In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section World-Systems Analysis

  • Introduction
  • Antecedents and Epistemic Allies
  • Textbooks and Readers
  • Founding Formulations
  • Critiques
  • Methodology
  • Conference Volumes
  • Journals

Sociology World-Systems Analysis
Georgi Derluguian, Kevan Harris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0066


World-systems analysis (WSA) emerged in the stormy period between worldwide waves of protest in 1968 and the onset of transformative global economic crisis in 1973. Its founders Immanuel Wallerstein and Terence Hopkins, young sociologists of contemporary Africa in New York’s elite Columbia University, studied and worked with major social theorists of the previous generation: Karl Polanyi, Margaret Mead, C. Wright Mills, Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Paul Lazarsfeld. WSA attacked modernization theory, the reigning political and intellectual orthodoxy of the era, which had predicted and prescribed the progression of all poorer countries and peoples toward the values and institutions of liberal capitalism, American style. Wallerstein and Hopkins argued that poorer countries and peoples were no less “modern” than wealthier ones. They became poor and dominated as a result of the same process of global formation, beginning with the 16th-century “discoveries,” through which selected Western countries obtained their wealth, advanced capabilities, and colonial empires. Undoing the benign assumptions of modernization as universally beneficial progress, WSA pointed to European imperialism as the main source of underdevelopment. Perceived backwardness derives not from old and stagnant local traditions, but rather from the axial division of labor between world zones unequal in wealth, status, and power: core, periphery, and semiperiphery in between. Expanding income, advanced skills, and citizenship rights in the core were historically supported by various forms of slavery and cheap labor across peripheral areas. WSA thus took neo-Marxian theories of capitalism, including arguments about its future demise, to the global plane. The hallmark of WSA is in shifting the principal unit of analysis from separately studied and case-independent “national” countries to the whole world analyzed as a single system containing various regions, markets, and states. WSA focused on globality long before globalization became fashionable. The radical “unthinking” of capitalist logic and “common sense” is the main claim of WSA. After a brief period of great popularity in the late 1970s, WSA was sidelined mainly for political reasons. The global financial upheaval of 2008, however, brought renewed interest in WSA. Its leading scholars, particularly Giovanni Arrighi and his collaborators, had anticipated this crisis by examining earlier instances of economic and geopolitical turbulence arising from world capitalist consolidations and transitional phases of systemic chaos. Other scholars also advanced WSA theories regarding ancient and medieval world-systems; environmental and economic geography; global cities; modern literature in the space of world creativity; the formation and undoing of labor markets; antisystemic movements; the specific mechanisms of capitalist operations such as commodity chains, race, and ethnic conflicts; the collapse of the Soviet empire and its outcomes; and the rise of East Asian industrialism. Moreover, the epistemology of knowledge became a special line of argument pointing to the blinders and institutional barriers that WSA seeks to overcome. In the early 21st century, world-systems analysis extends intellectual alliances in several directions, particularly with historical and political sociology, heterodox economics, and the political economy of culture.

Antecedents and Epistemic Allies

World-systems analysis, like any intellectual innovation, originates in a synthesis of ideas coming sometimes from very different sources. In social science, WSA traces its genealogy to the pioneering formulations of Adam Smith on market dynamics; Karl Marx on the conflicts inherent in capitalism; Max Weber on institutions of the modern epoch including social classes and status groups (within which WSA locates ethnic and gender identities); Rosa Luxemburg on imperialism and its limits; Joseph Schumpeter on market cycles; Antonio Gramsci on hegemony; and Karl Polanyi on the historical dialectics of markets, states, and society. These common classics perhaps do not require special bibliographic citations. This section cites only the works of world historians (such as Braudel 1972–1973, Braudel 1977, Dehio 1962, Lane 1979, McNeill 1982, Williams 1944) and the political economists of dependency (Prebisch 1950, Frank 1966) created in the generation immediately preceding WSA. Others, such as the influential and popular works of the chemist Ilya Prigogine (see Prigogine 1997) or the biologist Stephen Jay Gould (see Gould 1996), may seem counterintuitive. Nonetheless they help to highlight the epistemic alliances spanning the whole of contemporary knowledge (see Collins 1999).

  • Braudel, Fernand. 1972–1973. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II. 2 vols. Translated by Siân Reynolds. New York: Harper & Row.

    The original masterpiece of the eminent French historian where he first introduces the concept of world-economy (économie-monde) taken in the longue durée perspective. The totality of “deep” structural history as opposed to the superficial approach of conventional “histories of events.” Drafted while a prisoner of war in Germany and originally published in French in 1949.

  • Braudel, Fernand. 1977. Afterthoughts on material civilization and capitalism. Translated by Patricia M. Ranum. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Braudel’s shortest theoretical summary based on his lectures in 1976 at Johns Hopkins University.

  • Collins, Randall. 1999. Macrohistory: Essays in sociology of the long run. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    A thematic collection of theoretical essays by a singularly erudite and open-minded American sociologist. Does not belong to any world-systems perspective, but in many important ways helps to situate WSA in the intellectual context of what Collins considers the “Golden Age of macrohistorical sociology” of the 1970s.

  • Dehio, Ludwig. 1962. The precarious balance: Four centuries of the European power struggle. Translated by Charles Fullman. New York: Knopf.

    A sober and informative history of European geopolitics from 1500 to 1945 written by a fine inheritor to the German historical school in the wake of his country’s disastrous defeat. A classic in its genre.

  • Frank, Andre Gunder. 1966. The development of underdevelopment. Boston: New England Free Press.

    Radicalizing the ideas of Prebisch, Frank passionately argues that all conventional policies of development only deepen the dependency and relative backwardness of Latin American countries. Once a very popular but rather crude and polemical argument.

  • Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. Full house: The spread of excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York: Harmony.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674063396

    Written by the celebrated Harvard biologist. Offers an accessible and playful form of his mature theoretical vision, which so strikingly coincides with the epistemic “unthinking” done by WSA that it can easily be used in sociology courses as world-systems primer.

  • Lane, Frederic C. 1979. Profits from power: Readings in protection rent and violence-controlling enterprises. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    A collection of essays in economic history written in the 1940s–1960s. Despite the conventional theories of neoclassical economics, Lane explains with extraordinary clarity the importance of rationally organized and self-financing warfare for the emergence of capitalism. The key term “protection rent” also informed later sociological studies of the Mafia business.

  • McNeill, William. H. 1982. The pursuit of power: Technology, armed force, and society since A.D. 1000. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    The renowned author of The Rise of the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), McNeill’s long account of military history argued that technological innovations emanating from intra-European military competition were a major and continual spur to sociopolitical organizational change in the global development of capitalism. Giovanni Arrighi took up the insight that the battlefield was often more important than the shop floor in his subsequent theorization of world hegemony.

  • Prebisch, Raúl. 1950. The economic development of Latin America and its principal problems. Lake Success, NY: United Nations Department of Economic Affairs.

    Perhaps the best-known publication from a highly influential Argentine development economist who, during the Great Depression, famously advocated national protectionism against world market forces and import-substitution industrialization. Prebisch first popularized the notions of center and periphery regarding world markets.

  • Prigogine, Ilya. 1997. The end of certainty: Time, chaos, and the new laws of nature. New York: Free Press.

    If Stephen Jay Gould was perhaps unfamiliar with WSA, the Nobel laureate and Belgian chemist of Russian origin Ilya Prigogine was certainly a conscious ally and friend of Immanuel Wallerstein. This acclaimed popularization of Prigogine’s theoretical views helps to understand Wallerstein’s own epistemological battles as well as the source of chaos theory metaphors appearing in his later works.

  • Williams, Eric. 1944. Capitalism and slavery. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

    The first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Williams showed that it was impossible to understand British capitalist success without moving beyond the nation-state as unit of analysis. Williams thus examined the shifting commodity chains running between continents that underpinned 19th-century European power. Still debated in the early 21st century, the “Williams thesis” and subsequent African and Caribbean scholarship, in which Wallerstein and Arrighi both came to after studying Africa in the 1960s, were a main intellectual input into WSA.

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