Immanuel Wallerstein

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Immanuel Wallerstein

Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein giving a talk at a seminar at European University at St Petersburg (May 24, 2008)
Born September 28, 1930 (1930-09-28) (age 89)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality United States
Fields Sociology
Institutions Binghamton University
Alma mater Columbia University
Known for World system theory
Influences Karl Marx
Fernand Braudel
Karl Polanyi
Franz Fanon
Ilya Prigogine
Sigmund Freud
Joseph Schumpeter
Nikolai Kondratiev

Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein (born September 28, 1930), is an American sociologist, historical social scientist, and world-systems analyst. His bimonthly commentaries on world affairs are syndicated.[1]

Education and Academic Career

Wallerstein first became interested in world affairs as a teenager in New York City, and was particularly interested in the Indian independence movement at the time. He attended Columbia University, where he received a B.A. in 1951, an M.A. in 1954 and a PhD degree in 1959. Immanuel Wallerstein also studied at other universities around the world, including Université libre de Bruxelles, Universite Paris 7-Denis-Diderot, and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.[2] He married Beatrice Friedman on May 25, 1964, and they had a daughter.[3] He continued teaching at Columbia University until 1971, when he became professor of sociology at McGill University. In 1973 he was president of the African Studies Association. As of 1976, he served as distinguished professor of sociology at Binghamton University until his retirement in 1999. Wallerstein was head of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilization at Binghamton University until 2005.

Wallerstein has held visiting professor posts in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, British Columbia, and Amsterdam.,[2] was awarded multiple honorary titles, intermittently served as Directeur d'études associé at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and was president of the International Sociological Association between 1994 and 1998.

During the 1990s he chaired the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. The object of the commission was to indicate a direction for social scientific inquiry for the next 50 years.

Since 2000, he has been Senior Research Scholar at Yale University.[4] He is also a member of the Advisory Editors Council of the Social Evolution & History journal. In 2003 he received the Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association. In 2004 he was awarded with the Gold Kondratieff Medal[5] by the International N. D. Kondratieff Foundation and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences (RAEN).


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Wallerstein began as an expert of post-colonial African affairs, which he selected as the focus of his studies after an international youth conference in 1951. His publications were almost exclusively devoted to this until the early 1970s, when he began to distinguish himself as a historian and theorist of the global capitalist economy on a macroscopic level. His early criticism of global capitalism and championship of "anti-systemic movements" have recently made him an éminence grise with the anti-globalization movement within and outside of the academic community, along with Noam Chomsky and Pierre Bourdieu.

His most important work, The Modern World-System, has appeared in four volumes in 1974, 1980, 1989 and 2011, with two planned volumes still forthcoming. In it, Wallerstein mainly draws on several intellectual influences:

  • Karl Marx, whom he follows in emphasizing underlying economic factors and their dominance over ideological factors in global politics, and whose economic thinking he has adopted with such ideas as the dichotomy between capital and labor, the view of world economic development through stages such as feudalism and capitalism, belief in the accumulation of capital, dialectics and more;
  • French historian Fernand Braudel, who had described the development and political implications of extensive networks of economic exchange in the European world between 1400 and 1800;
  • Dependency theory, most obviously its concepts of "core" and "periphery";
  • Ilya Prigogine;
  • Frantz Fanon, and — presumably — the practical experience and impressions gained from his own work regarding post-colonial Africa.

Wallerstein has also stated that a major influence on his work was the 'world revolution' of 1968. He was on the faculty of Columbia University at the time of the student uprising there and participated in a faculty committee that attempted to resolve the dispute. He has argued in several works that this revolution marked the end of 'liberalism' as a viable ideology in the modern world system.

One aspect of his work that Wallerstein certainly deserves credit for is his anticipating the growing importance of the North-South divide at a time when the main world conflict was the Cold War.

He has argued since 1980 that the United States is a 'hegemon in decline'. He was often mocked for making this claim during the 1990s, but since the Iraq War this argument has become more widespread. Overall, Wallerstein sees the development of the capitalist world economy as detrimental to a large proportion of the world's population.[6] Similar to Marx, Wallerstein predicts that capitalism will be replaced by a socialist economy.[7]

Wallerstein's theory has also provoked harsh criticism, not only from neo-liberal or conservative circles but even some historians who say that some of his assertions may be historically incorrect. Some critics suggest that Wallerstein tends to neglect the cultural dimension, reducing it to what some call "official" ideologies of states which can then easily be revealed as mere agencies of economic interest. Nevertheless his analytical approach, along with that of associated theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank, Terence Hopkins, Samir Amin, Christopher Chase-Dunn and Giovanni Arrighi has made a significant impact and established an institutional base devoted to the general approach. It has also attracted strong interest from the anti-globalization movement.

Wallerstein has both participated in and written about the World Social Forum.

The World-system

Wallerstein's first volume on world-system theory (The Modern World System, 1974) was predominantly written during a year at Princeton's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.[8] In it he argues that the modern world system is distinguished from empires by its reliance on economic control of the world order by a dominating capitalist center in systemic economic and political relation to peripheral and semi peripheral world areas.[9]

Wallerstein rejects the notion of a "Third World", claiming there is only one world connected by a complex network of economic exchange relationships — i.e., a "world-economy" or "world-system" in which the "dichotomy of capital and labor" and the endless "accumulation of capital" by competing agents (historically including but not limited to nation-states) account for frictions. This approach is known as the World Systems Theory.

Wallerstein locates the origin of the "modern world-system" in 16th-century Western Europe and the Americas. An initially only slight advance in capital accumulation in Britain, the Dutch Republic and France, due to specific political circumstances at the end of the period of feudalism, set in motion a process of gradual expansion. As a result only one global network or system of economic exchange exists. By the 19th century, virtually every area on earth was incorporated into the capitalist world-economy.

The capitalist world-system is far from homogeneous in cultural, political and economic terms — instead characterized by fundamental differences in social development, accumulation of political power and capital. Contrary to affirmative theories of modernization and capitalism, Wallerstein does not conceive of these differences as mere residues or irregularities that can and will be overcome as the system evolves.

A lasting division of the world into core, semi-periphery and periphery is a fundamental feature of the world-system. The core has a high level of technological development, manufactures complex products, and is financially sophisticated, while the periphery is at a low technological level and supplies raw materials, agricultural products and cheap labor for the core. The relation is one of inequality and exploitation of the periphery by the core. One aspect of this is that the terms of trade are skewed in favour of the core: the periphery is forced to sell its products at low prices but has to buy the core's products at comparatively high prices. The inequalities between core and periphery tend to become entrenched due to inherent, quasi-deterministic constraints (eg., institutionalization). The statuses of core and periphery are not exclusive and fixed geographically; instead they are relative to each other: there is a zone called 'semi-periphery' which acts as a periphery to the core and a core to the periphery. At the end of the 20th century, this zone would comprise Eastern Europe, China, Brazil or Mexico. Peripheral and core zones can also exist in close proximity.

One effect of the expansion of the world-system is the commodification of things, including human labor. Natural resources, land, labor and human relationships are gradually being stripped of their "intrinsic" value and turned into commodities in a market which dictates their exchange value.

In the last two decades, Wallerstein has increasingly focused on the intellectual foundations of the modern world system, the 'structures of knowledge' defined by the disciplinary division between sociology, anthropology, political science, economics and the humanities and the pursuit of universal theories of human behavior. Wallerstein regards the structures of knowledge as Eurocentric. In analysing them, he has been highly influenced by the 'new sciences' of theorists like Ilya Prigogine.

Terms and definitions

Capitalist World-System
This definition of Wallerstein follows Dependency Theory, which intended to combine the developments of the different societies since the 16th century in different regions into one collective development. The main characteristic of Wallerstein's definition is the development of a global division of labour, including the existence of independent political units (in this case, states) at the same time. There is no political centre, compared to global empires like the Roman Empire; instead the capitalist world system is identified with the global market economy. It is divided into core, semi-periphery and periphery, and is ruled by the capitalist method of production.

Defines the difference between developed countries and developing countries, characterized e.g. by power or wealth. The core refers to developed countries, and the periphery is a synonym for the dependent developing countries. The main reason for the position of the developed countries is economic power.

Defines states that are located between core and periphery, they benefit from the periphery through unequal exchange relations. At the same time, the core benefits from the semi-periphery through unequal exchange relations.

Defines a kind of monopoly where there is more than one service provider for a particular good/service. Wallerstein claims that quasi-monopolies are self-liquidating because new sellers go into the market by exerting political pressure to open markets to competition.[10]

Kondratiev Waves
Defines a cyclical tendency in the world's economy. It is also known as a supercycle. Wallerstein argues that global wars are tied to Kondratiev waves. According to him, global conflicts occur as the summer phase of a wave begins, this is when production of goods and services all around the world are on an upswing.[11]


  • 1961: Africa, The Politics of Independence. New York: Vintage Books.
  • 1964: The Road to Independence: Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Paris & The Hague: Mouton.
  • 1967: Africa: The Politics of Unity. New York: Random House.
  • 1969: University in Turmoil: The Politics of Change. New York: Atheneum.
  • 1972 (with Evelyn Jones Rich): Africa: Tradition & Change. New York: Random House.
  • 1974: The Modern World-System, vol. I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York/London: Academic Press.
  • 1979: The Capitalist World-Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 1980: The Modern World-System, vol. II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750. New York: Academic Press.
  • 1982 (with Terence K. Hopkins et al.): World-Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology. Beverly Hills: Sage.
  • 1982 (with Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi and Andre Gunder Frank): Dynamics of Global Crisis. London: Macmillan.
  • 1983: Historical Capitalism. London: Verso.
  • 1984: The Politics of the World-Economy. The States, the Movements and the Civilizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 1986: Africa and the Modern World. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
  • 1989: The Modern World-System, vol. III: The Second Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730-1840's. San Diego: Academic Press.
  • 1989 (with Giovanni Arrighi and Terence K. Hopkins): Antisystemic Movements. London: Verso.
  • 1990 (with Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi and Andre Gunder Frank): Transforming the Revolution: Social Movements and the World-System. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • 1991 (with Étienne Balibar): Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London: Verso.
  • 1991: Geopolitics and Geoculture: Essays on the Changing World-System. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • 1991: Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth Century Paradigms. Cambridge: Polity.
  • 1995: After Liberalism. New York: New Press.
  • 1995: Historical Capitalism, with Capitalist Civilization. London: Verso.
  • 1998: Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century. New York: New Press.
  • 1999: The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-first Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • 2001: Democracy, Capitalism, and Transformation. Documenta 11, Vienna, March 16, 2001.
  • 2003: Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World. New York: New Press.
  • 2004: The Uncertainties of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • 2004: World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
  • 2004: Alternatives: The U.S. Confronts the World. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Press.
  • 2006: European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power. New York: New Press.
  • 2011: The Modern World-System, vol. IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789–1914. Berkeley: University of California Press.

See also


  1. Agence Global
  2. 2.0 2.1 Allan, Kenneth (2006). Contemporary social and sociological theory: visualizing social worlds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. 
  3. Sica, with introductions by Alan (2005). Social thought : from the Enlightenment to the present. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon. . 
  4. Lemert, edited with commentaries by Charles (2010). Social theory : the multicultural and classic readings (4th ed. ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. . 
  5. The International N. D. Kondratieff Foundation
  6. Paul Halsall Modern History Sourcebook: Summary of Wallerstein on World System Theory, August 1997
  7. Carlos A. Martínez-Vela, World Systems Theory, paper prepared for the Research Seminar in Engineering Systems, November 2003
  8. The A - Z guide to modern social and political theorists. London [u.a.]: Prentice Hall, Harvester Wheatsheaf. 1997. . 
  9. Lemert, edited with commentaries by Charles (2010). Social theory : the multicultural and classic readings (4th ed. ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. . 
  10. Wallerstein, Immanuel (2004). World-systems analysis : an introduction (5. print. ed.). Durham: Duke University Press. . 
  11. What Is the Kondratiev Wave?. URL accessed on 30 September 2012.

Further reading

  • Brewer, A., Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical survey,' London: Macmillan, 1990.
  • Frank, A.G. and B. Gills (eds), The World System: 500 years or 5000?, London: Routledge, 1993.
  • Hout, W., Capitalism and the Third World: Development, dependence and the world system, Hants: Edward Elgar, 1993.
  • Sanderson, S., Civilizations and World Systems, London: Sage, 1955.
  • Shannon, T., An Introduction to the World-System Perspective, Oxford: Westview Press, 1989.

External links

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