Alive and Well: A Response to Sanderson
Institute for Research on World-Systems and Department of Sociology
Institute for Research on World-Systems and Department of Sociology
v. 10-13-10 6151 words
Forthcoming in the International Journal of Comparative Sociology
world-systems, global inequality, methodological individualism, socialism
Corresponding author: Christopher Chase-Dunn, Institute for Research
on World-Systems and Department of Sociology,
Stephen Sanderson’s (2005) summary and critique of world-systems analysis, “World-Systems Analysis After Thirty Years: Should it Rest in Peace?,” previously published in this journal, is one of the most informed criticisms that have been written. Many of the earlier critiques dismissed the world-systems perspective as circulationist, economistic, functionalist, or as holistic determinism without ever really understanding or taking seriously what was being said (Brenner, 1977; Chirot, 1986; Skocpol, 1977; Zolberg, 1981; cf. Shannon, 1996:155-185, 209-218). Sanderson does understand—and that translated into a thorough and thoughtful critique.
Despite the provocative title, Sanderson finds much in world-systems analysis (WSA) with which to agree and recognizes its importance and validity in explaining the social world over the longue durée. Yet he also presents a substantial list of what he perceives to be major weaknesses. These shortcomings must be addressed, in his opinion, for WSA to continue to be relevant. As we will detail, Sanderson is correct in calling for attention to the points he raises, but is guilty of caricaturing world-systems analysis—claiming dogma where there is debate and not recognizing the expansion and innovation in this evolving area of scholarship. The first part of this response will critique Sanderson’s relatively narrow view of WSA and will provide a much broader understanding of the world-systems perspective as a theoretical research program, in the sense detailed by Lakatos (1978). This theoretical research program can be understood as a school, à la the Annales school of historical analysis, in which arrays of theorization and empirical research are taking place within a general framework and overarching epistemology. We contend that WSA does not need a new title—world-systems analysis is fine. It does, however, require the recognition of its diversity of approaches amid a unifying world-systems framework and an overarching epistemology that stresses the importance of whole world-systems in the understanding of social reality.
We will situate the issues Sanderson raises within this more representative world-systems analysis, the result of which significantly reduces the necessity of corrective action. Finally, we will highlight some epistemological issues that motivate Sanderson’s critique, revealing impotant differences in orientation that account for some of our disagreements. Periodic assessments of the state of the field are important, particularly when they are as well-informed as Sanderson’s, yet world-systems analysis is continually developing as it responds to criticism and historical conjunctures—as all progressive research programs must.
Sanderson mainly critiques the world-systems
analysis as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein. Though some think of Wallerstein
as the primary creator of the world-systems perspective, quite similar
approaches were emerging in the 1970s in
the works of several of his colleagues and collaborators, especially Samir
Amin, Andre Gunder Frank, Terence Hopkins and Giovanni Arrighi. Together these
seminal thinkers discovered, or rediscovered, and reinterpreted the modern
system of national states and the capitalist world economy that emerged with
the rise of
The world-systems perspective is a strategy for explaining institutional change that focuses on whole interpolity systems rather than single polities. The tendency in sociological theory has been to think of single national societies as whole systems. This has led to many errors, because the idea of a system usually implies closure and endogenous processes. National societies (both their states and their nations) emerged over the last few centuries to become the strongest socially constructed identities and organizational structures in the modern world, but they have never been whole systems. They have always existed in a larger context of important interaction networks (trade, warfare, long-distance communication) that has greatly shaped events and social change. Well before the emergence of globalization in the popular consciousness the world-systems perspective focused on the world economy and the system of interacting polities, rather than on single national societies one at a time.
As Sanderson suggests, an updated critique of the WSA
is entirely appropriate, as most assessments are “now rather dated” (2005:179).
Indeed, if we were to criticize Wallerstein’s analysis, we would add to many of
the points Sanderson makes. For example, Wallerstein’s portrayal of the modern
world-system maintains that
Criticism of Wallerstein’s analysis does not suffice as a critique of world-systems analysis en toto. World-systems analysis has taken on a life of its own well beyond the work of its founding fathers. Numerous scholars from many different social science disciplines have produced important work utilizing a world-systems perspective. Wallerstein is certainly an important scholar in the world-systems universe, but now one of many. As the body of work has moved in new directions, world-systems analysis has matured, expanded and diversified such that it can no longer be accurately described solely with reference to Wallerstein’s vision.
The topics that have been addressed using world-systems analysis have greatly expanded. For example, the 2010 program for the Political Economy of the World-System (PEWS) section of the American Sociological Association (ASA) Annual Meeting included research on the current economic crisis, global class formation, migration and development, ecological degradation, energy use, food production and labor, indigenous peoples and the Fourth World, commodity chains and trade networks, stratification and inequality, the modeling the evolution of world-systems, transnational social movements, human rights, terrorism, militarization, global governance and hybrid institutions, epidemics, gender and sexuality, and Darfur and imperialism. Moreover, in 2008, the electronic Journal of World-Systems Research (JWSR), was approved as an official journal of the PEWS section of the ASA (only the second section journal to receive official ASA status).
World-systems analysis has been developed outside of sociology by historians, geographers, ecologists, archaeologists and political scientists. A subsection of the International Political Economy section of the U.S. International Studies Association (ISA) that focusses on world historical systems has functioned and organized sessions at ISA meetings since 1998.
Clearly, Wallerstein’s focus is now one of myriad components of this expanding world-systems analysis. We believe the dynamics of this field, including the refutation and/or modification of extant thought and the pursuit of new research areas, is evidence of a progressive research program. The unity amid the diversity of approaches comes from a more or less shared set of basic assumptions:
1) world-systems consist of local, regional and system-wide interaction networks;
2) since the emergence of complex chiefdoms world-systems have been structured as interpolity core/periphery hierarchies; and,
3) the structures and processes of world-systems have impacts on the component parts that differ depending on the latter's relative structural location within the larger system.
Sanderson fails to capture the dynamism and basic assumptions of today’s world-systems analysis. Instead, he presents a narrow, rigid, and tired WSA, one that has not advanced much beyond its birth in the 1970s and that could be in decline. We believe that Sanderson’s prognoses is off the mark. He presents five main criticisms that pertain to “the most serious weaknesses” (185). These are:
1. the primacy of exogenous over endogenous forces;
2. reification of the world-system as a whole;
3. incorrect understanding of the role of foreign investment;
4. inaccurate analysis of long-term trends of inequality; and
5. misinterpretation of state socialism.
Sanderson’s claim that WSA gives primacy or exclusivity to exogenous over endogenous factors relates to the level and scope of analysis. Here, Sanderson repeats a claim that has been made by many others: world-systems analysts privilege the causal importance of intersocietal and system-wide processes and structures. In the contemporary world, which is now truly globally connected, yet in which each national society—despite all the hubbub about globalization—is still routinely described by both social scientists and many other commentators as if it were a self-contained entity that is unique and largely unconnected and incomparable with other national societies, this claim of a bias toward world historical explanations seems ironic. That said, world-systems analysts nowhere claim that intersocietal or global level processes cause everything that happens. Rather the point is made that world-level processes and patterns are important in their own right and that pretending that each national society is a whole independent universe is an ideological mystification that supports, and is based on, nationalism -- still the most salient institutionalized form of collective identity in the contemporary system.
Sanderson says that world-systems analysts
privilege exogenous processes. Exogenous to what? The very distinction between
endogenous and exogenous processes is what is being challenged by the
world-systems perspective. Sanderson means that societies (meaning modern
national societies such as the
Sanderson’s second main criticism claims that reification of the core/periphery hierarchy is a major weakness of WSA. The core/periphery hierarchy in the modern world-system is a system of stratification in which socially structured inequalities are reproduced by the institutional features of the system. The periphery is not “catching up” with the core. Rather both core and peripheral regions are developing, but most core states are staying well ahead of most peripheral states. There is also a stratum of countries that are in between the core and the periphery that we call the semiperiphery. The semiperiphery in the modern system includes countries that have intermediate levels of economic development or a balanced mix of developed and less developed regions. The semiperiphery includes large countries that have political/military power as a result of their large size, and smaller countries that are relatively more developed than those in the periphery.
The exact boundaries between the core, semiperiphery and periphery are unimportant because the main point is that there is a continuum of economic and political/military power that constitutes the core-periphery hierarchy. It does not matter exactly where we draw lines across this continuum in order to categorize countries. Indeed we could as well make four or seven categories instead of three. The categories are only a convenient terminology for pointing to the fact of international inequality and for indicating that the middle of this hierarchy may be an important location for processes of social change. These terms are similar to the conventional usage of Global North and Global South, but with the value added that there are frequently important differences between the semiperiphery and the periphery in the Global South.
There have been a few cases of upward and downward
mobility in the core/periphery hierarchy, though most countries simply run hard
to stay in the same relative positions that they have long had. A most
spectacular case of upward mobility is the
The global stratification system is a continuum of economic and political-military power that is reproduced by the normal operations of the system. In such a hierarchy there are countries that are difficult to categorize. For example, most oil-exporting countries have very high levels of GNP per capita, but their economies do not produce high technology products that are typical of core countries. They have wealth but not development. The point here is that the categories (core, periphery and semiperiphery) are just a convenient set of terms for pointing to different locations on a continuous and multidimensional hierarchy of power. It is not necessary to have each case fit neatly into a box. The boxes are only conceptual tools for analyzing the unequal distribution of power among countries.
Sanderson notes that Wallerstein and other world-systems scholars sometimes state that various parts of the core/periphery hierarchy perform certain “roles” in the system, such as the periphery providing cheap resources for capitalists in the core. Sanderson calls this reification and compares it with Parsonsian functionalism (186). We agree that the core, periphery and semiperiphery labels should be taken as a kind of short-hand for system-wide hierarchical relations. It is a mistake to hunt for the “real” as opposed to convenient empirical cutting points between these categories. But using the concepts does not necessitate reification any more than using the term “middle class” requires that we have precisely designated the boundaries of that concept. The important point is that a global hierarchy exists. And there is domination and exploitation at this level. Some states and national societies have much more power than others and they often use their power to gain advantages, to extract resources and to have their way in politics. The histories of empires, colonialism, and imperialism shows that some polities pillage, control, tax, invest and extract resources from others. This does not mean that all peripheries are the same, but it does mean that they stand in a somewhat similar structural relationship with core societies. Many societies throughout history have used various forms of power to extract resources from distant others. Peripheral areas have been an important part of the evolution of world-systems for millennia. Sanderson admits that colonialism “has been associated with very high levels of exploitation and production of a great deal of poverty and misery,” although he claims that “not all of this poverty and misery can be laid at the feet of the economic intrusion of capitalist colonizers” (187). No one has claimed that imperialism is the cause of all suffering. The basic idea is that the stratification of the whole system is important for understanding the evolution of the system. Capitalist accumulation, uneven development and the evolution of global governance can all be explained as a competition among competing powers to successfully exploit global opportunities while exploited and dominated people resist and challenge the powers that be.
Sanderson correctly points out that there have
been great disagreements among scholars about the right way to place
nation-states in the zones (core/periphery/semiperiphery) of the world-system hierarchy
(cf. Kentor, 2000; Kick and
Despite these criticisms Sanderson admits that the core, semiperiphery, and periphery hierarchy are a useful and reasonable way to characterize the capitalist world-economy, but the concepts are often reified; instead “it might be preferable simply to talk of global inequalities” (183). But how can one study and analyze global inequalities without understanding the ways in which they are organized?
Sanderson also alleges that WSA has an incorrect understanding of the effects of foreign direct investment and an inaccurate analysis of long-term trends in the modern world-system. In reviewing the literature on the effects of foreign investment, Sanderson presents findings from a number of studies that have asserted that foreign investment and/or capital penetration and/or investment concentration either: 1) is less optimal than domestic investment; 2) slows growth; and/or 3) leads to decline or shrinkage (192-94). Hanging his hat on Kentor and Boswell’s (2003) study that found that integration in the world-system (the ratio of international trade to GDP) has a positive impact on economic growth, Sanderson arrives at the conclusion that “at the very least serious questions have been raised regarding a key principle of world-system theory—that the development of the core occurs at the expense of the periphery and that foreign capital investment in less-developed countries serves to maintain the core-periphery hierarchy” (194). Our response here is that Sanderson is right that the effects of dependence on foreign investment (having a large chunk of the national economy be owned by foreigners) is controversial and may have changed over time. But no one ever argued that dependence on foreign investment is the only mechanism by which the core exploits the periphery. If it is agreed that global inequalities are great and have not been much reduced, then something is reproducing global inequality. There are many theories about neocolonialism, unequal exchange, the nature of international financial institutions such as the Intermonetary Fund, etc. So the effects of dependence on foreign investment are just part of the story.
Regarding the long-term trends in global
inequality, absolute growth of the periphery and semiperiphery is not at all inimical to world-systems theory.
Wallerstein’s idea of absolute immiseration has always been contested by other
world-systems analysts (e.g. Chase-Dunn 1998: 261-270). It is obvious that average
life expectancy and GNP per capita have gone up over the long run in the
periphery. The question of global
inequality has always been a matter of relative inequality between the core and
the periphery. Sanderson contends that WSA depends on the idea that the
relative gap between the core and the non-core is increasing. Instead, he
claims that convergence is occurring and that the semiperiphery and periphery,
with the exception of sub-Saharan
Sanderson also criticizes the way in which state socialism (the communist countries) have been treated by world-systems scholars. He contnds that most world-systemists consider socialism to be the future of a post-capitalist world. Sanderson claims that WSA scholars are in denial, or at least overly optimistic, about “the nature of state socialist societies, their collapse after 1989, and the potential future of socialism” (199). He contends that socialism did not work as well as capitalism in the past and that it cannot work as well as capitalism in the future. We contend that a major factor behind Sanderson’s critique of the political stances and implications of world-systems analysis is his methodological and political individualism—an epistemological stance that places him at odds with most world-systems scholars.
Sanderson’s strong materialist position is admirable. He acknowledges the importance of demographic and ecological factors in human socio-cultural evolution, especially in early periods. And he also contends that these factors recede somewhat as technology becomes more and more an endogenous process (cf. Sanderson and Alderson, 2005). But Sanderson embraces a kind of methodological individualism that, though it is commonsensical because it conforms to the predominant assumptions of modern societies, downplays the importance of emergent institutional features in explaining social change. He accuses world-systems theorists of reifying the world-system, the core, the periphery and the semiperiphery, and of treating these structural features as if they were real actors when, in his view, the only real reality is the existence of human individuals.
We agree that the language of functionalism has occasionally been used as a shorthand in describing the processes of the world-system, and that this can be misleading. But recognizing this does not also require us to embrace methodological individualism. As Émile Durkheim and many more recent social constructionists have argued, it is the individual that is most often reified by modern society. The individual self is an institution in the same way that money and the New York Stock Exchange are institutions. Modern societies strongly constitute the ontology of the individual as a unique, empowered agent that is thought to be the main constituent element of social order. Economists presume that social patterns are primarily created by the rational choices of individuals, and rationality itself is construed as a matter of individual decision-making and interests.
But many sociologists see that agency is not just based on the actions of individual decision-makers. Humanly created institutions alter the logic of social order and make possible things that would be impossible in their absence. The institution of money is a huge force in social life that only partly is under the control of individual or even of collective actors. To speak of global capitalism as if it is an actor is perhaps to over-carry the point, but this matter of usage should not justify a denial of the power of the emergent properties of institutions. Large social structures and world-wide institutions have a definite reality and enormous consequences for the behavior of individual actors. This sociological approach is entirely relevant for understanding world-historical processes. Methodological individualism is of little help here. But this recognition does not require that we deny that individuals also have agency. Here is where Phillip McMichael’s version of the comparative method, discussed above, is very helpful.
Sanderson also engages in political individualism as a basis for his attack on world-systems thinking about future possibilities. He claims that world-systems theorists are anachronistic utopians with regard to the human future because they have an incorrect understanding of human nature. He claims that biosociology affirms that the human species is rather more individualistic than some other animals and many social insects, but also that humans are rather more innately social than many other animals. So there is a biologically programmed aspect of human sociality rather than a blank slate upon which society can write anything.
So far this is probably correct. Radical utopian ideas that humans can be completely altruistic are probably wrong, though some humans do manage a rather impressive amount of altruistic behavior. Sanderson and others are right to point out that institutional structures in the future must take into account that humans are rather individualistic, acquisitive, and that many like to exercise power over other humans.
But then Sanderson goes on to make the claim that human nature was the main cause of the failure of utopian socialist and communist movements of past centuries. We agree that some collectivist movements may have wrongly attacked individualism as the source of social problems and that this may have caused some of their difficulties. But we do not agree that this over-emphasis on collectivism was the main cause of the failures of these movements, nor do we agree with Sanderson’s contention that this means that future efforts to reform or restructure global capitalism are necessarily doomed or can only lead to an even more repressive system.
It is possible to learn from both the successes and the failures of earlier movements rather than just rejecting them as utopian mistakes. This involves being able to transcend both the ideologies that legitimate contemporary capitalism and the ideologies of socialism and communism. We would agree that some of the Marxist antisystemic movements of the twentieth century mistakenly blamed markets and individualism as the major elements of capitalism that cause inequalities and exploitation. Future movements to create a more humane world society need to focus their energies on those problems that really are what is wrong with capitalism—that it distributes the fruits of the market system too narrowly and that it tends to destroy the biosphere upon which human life depends. Solutions to these problems will require building institutions that can reduce the huge inequalities of the contemporary system and protect the environment by slowing population growth, encouraging fairer and sustainable use of scarce natural resources, and continuing to incentivize the development of technologies that use non-renewable and limited resources more efficiently (cf. Chase-Dunn and Lawrence, Forthcoming b).
Sanderson says that a world state is impossible by definition and because humans are incapable of cooperating with one another on an Earth-wide scale. Political scientists and some sociologists who study international relations define a state in terms of its interaction with other states, and so a world state is impossible by definition. This is like saying that something cannot exist because it is not in the dictionary. States have been getting larger, albeit unevenly in time and space, since they emerged 5000 years ago, and before that chiefdoms were getting larger. Human nature does not prevent people from living in very large cities and in very large states. The main limits to growth are the availability of clean water and other natural resources on the Earth. The human species is going through a demographic transition from a high birth rate to a lower birth rate that will stabilize the number of people on the Earth probably around 2075 or so. This stable population will be between eight and twelve billion. Eight would be far better than twelve. One of the main causes of lowering the birth rate is the education of women.
The claim that contemporary efforts to invent better human institutions are doomed because of human nature sounds very much like many earlier efforts to justify the inevitability of existing social orders. Perhaps sociologists overemphasized the flexibility and malleability of human nature to some extent, but this observation does not require that we accept the current order as ordained by nature. Humans may be somewhat individualistic, but if individualism is good (as we believe it is) it is possible to devise institutions that protect it while also solving the big distributional and environmental problems that we have created for ourselves. It is inventiveness that makes human beings interesting and that can be the source of future institutional solutions. We contend that more democratic and more collectively rational forms of global governance are possible. The claim that humans are incapable of solving their collective action problems because of genetic deficiencies is not much help. The scale of governance institutions has been increasing for millennia. Fears about global empire, especially on the part of those who have been oppressed and exploited by earlier incarnations of global governance, are quite understandable. That is why the struggle for global democracy will require strong inputs and leadership from the Global South. Otherwise the result will be another “universalism” that is illegitimate in the eyes of the majority.
We are grateful to Stephen Sanderson for asking important questions about the state of world-systems scholarship World-systems analysis needs informed debate in order to remain a progressive research program. We object to some aspects of his portrayal, particularly his characterization of a rigid Wallersteinian-version as the predominant model, and we also dispute his methodological and political individualism. World-systems analysis is not dead, but where is it heading? Using whole human interaction system as the unit of analysis can make big contributions to social science and to comprenhension of the ways in which human actions interact with natural systems. And the world-systems perspective may also be useful for those who want to push world history in the direction of a more egalitarian and sustainable world society.
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