The great French historian Fernand Braudel coined the term économie-monde (world-economy). The hyphen is important; it signifies that he did not mean that his “economy” covered the whole world, merely that it was effectively a world. Braudel’s major work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1972–1973) on the sixteenth century, inspired the American founder of “world-systems theory,” Immanuel Wallerstein (b. 1930).
According to Wallerstein, if we exclude small-scale societies, which he calls mini-systems, where a complete economic division of labor is accompanied by a single culture, we have only world -systems. Of these there are just two variants. The world-empire has many cultures but a single political superstructure (and a division of labor). The world-economy possesses a single economic division of labor. Unlike the mini-system and the world-empire, it has both many cultures and many political units. The capitalist world-economy started in sixteenth-century northwestern Europe and has continued to exist ever since, unlike other (non-capitalist) world-economies and worldempires. Capitalism is a system given over to the unlimited accumulation of capital through exchange. It is driven by the search for profit. Profit comes from unequal exchange (a term pioneered in the Latin American context), whereby goods produced under monopolistic conditions in the core are traded for other goods produced in the periphery under competitive conditions; that is, nonmonopolistic ones, in many countries. The former goods enjoy a cost advantage over the latter. This is because the sale price is high relative to the cost of production, whereas, in contrast, peripheral producers are forced to sell cheaply, close to or at the cost of production. (Surplus value, for Wallerstein, is the difference between cost of production and sale price of a product.) Goods produced under competitive conditions in the peripheral zones of the capitalist world-economy tend to flow to countries located in the core of the capitalist world-economy. Profits are highest to producers located in this core. The states located in the core are used by leading capitalists to prop up the system. Trade within this system, in which they enjoy a marked, historically unprecedented freedom of maneuver, benefits the latter unequally.
Wallerstein likens his interest in the historical development of the capitalist world-economy, seen as a single “unit of analysis,” to that of the astronomers in the single planetary system, the laws of motion of which they set out to discover. It is the world-system as a whole that interests him. This overall system determines what goes on in any particular part. Nation-states are only one institution among others in the capitalist world-economy. What goes on in them is determined less by the character of a particular nation-state and far more by this state’s position within the capitalist world-economy.
From 1540 the geographical area of northwestern Europe emerged as the “core.” Eastern Europe and Iberian America were reduced to peripheral status in relation to this core. Mediterranean Europe settled into an intermediate position, becoming semiperipheral, midway between core and periphery within the system. Its trade, state structure, and forms of labor exploitation reflected this intermediate position, just as in the cases of the core and the periphery. Subsequent phases of development saw industrial capitalism appear in the core; the European world-economy spread to encompass the entire globe; and changes within the core, semiperiphery, and periphery. The periphery includes most of Asia and Africa, the semiperiphery at various times Japan, the United States, Germany, and Russia. After 1945 the United States assumed a leading role in the whole system, closely followed by, among others, Soviet Russia. The USSR, although nominally a socialist state, could not, in Wallerstein’s judgment, possibly have been one. There is just one capitalist world-economy to date, and there can as yet be no socialist systems. Socialism awaits the qualitative change of the whole system, which, following deepening crises, will eventually assume the form of a world government. This revolution is preparing itself mainly in the periphery of the capitalist world-economy.
Capitalism requires a world economy. This is because it requires capitalists to be free of political interference—that is, free to accumulate; capitalists also require a large market, so cannot inhabit a mini-system. It is the continuous accumulation that has provided the system with its dynamism over five hundred years. Competition between capitalists is continuous. The division of labor, implying the exchange of basic goods and significant flows of capital and labor, alone binds the system together. It can do so because of the expansive properties of capitalism that have enabled capitalism to survive and grow continuously. (Noncapitalist world-economies have not survived.) Capitalists, to flourish, need to be able to evade states hostile to their interests and to pressure other states into pursuing policies favorable to those interests. They need a multistate world-system. Profit comes from state-supported quasi-monopolies. Capitalists in the core can charge high prices but producers in the periphery are in no position to do so.
Core countries are few. Peripheral ones are many. The semiperipheral countries (e.g., South Korea, India, and Brazil) aim to move up to the core and to avoid falling down into the periphery. They have a mix of activities—some are core-like, some are periphery-like—whereas in core and periphery countries, core and periphery activities are respectively preponderant. Surplus value flows in the core from the working class to the employers, but it also flows from the periphery to the core in world-system terms via trade. Analysts detect long cycles of expansion and recession over about sixty-year periods (known as Kondratieff cycles). These occur as quasi-monopolies become exhausted. Recovery from recession does not bring the world-economy back to where it was before the cycle started. “Secular” or long-term trends are visible. Eventually these create problems for the system.
Cultural phenomena are interpreted by Wallerstein in terms of his world-system model. Subsequent to the publication of his historical-sociological trilogy (The Modern World-System, 1974, 1980, 1989), Wallerstein has treated these phenomena in response to the criticism that he had neglected them. The world-system, he argues, now has a “geoculture.” Central to it is “centrist liberalism.” Principles of universalism (equality of opportunity, meritocracy) applicable to the managerial cadres are offset and balanced by de facto particularisms—of race, nation, ethnicity, gender, and religion. These legitimate the various divisions within the capitalist world-system—for example, states promote “nations”; the core-periphery division encourages divisions of “race”; and households placed at a lower level in the world occupational hierarchy socialize their young into consciousness of ethnic identity and uphold the mainly unpaid labor of their female members through sexism. These particularistic definitions involve lines of social division that are drawn and redrawn in the workforce as divisions within the capitalist world-economy change: changes in the position of countries in the long-term cycles and in overall tendencies toward crisis, and adaptive responses to particular crises of the system as a whole. Semiproletarian households that predominate in the periphery today effectively subsidize capitalists in the core (where truly proletarian households fully supported by wage labor predominate). Such households permit workers and their families to survive through means of support other than wage labor, such as subsistence and petty trading, thus allowing wages to fall below what otherwise would be necessary to ensure the survival of the whole household.
Just as the modern world-system of today has a single culture, the content of which was initiated by the ideals of the French Revolution, so too it has an interstate system. Here again, this system follows in its workings the patterns visible in the world-economy to which it is bound of necessity. The actions of states influence the workings of the capitalist world-economy through their relations to their capitalists and to foreign states, especially in other “zones,” and their relative strengths and weaknesses vis-àvis each other are determined by their relative economic success as taxing and military entities.
Wallerstein and his colleague Terence K. Hopkins built a successful research school, the Fernand Braudel Research Center at the State University of New York, Binghamton. Fellow analysts include Samir Amin, Christopher Chase-Dunn, Giovanni Arrighi, Albert J.
Bergesen, and, notably, André Gunder Frank, whose metropolis-satellite model was effectively replaced by the world-system. A list of former students produces a series of illustrious names in American social science, many of whom, with others who are not world-systems scholars, have attempted to synthesize the worldsystem approach with ideas from other traditions. World-systems analysis should not be seen in isolation.
World-systems analysis and orthodox Marxism overlap in many ways, despite significant differences. Marxists of the stature of Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919) (see The Accumulation of Capital,  1951); V. I. Lenin (1870–1924), whose analysis bears some striking resemblances to Wallerstein’s; and N. I. Bukharin (1888–1938) (see Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital,  1972) struggled with the problem of imperialism, as did J. A. Hobson. (It should also be noted that the non-Marxist scholar Oliver Cromwell Cox’s The Foundations of Capitalism (1959) anticipated Wallerstein’s conception in certain noteworthy ways.)
The central issue dividing orthodox Marxism from world-systems theory is whether analysis should focus on class relations within a given national mode of production, pivoting on the wage contract. The defense of this position has been made by Robert Brenner (1977) and has led to the charge that Wallerstein’s is a neo-Smithian Marxism—a charge with which other critics like Theda Skocpol (who argues for a degree of state autonomy allegedly denied by Wallerstein) have some sympathy (1977). Wallerstein’s dating of the origins of the capitalist world-economy means that he cannot subscribe to these tenets, and his conception of the role of states in monopolies, of the world-system in which states are contained as the relevant totality, and of the historical variety of forms of labor control (not just wage labor) necessarily denies them too. The issue dividing Marxists from non-Marxists is the primacy to be accorded to economic relations: Are they primary or not? And how are states and culture to be understood relative to economic matters? Whatever the answers to these profound, complex questions, Wallerstein and his colleagues have opened up questions previously considered closed. In their scholarship, fact and theory are brought into a fruitful relationship, as in the days before modern social science replaced historical sociology with the abstract “science” of society.
SEE ALSO Cox, Oliver C.; Imperialism; Skocpol, Theda; Wallerstein, Immanuel
Amin, Samir. 1974. Accumulation on a World Scale: A Critique of the Theory of Underdevelopment, trans. Brian Pearce. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Balibar, Etienne, and Immanuel Wallerstein. 1991. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, trans. (of Balibar) by Chris Turner. London and New York: Verso.
Braudel, Fernand. 1972–1973. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 vols., trans. Siân Reynolds. London: Collins.
Brenner, Robert. 1977. The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism. New Left Review 104 (July–August): 25–92.
Frank, André Gunder. 1978. World Accumulation, 1492–1789. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Hopkins, Terence K., and Immanuel Wallerstein, eds. 1982.World-Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Skocpol, Theda. 1977. Wallerstein’s World Capitalist System: A Theoretical and Historical Critique. American Journal of Sociology 82 (5): 1075–1090.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. The Modern World-System, 1: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1980. The Modern World-System, 2: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750. New York: Academic Press.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1989. The Modern World-System, 3: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730–1840s. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
"World-System." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/world-system
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The obvious inadequacies of dependency theory encouraged two elaborations upon it during the 1970s: the theories of internal colonialism and of centre-periphery. The latter is, strictly speaking, not a theory at all; rather, a heuristic descriptive device which suggests that changes in the socio-economic structure of society are related to changes in its spatial structure. It is, in fact, a mix of ideas taken from geographical central place theory, classical political economy, Marxism, and theories of regional development. In general terms it provides a highly descriptive form of social area analysis in which the attributes of populations are catalogued and related to residential location. World-systems theory then gives a further sociological gloss to such accounts by documenting the expansion of capitalism across the globe. Its central propositions are that capitalism is organized globally rather than nationally, that the dominant core regions develop advanced industrial systems and exploit the raw materials of the periphery, and that the modern world is rooted in an international economic order and diverse political systems (whereas pre-modern empires display the opposite pattern).
Although Wallerstein's work is suggestive and has been influential, it does little more than direct attention to the relationships between centre and periphery in this expansion, suggesting a holistic analysis but not (of itself) providing that analysis. Different world-systems analysts have attached the centre-periphery metaphor to different theories in an attempt to explain the relationships they observe. (Wallerstein himself has moved from an early reliance on neofunctionalist categories to an accommodation with Marxist political economy.) There is also some internal disagreement among proponents of the approach as to precisely what factors explain the centralizing tendencies described. Critics—of whom there are many—have also suggested that world-systems theory neglects the effects of endogenous factors generally, and culture in particular, in explanations of social change (see A. Bergesen , ‘The Critique of World-System Theory’, in R. Collins ( ed.) , Sociological Theory 1984, 1984
, and Wallerstein's ‘World-Systems Analysis’, in A. Giddens and and J. H. Turner ( eds.) , Social Theory Today, 1987
). See also CENTRE-PERIPHERY MODEL; GLOBALIZATION.
"world-system." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/world-system
"world-system." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved January 12, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/world-system