Sociology Immanuel Wallerstein
Kristin Plys
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0183


Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein, born on 28 September 1930, is best known for having developed world-systems analysis, a macrohistorical approach to understanding capitalism. He first became interested in world affairs, particularly the anticolonial movement in India, as a teenager living in New York City. After serving in the US Army from 1951 to 1953, he wrote his MA thesis in the burgeoning subfield of political sociology, arguing that McCarthyism was only marginally against communism and, instead, was a program of the “practical right” against the “sophisticated conservatives.” His PhD thesis, however, was on the role of voluntary associations in nationalist movements in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. He won a Ford Foundation Fellowship to conduct his dissertation research in West Africa, working across linguistic barriers. In 1960, Wallerstein first met Frantz Fanon, who became an important and lasting influence on his work. In 1973, Wallerstein became president of the African Studies Association. As a result of his intellectual roots in Africana studies, national liberation, core-periphery relations, and critiques of Eurocentrism continue to be central concerns of his work. Wallerstein earned his BA (1951), MA (1954), and PhD (1959) from Columbia University, where he then joined the faculty. In 1968, he participated in and supported student protests against the university’s complicity in the Vietnam War. From 1971 to 1976, he taught at McGill University before joining the faculty at the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY Binghamton). At SUNY Binghamton, he founded the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations, one of the premier institutes supporting research in world-systems analysis. At the Fernand Braudel Center, he became founding editor of the journal Review, the first journal dedicated to world-systems research. In 1994–1995, he chaired the Gulbenkian Commission, which endeavored to break down the disciplinary boundaries among the historical social sciences. He remained at SUNY Binghamton until his retirement in 1999 and since 2000 was Senior Research Scholar at Yale University. Wallerstein died on 31 August 2019 at his home in Branford, CT.


Wallerstein’s intellectual influences include a wide range of scholars of various intellectual traditions. He has been influenced both by mainline political economists, such as Joseph Schumpeter (Schumpeter 1939) and Adam Smith (Smith 1999, first published in 1776), and by critical political economists, including Karl Marx (Marx 1967, first published in 1867–1894), Nikolai Kondratieff (Kondratieff 1992), Karl Polanyi (Polanyi 2001, first published in 1944), and Antonio Gramsci. Dependency theorists, including Raúl Prebisch and others, were important precursors to world-systems analysis, but perhaps more consequential was the influence of Pan-African thought on world-systems analysis, particularly the work of Frantz Fanon (Fanon 2004, first published in 1961) but also Walter Rodney (Rodney 1972), Amílcar Cabral, and Aimé Césaire. Annales School historians, particularly Fernand Braudel (Braudel 1981–1984), were significant influences in his work both on historical capitalism and on temporality. Wallerstein was also influenced by work in the hard sciences, particularly by concepts of uncertainty in the work of Ilya Prigogine (Prigogine 1997) and Ivar Ekeland (Ekeland 1988), but also was influenced by work in psychology—namely, Sigmund Freud. According to Wallerstein, his three greatest influences are Fanon, Braudel, and Prigogine.

  • Braudel, Fernand. 1981–1984. Civilization and capitalism, 15th–18th century. 3 vols. Translated by Siân Reynolds. New York: Harper & Row.

    Braudel’s magnum opus is an account of the historical development of the modern European world at three levels of social life—everyday material life, the market, and the économie-monde (world economy).

  • Ekeland, Ivar. 1988. Mathematics and the unexpected. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    In this book, Ekeland presents a mathematics of time, detailing how past revolutions in mathematical thinking have fundamentally influenced ideas about time both in science and in philosophy.

  • Fanon, Frantz. 2004. The wretched of the earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove.

    Originally published as Les damnés de la terre (Paris: Maspero, 1961). Written during the Algerian national liberation movement, and one of the key texts for Black Panther Party leaders, in this book Fanon justifies the use of violence in national liberation movements.

  • Kondratieff, Nikolai. 1992. Les grands cycles de la conjoncture. Paris: Economica.

    Through the concept of long cycles, as developed by Kondratieff beginning in the 1920s, he contended that the capitalist system was driven by endogenous contradictions determined by capital accumulation over time.

  • Marx, Karl. 1967. Capital. 3 vols. Edited by Friedrich Engels. Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. New York: International Publishers.

    The defining work of Marxist political economy, in which Marx elegantly explains how value is derived, thereby delineating the politico-economic laws of the capitalist system by beginning and ending with the definition of value, akin to a mathematical proof. Marx’s key work is also influential for its analysis of the historical process of the capitalist mode of production and the class struggle. Originally published as Das Kapital (Hamburg, Germany: Meissner, 1867–1894).

  • Polanyi, Karl. 2001. The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon.

    Polanyi’s critique of the self-regulating market, originally published in 1944, showed that the development of the modern state and the market economy emerged during the same historical moment. This work thereby called into question many of the foundational tenets of economic liberalism.

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

    One of Prigogine’s later works, which clearly presents his conceptualization of uncertainty and knowledge.

  • Rodney, Walter. 1972. How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Washington, DC: Howard Univ. Press.

    Rodney is among the first to argue that African development is possible only with a radical break from global capitalism.

  • Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1939. Business cycles: A theoretical, historical, and statistical analysis of the capitalist process. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    In this, his major work, Schumpeter contends that technology and innovation involved an expansion of credit-financed investment. Building on these arguments, he innovated the Kondratieff cycle.

  • Smith, Adam. 1999. The wealth of nations. Edited by Andrew Skinner. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin.

    Smith’s magnum opus, originally published in 1776, analyzes the economic changes occurring in Europe during the late 18th century, marking one of the first theories of capitalist development.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.