Immanuel Wallerstein

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Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein (born 28 September, 1930, New York City) is a U.S. sociologist, historical social scientist, and world-systems analyst. His monthly commentaries on world affairs are syndicated by Agence Global. Wallerstein is fluent in Spanish and French.

Training and academic career

Wallerstein first became interested in world affairs as a teenager in New York City, and was particularly interested in the anti-colonial movement in India at the time. He attended Columbia University, where he received aB.A. in 1951, an M.A. in 1954 and a Ph.D. degree in 1959, and subsequently taught until 1971, when he became professor of sociology at McGill University. As of 1976, he served as distinguished professor of sociology at Binghamton University (State University of New York|SUNY) until his retirement in 1999, and as head of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilization until 2005. Wallerstein held several positions as visiting professor at universities worldwide, 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. In 2000 he joined the Yale Sociology department as Senior Research Scholar. 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.


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, and which his publications were almost exclusively devoted to 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 a gray eminence with the anti-globalization movement within and without the academic community, along with Noam Chomsky and Pierre Bourdieu.

His most important work, The Modern World-System, appeared in three volumes in 1974, 1980, and 1989. In it, Wallerstein mainly draws on three 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 staged 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";
  • and — presumably — the practical experienceand impressions gained from his own work regarding post-colonial Africa.

Wallerstein has also stated that a major influence on his work was the 1968 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 Conflict at a time when the main world conflict was the Cold War.

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 of which only one global network, or system of economic exchange, exists today. By the nineteenth century, virtually every area on earth was incorporated into the capitalist world-economy.

The capitalist world-system is, however, far from homogeneous in cultural, political, and economic terms — instead characterized by fundamental differences in civilizational 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 as a whole evolves. Much more, a lasting division of the world in core, semi-periphery and periphery is an inherent feature of the world-system. Areas which have so far remained outside the reach of the world-system, enter it at the stage of 'periphery'. There is a fundamental and institutionally stabilized 'division of labor' between core and periphery: While the core has a high level of technological development and manufactures complex products, the role of the periphery is to supply raw materials, agricultural products and cheap labor for the expanding agents of the core. Economic exchange between core and periphery takes place on unequal terms: The periphery is forced to sell its products at low prices, but has to buy the core's products at comparatively high prices, an unequal state which, once established, tends to stabilize itself due to inherent, quasi-deterministic constraints. The statuses of core and periphery are not, however, mutually exclusive and fixed to certain geographic areas; instead, they are relative to each other and shifting: 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, e.g., Eastern Europe, China, Brazil or Mexico. Peripheral and core zones can also co-exist very closely in the same geographic area.

One effect of the expansion of the world-system is the continuing 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 critiquing them, he has been highly influenced by the 'new sciences' of theorists like Ilya Prigogine.

He has also argued, consistently since 1980, that the United States is a 'hegemon in decline'. He was often mocked for making this claim during the nineties, but since the debacle of the Iraq war, this argument has become more widespread. He has also consistently argued that the modern world system has reached its endpoint. He believes that the next fifty years will be a period of chaotic instability which will result in a new system, one which may be more or less egalitarian than the present one.

Wallerstein's theory has also provoked harsh criticism, not only from neo-liberal or conservative circles, but even some historians who have averred that some of his assertions may be historically incorrect. As well, 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.

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 integrated on the world market. It is divided into core, semi-periphery and periphery, and is ruled by the capitalist method of production. The ideal type of market is capitalism.

Defines the difference between developed countries and developing countries, characterized e.g. by power or wealth. The core stands 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 and have to contribute to the centre. Mostly these states are authoritarian, allowing the core to put oppressive measures on them.


From Historical Capitalism with Capitalist Civilization, p. 98:

|It is simply not true that capitalism as a historical system has represented progress over the various previous historical systems that it destroyed or transformed. Even as I write this, I feel the tremour that accompanies the sense of blasphemy. I fear the wrath of the gods, for I have been moulded in the same ideological forge as all my compeers and have worshipped at the same shrines.

From The Modern World-System, vol. I, p. 233:

In the sixteenth century, Europe was like a bucking bronco. The attempt of some groups to establish a world-economy based on a particular division of labor, to create national states in the core areas as politico-economic guarantors of this system, and to get the workers to pay not only the profits but the costs of maintaining the system was not easy. It was to Europe's credit that it was done, since without the thrust of the sixteenth century the modern world would not have been born and, for all its cruelties, it is better that it was born than that it had not been.

It is also to Europe's credit that it was not easy, and particularly that it was not easy because the people who paid the short-run costs screamed lustily at the unfairness of it all. The peasants and workers in Poland and England and Brazil and Mexico were all rambunctious in their various ways. As R. H. Tawney says of the agrarian disturbances of sixteenth-century England: 'Such movements are a proof of blood and sinew and of a high and gallant spirit. . . . Happy the nation whose people has not forgotten how to rebel.'

The mark of the modern world is the imagination of its profiteers and the counter-assertiveness of the oppressed. Exploitation and the refusal to accept exploitation as either inevitable or just constitute the continuing antinomy of the modern era, joined together in a dialectic which has far from reached its climax in the twentieth century.

See also


  • 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:
  • 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.
  • 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.

External links