World Systems Theory Research Paper Starter

World Systems Theory

(Research Starters)

This article offers an overview of the origins and the main features of the world-systems analytical framework. Both the historical roots of long-term social change and the global scope of the large-scale transformations of the modern world-system are emphasized. According to the world-systems theory, the global division of labor separates nation states into three tiers: the core, the periphery, and the semiperiphery. The world capitalist economy is characterized by waves of economic expansion and decline. Each cycle of expansion gives rise to a leading state from the core of the world-system, a hegemon, which is able to control the world's most powerful financial and economic institutions. The historical perspective afforded by the world-systems analysis reveals a hegemonic sequence, or a succession of the powerful leading states, presiding over large-scale social change. Lastly, the world-systems analysis is employed to examine what scholars consider to be a current hegemonic crisis of the modern world-system.

Keywords Core; Division of Labor; Hegemon; Hegemonic Sequence; Periphery; Semiperiphery; World-System; World-Systems Analysis

Global Stratification: World Systems Theory


The world-systems theory is a macro-sociological approach that uses a historical perspective and considers the global economy as the unit of analysis. The concept of world-system implies that various actors — traditionally examined as separate units of social analysis — such as individuals, communities, cities and nations, international and transnational actors, geographic regions, and geopolitical alliances are connected in a systematic way. The world-systems approach examines historical development over long periods of time and draws on several social science disciplines. It allows us to place any social process or structure in their proper historical and global context.

The world-systems theory was first developed in Immanuel Wallerstein's (1974) work on the world economy that described the ceaseless expansion of capitalism as a market force. Further elaborated and expanded by Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, Christopher Chase-Dunn, and others, the world-systems analysis views the dynamics of international economy as the defining force that shapes the world order and global governance. Most broadly, the world-systems analysts suggest that the single, global world economy is characterized by waves of economic expansion and decline. Each new wave of economic growth brings to the fore one nation-state as a leader of the global economy who is in control of the powerful international institutions.

Moreover, the world organization is hierarchical — or unequal — and national economies are relegated to either the core, the periphery, or the semi-periphery of the world-system. Some world-systems analysts have traditionally focused more on the systemic features of the world-system, such as its core-periphery structure and the power struggles within (Wallerstein, 1974). Others have favored an analysis of the cyclical dynamics of change in the world-system, focusing on the similarities or differences between the various historical periods (Frank, 1998; Arrighi, 1994).

The world-systems theoretical approach holds great potential for understanding long-term and large-scale social change. Furthermore, it offers us insights for possible social change and for acting "in a collectively rational way to avoid predictable disasters, such as global war and environmental collapse" (Chase-Dunn & Grimes, 1995, p. 414).

Division of Labor: Core, Periphery, Semiperiphery

The world-systems approach examines the world-system of states in search of "generalizations about interdependence among a system's components and of principles of variation among systemic conditions across space and time" (Arrighi, 2000). That means finding regularities in the types of connections and relationships between the different parts of the world-system, and uncovering the social mechanisms underlying these processes in different time periods or parts of the globe.

Capitalism is considered to be the central mechanism regulating the global network of economic relationships in the modern world-system. Driven by its internal logic to maximize profit and minimize production costs, capitalism as a mode of economic production first spun the globe in the 16th century (Arrighi, 1994). In the centuries that followed, capitalism solidified a global hierarchical organization of national economies. What determined the nation-states' positions within the global hierarchy as well as relationships between them, was the international division of labor.

The world-systems analysis divides national economies into three broad groups:

  • The core
  • The periphery
  • The semiperiphery

The core of the modern world-system is comprised of the wealthy industrialized economies which collectively absorb the lion's share of the world's exports and raw materials. The core economies also benefit the most from the international division of labor. The G-7 countries (Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France, and Italy) belong to the core of the modern world-system and are the more technologically advanced economies, also dominating the world's banking and financial sector.

In contrast, the periphery consists of poor economies that are dependent on exporting a few commodities, such as coffee or rice, or mineral resources such as zinc or copper, to the core countries. The historic origins of the peripheral economies' dependence on the core can be traced to colonialism. Most African and Latin American countries belong to the periphery of the modern world system.

Finally, a number of countries are positioned in the semiperiphery and are dominated by the core, while themselves taking advantage of the periphery. India, Brazil, and China are examples of semiperipheral economies, with a moderately developed industrial and financial base. Semiperipheral economies are also somewhat diversified and are moderately wealthy.

One of the main economic mechanisms via which the core is able to dominate and exploit the periphery is through 'price inequality.' Through military and political suppression of wages in the periphery, the surplus (or additional value) of the global market is channeled to the core. To put it simply, peripheral labor is cheaper than that of the core, and "an hour of labor in the periphery costs capital only a fraction of its cost in the core, so that a commodity produced there is much cheaper than the same commodity produced in the core" (Chase-Dunn & Grimes, 1995, p. 396).

Mobility within the World-System

Although there are individual cases of core/periphery upward and downward mobility over time, for the most part core and peripheral countries retain their relative positions (Chase-Dunn & Grimes, 1995). It is important to note that moving upward in the hierarchy is not necessarily the same as rising to a leading position with in the hierarchical world-system. Japan is often cited as an illustrious example of upward mobility into the core during the post World War II period (Arrighi, 1994). Japan's 'catching up' would have been impossible without the fast rates of industrial expansion and its' rising competitiveness in the world of global high finance. But what truly propelled Japan upward in the world hierarchy was the political, economic, and military protectionism by the US government. In the context of the Cold War, the US was actively engaged in "buttressing Japanese regional economic power as a means of US world political power" (Arrighi, 1994, p. 339). Through military and economic control, the US government and its Western allies ensured that the Japanese economy would develop into a successful capitalist competitor to the neighboring Chinese socialism. The case of Japan's upward mobility within the hierarchy of the world system is what Wallerstein has called "development by invitation" (as cited in Arrighi, 1994, p. 341), whereby Japan was invited to join the exclusive core.

Another example of mobility within the system is the rapid slide of the former Soviet Union is economy from a central position in the semiperiphery to a peripheral role. As the state-run economy disintegrated in the late 1980s-early 1990s, formerly industrialized Russia deteriorated to the level of the periphery in the global economy and currently relies on revenue from exports of natural resources, such as oil. The accompanying crumbling of most infrastructures, like subsidized health care and education, intensified the growing inequality within Russia.

The important feature of the world-systems analysis however, is that while the balance of power between the interconnected states may shift over time, the overall structure of the system remains. The whole system develops and changes, but the underlying hierarchical organization of states into tiers persists through these historical changes.

Hegemonic Powers

Another aspect of the world-systems...

(The entire section is 4026 words.)