerstein's apt phrase, "a relational concept." What binds these three units into a system is interaction that generates an ever-changing systemic dynamic. While there is an economic hierarchy of core, periphery, and semiperiphery, the actions of one have an impact upon the others. Moreover, while the defining structural process remains constant, the individual parts of the system change over time.

One reason is the changing nature of the products of significance in the world economy. An example is the indigo industry, which was, for a brief period, an important product in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century world economy. More broadly, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, agricultural production dominated the economic world-system. By the late eighteenth century manufactured goods were the product of choice, and since the last decades of the twentieth century high technology production characterizes the core nations.

Within this paradigm, world-system analysis stresses dynamic interaction and change. Core nations can become semiperipheral or even peripheral nations. One classic example is Spain, which devolved from a core nation in the sixteenth century to a semiperipheral nation in the eighteenth century.

Conversely, a semiperipheral area can rise, over time, to core status. In the case of Atlantic North America, the colonies developed from external (the pre-Columbian period) to peripheral (the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries). After independence the United States evolved from a semiperipheral nation (the eighteenth to midnineteenth centuries) to a core nation (the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries) and recently to hegemonic power (the late twentieth century).

One historical dynamic is the competition of core nations for advantage in the world-system economically, politically, culturally, and often militarily. Wallerstein identifies several struggles between core nations that result in warfare reverberating around the globe. Importantly, peripheral areas and semiperipheral areas are not passive participants in the system. In many cases they strive to rise in status and often rebel, at times successfully, against the power and control of the core nations and the hegemon. This creates policy disputes over strategy and tactics within the core nations. In the late eighteenth century, for example, Spanish diplomacy toward the rebelling British colonies was caught between the desire to weaken the power of England and the fear that the colonial rebellion would set a precedent for Spain's own colonies.


One other important concept plays a crucial role in the world-system: hegemony. During various historical times, one core nation accumulated sufficient power to dominate the other core nations. According to Wallerstein, hegemony "refers to those situations in which one static combines economic, political, and financial superiority over other strong states, and therefore has both military and cultural as well as economic and political power" (Wallerstein 2004, p. 94). Because of its superior means of production and distribution, strong financial institutions that lend credit to both domestic industry and externally to peripheral and semiperipheral areas, and the financial prowess to support military action, the hegemon dominates the world-system.

Wallerstein identifies three periods of hegemonic domination in the modern world: the United Provinces (Netherlands) in the mid-seventeenth century, Great Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, and the United States in the mid-twentieth century. In each of these cases, the hegemon, from a position of dominant economic power, advocated freer trade. The economic, military, and, at times, ideological burdens of maintaining a position of superiority, however, threaten the hegemonic power, which must pour resources into retaining its dominant position in the world-system.

Wallerstein's argument that the Dutch were the first hegemonic power, due to their application of science to agricultural production and their dominance over sea distribution, has generated lively scholarly debate. The idea of hegemony, moreover, has influenced the study of twentieth-century U.S. diplomatic historiography, particularly in interpreting the relationship between the United States and Latin America. Historians Thomas J. McCormick and Thomas Schoonover, for example, have applied world-system theory to examining the means of U.S. hegemonic control and the rivalry between the United States and other core powers.


World-system analysis arose during the 1970s, primarily through the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein. Wallerstein identifies four intellectual antecedents that emerged between 1945 and 1970 as promulgating the emergence of world-system theory: (1) the study of Latin American history, contemporary politics, and foreign relations, from which arose the conceptualizations of core/periphery and dependency theory; (2) the Marxian idea of an "Asiatic mode of production"; (3) the historical debate about the transition from feudalism to capitalism; and (4) the scholarship of Fernand Braudel and the Annales school of historiography.

Latin American scholars strove to understand the economic and social structures of their region and its relationship to the United States. As succinctly stated by the nineteenth-century Mexican statesman Porfirio Diaz (1830–1915): "Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States." Emphasizing informal imperialism, dependency theory focuses on the subjugation by core nations of peripheral and semiperipheral economies through new forms of domination, such as financial coercion (dollar diplomacy) and, at times, military action. Since the 1940s international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, have been created by core powers to continue this dependency. Any economic development was primarily in the service of the core nations.

Second, the "Asiatic mode of production" stresses the role of large, bureaucratic, and autocratic empires in the world-system. For example, during the Cold War, China regulated its economy to combat the capitalist world-system.

A third contribution to world-system theory was the debate on the timing and nature of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Did internal factors within individual nations, such as consolidation of political power under a strong central government, or external factors, such as the expansion of trade, take precedence in the emergence of capitalism?

Finally, Wallerstein pointed to the scholarship of French historian Fernand Braudel (1902–1985) and the Annales school of scholars that he inspired. The Annales school emphasized total history. Rejecting disciplinary constraints, total history sought to capture the spirit of particular historical ages. This approach provided, according to Wallerstein, a theoretical framework for shaping world-system analysis. Braudel's work introduced two ideas that influenced Wallerstein's theory. First, Braudel's multidisciplinary approach to the interaction of nations provided a method for understanding history. Second, Wallerstein's theory was influenced by the Annales school's notion of longue durée (the long duration), which maintained that historical trends must be studied over long periods of time.

From economics, Wallerstein appropriated the theory of the Kondratieff Wave to explain economic fluctuations within the world-system. Nikolai Kondratieff (1892–1938), a Russian economist, postulated that cycles of upward and downward swings, approximately fifty years each, fluctuate in the world economy between expansion and contraction. Wallerstein takes careful note of the complexity of this theory (i.e., some elements of the economy prosper during periods of retraction and others suffer during expansion cycles). Wallerstein's reliance on the Kondratieff paradigm has generated criticism from scholars who question the validity of the Kondratieff Wave theory.


Wallerstein dates the origins of the world economy to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Determining the date of any historical movement is always an intellectual arena for dispute, and, as noted above, Wallerstein's timeline for the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism has become part of a longstanding historiographical debate. During this transition, technological and political changes allowed for the expansion of capitalism. Areas such as the Americas, which were external to the European economic sphere, became accessible and, over time, were consolidated into the world-system. Stronger state governments, advances in sailing techniques in the "era of exploration," and the maturation of economic institutions all combined to incorporate the entire globe.

The subtitle of Wallerstein's first volume on the development of the modern world-system is significant: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (1974). Not only does he date the advent of the modern world-system in the sixteenth century, but he emphasizes the idea that capitalism can be applied to agricultural economies. During this time, mercantilism, that is, the economic nationalism revolving around trade, became the preferred European state policy.

Colonialism is one form of interstate relationship within the capitalist world-system. Colonialism emerged as a political method of incorporation of external areas. Wallerstein argues that "incorporation into the capitalist world-economy was never at the initiation of those being incorporated. The process derived rather from the need of the world-economy to expand its boundaries" (Wallerstein 1989, p. 129). A colony serves the economic interests of a core nation. It can be a source of needed raw materials for the core, such as the production of indigo in the North American colonies or silver in Spain's Latin American colonies; a source of luxury goods; a market for goods manufactured in the metropole; or any combination of the three.

Colonies also served as way stations for commerce on the trade routes that linked the world-system and as bases to protect the trade routes or disrupt the commerce of rival core powers. At times, a colony can also be one part of a broader trade system, such as the various seventeenth- and eighteenth-century triangular trade routes. One example is the India-China-Britain triangular trade of the eighteenth century. Britain purchased tea from China, which was paid for with Indian raw cotton, and later with opium imported into China. In turn, Britain curtailed Indian domestic production of finished cotton goods and encouraged the Indian merchants to import British cotton manufactures.

Incorporation into the world-system induced changes in the economic, and even cultural, patterns of the peripheral and colonial areas. The nineteenth century saw the famous competition of European core powers for colonies in Africa and the Middle East.

Colonialism took several forms between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries, ranging from settler colonies to political control by a small group of core citizens over a large native population. While economic factors were central, the creation of colonies was buttressed and sanctified by the religious and ideological worldview of the core nations. This worldview included racism, which justified dominance and often made peripheral populations feel culturally inferior. Both Catholic and Protestant colonizers sought to expand their religious spheres of domination.

Competition between core powers to consolidate areas external to the world-system was the catalyst to colonialism. At first, European powers competed for control of precious raw materials (i.e., the fabled gold and silver of the Americas and the fisheries and pelts on and off the coast of North America). Soon agricultural goods, such as sugar from the Caribbean and tobacco, indigo, and, later, cotton from North America, became valued imports to the core powers.

As labor-intensive agricultural products became more important, the transport and trade of a labor force became an increasingly vital factor in the world-system and a source of rivalry between core powers. The west coast of Africa was incorporated into the world-system as a source of slaves, making the slave trade a central component in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century world economy and an integral part of the famous Atlantic triangular trade network between Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

Struggles between core powers, and their attempts to maintain a balance of power without any one power achieving hegemony, resulted in wars on the European continent. These wars expanded into the colonies. Treaties terminating such conflicts reflected the significance of the world-system. The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, for example, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), gave England access to the slave trade dominated by the Spanish.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, policymakers in the major European core nations—England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands—realized that conflicts in the peripheral colonial areas were as important toward maintaining the balance of power within the world-system as wars on the continent. In the late 1750s, for example, the Duc de Choiseul (1719–1785), French minister of foreign affairs, wrote to Charles III, king of Spain (1759–1788) and of Naples and Sicily (1735–1759): "The King [of France] believes that it is possessions in America that will in the future form the balance of power in Europe, and that, if the English invade that part of the world, as it appears they have the intention of doing, it will result therefrom that England will usurp the commerce of the nations, and that she alone will remain rich in Europe." Until the early nineteenth century, France and Spain fought to deny England hegemony.

In a careful study of India, Wallerstein traces the colonization of the Mughal Empire, which ruled much of the Indian Subcontinent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The decision to incorporate India as part of the British Empire illustrates the dynamics of the globalization of the world-system and the conflicts between the core powers. Contributing to Britain's decision to colonize was competition with France, which also sought Indian riches.

Demonstrating the linkage between private business and government in the world-system, three actors participated in the colonization of India: the British East India Company, the British government, and individual traders. In the mid-eighteenth century, a debate arose in England over the economic costs of colonialism (i.e., whether the costs of colonial rule outweighed the trade advantages). This debate, in one form or another, occurred in all core colonial powers until the demise of formal colonialism.

Within world-system analysis, colonies are not passive participants. In virtually every colony, antisystemic forces disputed colonial status. Responses ranged from petition to revolution and warfare. Beginning with the British North American colonies and the Spanish and French colonial empires in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, anticolonialism gained momentum. The successful anticolonial rebellion against the French in Haiti in 1804, moreover, reinforced a racial fear of slave rebellions into the consciousness of European powers and the United States.

By the late nineteenth century, anticolonial rebellions were occurring worldwide, and in the twentieth century, core nations realized that the costs of colonialism outweighed the advantages. By the twenty-first century, formal colonialism was essentially a relic of the past. While many colonies rebelled against colonial status, most did not reject the basic structure of the capitalist world-system. Ultimately, core nations found new methods of controlling the economies of the newly independent nations in the periphery and semiperiphery. These methods included economic coercion and military intervention.


Born in 1930, American sociologist Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein is best known for the development of world-systems theory—a comprehensive theoretical framework and methodology for the study of social change in the context of the global system of nations. World-systems theory has reshaped the sociology of development and has made Wallerstein one of the discipline's single most influential scholars.

Wallerstein's career began at Columbia University, where he served as an instructor (1958–1959), assistant professor (1959–1963), and associate professor of sociology (1963–1971). He then moved to Mcgill University in Montreal, serving as professor of sociology from 1971 to 1976. Wallerstein joined the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1976, where he was a distinguished professor of sociology until 1999, at which time he was named professor emeritus. In 2000 Yale University appointed Wallerstein as a senior research scholar. In addition, he has served as director of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations since 1976, and has written and edited many books.

Wallerstein maintains that a new form of Western colonialism, neocolonialism, pursued mostly by the United States and various multinational corporations, has replaced old forms of colonial domination with indirect domination achieved through economic and political means. Examples of methods used to obtain indirect domination include the provision of economic aid, as well as monetary and trade policies.

In a slightly adapted version of the introductory essay to The Essential Wallerstein (New Press, 2000), posted on Yale University's Web site in 2006, Wallerstein explains: "World-systems analysis allowed me to range widely in terms of concrete issues, but always in such a way that the pieces might be fit together at the end of the exercise. It is not that world-systems analysis enabled me to 'discover the truth.' It is rather that it enabled me to make what I considered to be plausible interpretations of social reality in ways that I believe are more useful for all of us in making political and moral decisions. It is also that it enabled me to distinguish between what are long-lasting structures and those momentary expressions of reality that we so regularly reify into fashionable theories about what is novel, as for example, the enormous recent production concerning so-called 'globalization.'"


In the 1990s the idea of globalization entered into public discourse. World-system and globalization theory stress a global economic interaction, but globalism and globalizationare not synonymous terms. Globalization is one form of core domination in the world-system. Both globalism and globalization emphasize a global perspective in understanding the world economy and take into account private business as an important element in the dynamics of the global economy. However, Wallerstein asserts that in globalization theory, "the pressures on all governments to open their frontiers to the free movement of goods and capital is unusually strong" (Wallerstein 2004, p. 93).

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Wallerstein observes that the modern world-system is in crisis, which he defines as difficulties that cannot be resolved. Several factors contribute to this crisis. First, the revolutions of 1968, demonstrations by students throughout the Western world who organized to condemn both United States hegemony and the collusion of the Soviet Union, challenged the fairness of the world-system, and these challenges have continued in antiglobalization activism.

Second, less and less of the earth's population live in rural areas, which were, for centuries, a prime source of cheap industrial labor; hence, the costs of production have risen. Even the current trend of "runaway factories" (corporations moving their production facilities to peripheral areas with cheap labor) is not secure, because corporations and governments must pay the high costs of moving and often the expense of maintaining political stability in these areas. Wallerstein suggests that a choice exists between constructing a new world-system based on the same hierarchical privileges of the old system, or constructing a new more democratic and equalitarian system.

see also Anti-Americanism; Hegemon and Hegemony.


McCormick, Thomas J. "World Systems." In Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, 2nd ed., edited by Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson, 149-161. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System, Vol. 1: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press, 1974.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System, Vol. 2: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750. New York: Academic Press, 1980.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System, Vol. 3: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World Economy, 1730–1840s. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1989.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

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Modern World-System Analysis

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