Hall, Thomas D., Christopher Chase-Dunn, and Hiroko Inoue. 2013. “Wallerstein, Immanuel.” Pp. 909-012 in Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology,Vol. 2, edited by McGee, R. Jon and Richard L. Warms.Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage Publications.


Wallerstein, Immanuel Maurice (1930- )


Immanuel Wallerstein is one of most influential social theorists in recent decades. Wallerstein’s approach to world history, which he calls the “world-system perspective,” has had a wide and deep impact throughout the social sciences and humanities.

Intellectual Development
Wallerstein was born in New York City on September 28, 1930.  He earned his B.A. (1951), M.A. (1954), and Ph.D. (1959) at Columbia University, where he taught until 1971. Columbia housed outstanding intellectuals such as Karl Polanyi, Lionel Trilling, Richard Hofstadter and C. Wright Mills. Later, Wallerstein’s intellectual development reached from New York City, to Paris, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. While in Paris he became familiar with the work of the Annales School, a legacy of Fernand Braudel. He also worked with Georges Balandier, a French sociologist, anthropologist and ethnologist who focused on African colonialism.
            As an undergraduate at Columbia Wallerstein took classes from C. Wright Mills during the period in which he (Mills) was writing The Power Elite. Mills was disaffected with the predominant theoretical and methodological approaches in sociology (abstracted empiricism and grand theory). Wallerstein, like Mills, was disaffected, helped create a new way of looking at society, and hoped to renew the possibility of achieving human freedom.

            For his dissertation, later published as The Road to Independence: Ghana and the Ivory Coast (1964) Wallerstein conducted research on the voluntary associations that led the West African independence movements.  The work was based on interviews and surveys that Wallerstein conducted in the Gold Coast (later Ghana) and the Ivory Coast. His studies of the rise and demise of colonial regimes in Africa led him to conclude that one could not understand African history and social change without comprehending the historical and contemporary interactions among Africa, Europe and the Americas.
            Wallerstein was on the faculty at Columbia during the 1960’s, an era of international student revolt including the Civil Rights movement in the United States,  the anti-war movement stimulated by the war in Vietnam, and a counter-cultural rebellion that made alliances with radical workers in France and Italy. Later he called these sometimes connected, sometime independent collection of movements “the world revolution of 1968.” In 1971 he moved to McGill University for five years, then on to Binghamton University. There, along with Terence Hopkins, he founded the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilization. In the early 1990s Wallerstein chaired the international Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. In 2000 he became a senior research scholar at Yale. He is a past president of the International Sociological Association and has published more than 30 books and over 200 articles and book chapters.
            At Columbia Wallerstein came to see intellectual and political projects as two sides of the same coin. He became interested in Dependency Theory, the idea that there is an international hierarchy that underdevelops the Global South. Dependency theory had emerged primarily among Latin American scholars such as Raul Prebisch, Teotonio Dos Santos, and Fernando Henrique Cardozo. It was popularized in the Global North by Andre Gunder Frank. Over the ensuing years Wallerstein, along with Giovanni Arrighi and Samir Amin, used the concept of an evolving hierarchical global division of labor to analyze African development. Fruitful collaboration and debate among Frank, Amin, Arrighi, and Wallerstein continued throughout their lives.

Formulation of the World-System Perspective
Wallerstein and the dependency theorists [tdh1] argued that core -periphery relations went far beyond formal colonialism. He perceived that similar colonial-like relations had occurred between Poland and Western Europe during sixteenth century. He discussed this in detail in the first volume of The Modern World-System published in 1974. The world-system perspective explains institutional changes from a focus on entire interpolity systems in contrast to the usual social science focus on single national societies. Wallerstein argued that societies have always existed within larger interaction networks that shaped their histories. Long before globalization became a catch word, the world-systems perspective examined the nature of a world economy that linked a system of interacting polities. Wallerstein defined three kinds of systems: minisystems based on reciprocity, world-empires based on redistribution, and world-economies in which a number of states ally and compete with one another. World-systems are composed of three components: 1) the core, which contains the most developed societies; 2) the periphery, which composed of the least developed societies; and 3) the semiperiphery, which is composed of societies intermediate between core and peripheral societies. The relation of core societies to semiperipheral societies and of semiperipheral societies to peripheral societies is similar to the relations between colonizing and colonized states. A key difference is all three are part one overall system. The word “world” means largely self-contained. Only in recent centuries has a single world-system become planetary (Earth-wide). In short, it is a world. It is the semiperiphery that helps stabilized the overall system. Often semipheripheral societies are former core states that have been passed by more developed states, or peripherally societies beginning to develop more rapidly. While the core -  periphery – semiperiphery structure is more or less constant, the positions of individual societies or states shift positions over time.
            The world-systems perspective has come to encompass a number of bodies of research, historical narratives, and theories, that seek explain world historical social change. In short, it is a knowledge paradigm that contains many competing theories. The key insight of the perspective is that interaction networks (trade, information, and political interactions) have woven polities and cultures together for centuries. Thus, the entire interpolity system, or world-system, is the central unit of social evolution. In this approach what is commonly called globalization is only the latest manifestation of these processes of change.
            A world-system is a vitally connected interaction network, not merely international relations. The modern world-system is a nested stratification system in which core polities (that compete with one another) dominate and exploit dependent peripheral and semiperipheral peoples. A few polities have been upwardly or downwardly mobile within the larger hierarchy, but most stay in the same position.
            The evolution of the modern world-system has been driven mainly by capitalist accumulation, the struggles among classes, and resistance from peripheral and semiperipheral peoples.  The current semiperiphery includes large countries in the Global South (e.g. Mexico, India, Brazil, China, Indonesia) as well as smaller countries that have intermediate levels of economic development (e.g. South Korea, Taiwan, Israel, South Africa). Institutional change has been shaped by both the winners and the struggle of those who resist them. The modern core-periphery hierarchy is an asymmetrical division of labor between core producers of highly profitable commodities and controllers of finance capital and peripheral producers of much less profitable goods. The semiperiphery is an intermediate zone. Wallerstein’s key point is that national development can only be understood and explained by comprehending this core-periphery hierarchy.
            Wallerstein argued that the modern world-system emerged in the long sixteenth century (1560-1640) when Europeans first circumnavigated the globe and began colonizing and exploiting other continents. He contends that the Dutch hegemony peaked during the economic and demographic crisis of the seventeenth century. Then Great Britain and France contended for hegemony in the eighteenth century. Britain eventually came to dominate the system in the nineteenth century. The United States rose to hegemony in the twentieth century and is now in a phase of hegemonic decline.
            So, for Wallerstein capitalism became predominant in the regional (European) world-system in the 16th century. This system then grew larger in a series of cycles and upward trends and is now approaching upper limits (asymptotes): 1. the long-term rise of real wages; 2. the long-term costs of material inputs; and 3. taxes. These long-term (meaning centuries) trends lead to a fall in the average rate of profits. Strategies combating these trends -- automation, capital flight, acceptance of reduced wages in order to remain employed, attacks on the welfare state, and on unions slow down but do not eliminate the contradictions of capitalism. This will lead to an irreconcilable structural crisis during the next 50 years that will lead the emergence of some other system after the “Age of Transition.”  The results of this transition are far from clear or fixed. Possibilities range from a global fascist state to some form of collectively rational egalitarian and democratic global governance.

Critiques of the world-system perspective
The have been major critiques of Wallerstein’s approach to world-systems analysis:
1.   It ignores the particularities of different kinds of capitalism and discounts internal processes in national societies.
2.    It neglects class relations and overemphasizes exchange relations.
3. It is too “economistic” and neglects politics and culture.
4. It fails to see a new global stage of capitalism.
5. It neglects the evolution of world-systems before the emergence of the modern system.
Wallerstein has answered these criticisms in the Prologue to the most recent edition of The Modern World-System, Volume 1 (Wallerstein 2011).

Later Developments of the World-Systems Perspective
Several groups of scholars have attempted to modify and extend the analysis of the modern world-system to precapitalist settings.  They have sought to explain how and why the modern system emerged where and when it did in comparative world historical perspective and to understand earlier evolutionary transformations. Initially Wallerstein was skeptical of such extensions, but more recently he has come to see their value. Andre Gunder Frank and Barry Gills claimed that the modern capital-imperialist system emerged 5000 years ago when states and cities came into being in Mesopotamia. Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas Hall proposed a comparative and evolutionary world-systems perspective that contends that earlier regional world-systems were usually multicultural networks of competing and allying polities. They also contend that long- prestige goods exchanges sometimes played an important role in the reproduction of local hierarchies within regional systems.  And they also examine the role of political – military interactions, and the influences of information exchanges, including ideologies.  These extensions have sparked considerable interest in, and new critiques of, world-systems analysis among archaeologists, anthropologists, world historians and political scientists.
            One obstacle to comprehending Wallerstein’s argument is time horizon, which for most people is far less than 50 years. Wallerstein is intentionally vague about what might replace capitalism. He argues that the declining hegemony of the United States and the crisis of neoliberal global capitalism are signs that capitalism can no longer adjust to its internal contradictions. Thus, the world is in a period of chaotic and unpredictable historical transformation. The new system might be an authoritarian global state that preserves the privileges of global elite or an egalitarian system in which non-profit institutions serve communities. Wallerstein agrees with those who argue that taking state power will not work, as happened in the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the decolonization movements. Wallerstein has become one of the leaders of in the global justice “movement of movements” that has emerged around the World Social Forum.
            Though there have been many other contributors, Immanuel Wallerstein has been the major founder of the world-systems perspective. Wallerstein’s outstanding work as a historical sociologist and a public intellectual demonstrate that social theory is not only for academics. 
                                    Thomas D. Hall, Christopher Chase-Dunn, & Hiroko Inoue

Cross-References: dependency theory, economic anthropology, political economy, world-systems theory, Karl Polanyi


Further Readings

Arrighi, G. & Goldfrank W. L. (Eds.) (2000). Festschrift for Immanuel Wallerstein. Journal of World-Systems Research, VI, 150-945. 

Babones, S. & Chase-Dunn, C (Eds.) (2012). Routledge Handbook of World-Systems Analysis. London: Routledge.

Chase-Dunn, C. & Inoue, H. (2011). “Immanuel Wallerstein.” Pp 395-410 in New Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists, Edited by George Ritzer and Jeffrey Stepinsky. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Wallerstein, I. (Ed.) (2000). The Essential Wallerstein. New York: New Press.

Wallerstein, I. (2004). World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wallerstein, I. (2011). The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, with a new Prologue. Berkeley: University of California Press (reprint of 1974 original).

Wallerstein, I. (2011). The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750, with a new Prologue. Berkeley: University of California Press (reprint of 1980 original).

Wallerstein, I. (2011). The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730-1840s, with a new Prologue. Berkeley: University of California Press (reprint of 1989 original).

Wallerstein, I. (2011).  The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789–1914. Berkeley: University of California Press.