World Systems Analysis

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Peter Taylor:

"World-systems analysis is an approach to understanding social change based upon geohistorical systems. These provide a space-time framework for understanding social change that replaces the orthodox use of nation-state as the basic unit of change (i.e. space as “homeland territory” and time as “rise of the nation”). Geohistorical systems denote specific structures of social relations that are concretely realized through time (trends and cycles) and space (extent and order). The modern world-system is a capitalist world-economy which is the geohistorical system in which we live. The basic geohistory is that it was constructed in Europe in the “long” 16th century, it expanded to cover the whole world by c.1900 (i.e destroying all other systems), and will meet its demise in the 21st century."


World System

Leonid Grinin et al.:

The notion of ‘world-system’ .. can be defined as a maximum set of human societies that has systemic characteristics, a maximum set of societies that are significantly connected among themselves in direct and indirect ways. It is important that there are no significant contacts and interactions beyond this set, there are no significant contacts and interactions between societies belonging to the given world-system and societies belonging to other world-systems. If still there are some contacts beyond those borders, then those contacts are insignificant, that is, even after a long period of time they do not lead to any significant changes within the world-system – for example, the Norse voyages to the New World and even their settlement there did not result in any significant change either in the New World, or in Europe (see, e.g., Slezkin 1983: 16).

Within this framework, the ‘world-system’ can be characterized as a supersystem that unites many systems of lower orders, such as states, stateless societies, various social, spatial-cultural, and political entities – civilizations, alliances, confederations, etc. Thus, the evolutionary field with respect to a world-system has the maximum wideness in comparison with other social systems. The very process of social evolution is modified within a world-system, because contacts become denser, whereas the role of macroevolution becomes more and more salient. In a certain sense it appears even possible to say that independent evolution of separate societies tends to cease, because the evolution of particular societies becomes more and more influenced by macroevolutionary aromorphoses that diffuse within the world-system framework. That is why we observe different rates of development in societies belonging to world-systems and isolates, in the main (‘central’, Afroeuroasian) world-system (= the World System) and peripheral (e.g., American) world-systems (prior to their incorporation into the World System). In general, the larger the size and internal diversity of a social system, the more internal links it has, the more complex those links are, and, ceterum paribus, the higher is the rate of its development.

A formal criterion that allows us to regard (with Andre Gunder Frank) the Afroeurasian world-system as the World System is the point that during its entire history this world-system encompassed more territory and population than any other contemporary world-system. What is more, for the last few millennia it encompassed more than a half of the world population and this appears to be a sufficient criterion permitting to denote this world-system as the World System. Another point of no less importance is that the modern World System that actually encompasses the whole world was formed as a result of the expansion of that very system which, after A. Gunder Frank (1990, 1993; Frank and Gills 1993), is denoted in the present article as the World System (and which up to the late 15th century was identical with the Afroeurasian world-system). The world-system approach originated in the late 1960s and 1970s due to the works by Braudel, Frank, Wallerstein, Amin, and Arrighi, and was substantially developed afterwards (see, e.g., Braudel 1973; Frank 1990; 1993; Frank and Gills 1993; Wallerstein 1974, 1987, 2004; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1994, 1997; Arrighi and Silver 1999; Amin et al. 2006; Grinin and Korotayev 2009). Its formation was connected up to a considerable degree with the search for the actual socially evolving units that are larger than particular societies, states, and even civilizations, but which, on the other hand, have real system qualities.”



Summary from Nicholas Gotts:

"World-systems analysis (Wallerstein 1974, Denemark et al. 2000, Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997a, Hall 2000) centers on the premise that the modern world cannot be understood without considering it as a whole, and over long periods of time. The stances of world-systems researchers differ considerably, but all would agree with the first point below, and most with points 2–7.

1. “... the most important unit of analysis for the study of social change is not societies or states but the entire world-system. Changes in organization are not endogenous to individual societies. Rather, they are a consequence of complex interactions among local, regional, societal, and global processes.” (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997a:1). A world-system is not necessarily planetary in scope, but does necessarily include multiple societies or polities, with long-term, highly structured interrelationships.

2. Within the current world-system, there is a geographical division of labor, with strong hierarchical features, between “core,” “semiperipheral,” and “peripheral” regions. The most sophisticated economic activities are concentrated in core states, which are also the strongest and best integrated. Peripheral regions are economically subordinate, generally supplying raw materials or lowquality goods. The semi-periphery hosts a mixture of corelike and peripheral activities.

3. Individual states may move within the hierarchy, but upward mobility is constrained by their trade relations within the world economy and their geopolitical role and power.

4. Political, economic, and military interactions between states are central to the maintenance of elites within those states. Core elites accumulate many of their resources from the periphery and semi-periphery, use some of those resources to buy support and/or pay armed forces, and often maintain subordinate elites in noncore areas.

5. States and corporations are both essential to the operation of the modern world-system. Core corporations are the major economic actors, but rely on states to protect their assets and market access. The existence of multiple states stabilizes the system by allowing corporations mobility, thus limiting how far any state can tax or regulate them.

6. There are important cyclical processes in world-system economics and interstate politics. The most widely discussed is the approximately 50-yr Kondratieff cycle of economic activity (Schumpeter 1939, Kondratieff 1979 [1926]). This is widely but by no means universally acknowledged to exist by economic historians. It shows up best in price series (Berry et al. 2001), and there is broad agreement that each cycle involves a wave of technological innovation. Within world-system analysis, Kondratieff and other cycles are generally seen as aspects of longerterm directional processes; in particular, the innovations of each Kondratieff cycle are generally retained. More specific to worldsystem analysis is the longer “hegemonic cycle” affecting the distribution of economic, political, and military power among core states.

7. The modern world-system came into being with the growth of European capitalism and overseas expansion of European states around 1500, and now includes the whole world."



"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."



The world system as a meaningful unit of analysis]

Joshua Goldstein:

* "A world level of analysis is distinct from an international one.

The international level consists of the interactions of separable units sovereign nation-states while the world level consists of a single, holistic system whose parts are mutually constitutive rather than separable.2 The most important features of the world system for this book are its political and economic structure and dynamics. The world system is characterized economically by the unequal geographical division of labor between the core (secondary producers of manufactured goods) and the periphery (primary producers of raw materials). Politically the system is characterized by the systematic use of violence both to maintain and to change the power relationships in the system. Those power relationships include both the dominance of the core over the periphery and the struggle for dominance of one political unit over others within the core (hegemony). The pattern of regional division of labor between primary and secondary producers—along with the violently enforced dominance of the core over the periphery—traces back to early societies and empires. In the ancient city-state on a river, peasants upstream produced food, which was shipped downstream to the city at low cost using the river as an energy source. The city in turn shipped (lighter-weight) weapons and luxury goods upstream to the local warriors who suppressed the peasants. In later, larger, Mediterranean empires, a similar pattern occurred, with oar-driven slave boats bringing food and raw materials to the metropolis from the peripheral regions along the coast. With the advent of the sailing ship in fifteenth-century Portugal, a few individuals could move a large cargo efficiently almost anywhere in the world, using the wind as their energy source and the ocean as their medium. This, with the addition of shipborne cannons, allowed the Europeans to dominate trade globally and laid the basis for a truly world system of politics and economics."

(Long Cycles, page 2)