Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

February 8, 2006

World-System Analysis


No class – Friday, February 10.  First paper due on Monday, February 13.


Reading:  CST, pp. 120-129.


Readings for next week:  CST, chapter 8 – Symbolic Interactionism.

            Two excerpts from Erving Goffman.


1.  Historical sociology


Some sociologists adopt an historical analysis as part of their sociological perspective and integrate it into their approach.  It is difficult to imagine studying the sociology of Marx or Weber without examining their historical analysis – the latter are essential aspects of their respective social theories.  Others such as symbolic interactionists, ethnomethodologists, or rational choice theorists are much less concerned with historical analysis, primarily focussing on social action and interaction, without reference to a particular stage or time in history. 


In the contemporary world there is much talk about globalization, from those who promote increased globalization through expansion of markets to those who are critical of, and oppose, attempts to expand global markets.    In the Department of Sociology and Social Studies, Sociology 201 and 203 present historically oriented analyses of the development of capitalism and industrialism, and some of these perspectives are also presented in upper level classes.   In these notes, there is a discussion of a particular approach to historical and global analysis – that of world-system, primarily associated with the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein.


a.  Progress?  Historical analysis can develop a critical approach to the study of the past, present, and future.  It can illuminate the varieties of cultural and social diversity that have existed, and show how changes in these have occurred.  Many historical approaches in sociology have assumed that history is associated with human progress and reaching higher stages of development of society – Marxian theories and liberal theories of modernization generally adopt this approach.  But historical sociology need not make this assumption and can consider human experience to have many forms of diversity, society to have made great progress in some areas and little in others, and to consider the possibility of regression rather than progression.


In my view, it would be best to adopt an historical approach that does not consider human history to have a particular direction or to necessarily evolve to more progressive forms of social organization.  Further, there may be no inevitability or purpose to historical change – change certainly occurs but is a product of myriad influences, some intended and others unintended, with coincidence and chance along with intersection of various unforeseen social circumstances and forces.  There are certainly social forces leading in specific directions (markets, exchange) and powerful individuals and groups attempting to further their influence and power, but people in the social world can also resist or change these social forces.  For example, some  contemporary analysis assumes that globalization, standardization, and the decline of the nation-state are dominant forces that have a certain inevitability.  While there is no doubt that these forces are strong, there are other important and opposing forces, including traditional cultures, resistance to change, local grounding, and communication (Habermas’s communicative action) that must be considered as well.  That is, in adopting historical analysis, we must be careful not to be ethnocentric or assume that the direction society has taken is historically inevitabile.  Rather, we should use historical analysis in a critical and creative way, using it to consider options and alternatives, to contribute to communication and understanding of the social world. 


b. Earlier historical sociological perspectives


Writers in the nineteenth century often adopted a view that human history passed through various identifiable stages.  The sociology of Comte (theological, metaphysical, scientific eras following each other) and the analysis of Enlightenment writers assumed that human history had gone through various stages of development, with each of the stages at a higher level than earlier stages.  The Enlightenment writers argued that the stage of societal development that had been reached at the time they were writing was an advance over earlier stages, in that humans had developed a better understanding of the world and could now improve the social world.  The view that the stages of history represented progress is reflected in concepts such as primitive and backward to refer to traditional forms, and civilization and modern to refer to the European societies of the nineteenth century.   


Marx and Engels, and later writers in the Marxian perspective, generally adopted a similar view and developed an historical analysis as a major part of their analysis.  For Marx, the modes of production (slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism) were associated with historical periods, with each representing a stage of historical evolution but also containing forces for change and further development.  For example, markets and cities emerged in feudal society, but the power of these emergent social forces led to change in the feudal mode of production, eventually replacing it with a capitalist mode of production.  The forces of the bourgeoisie and capitalism broke the power of feudal forms of social and economic organization, creating a new society in the nineteenth century.  For Marx, each mode of production is historical in nature, having emerged at a particular time, but also having an historical dynamic built into it.  Marxian analysis is thus both historical and theoretical.


The sociology of Weber is also historical, although in a somewhat different manner than that of Marx.  Weber studied history extensively, examining ancient society, Asian society, Judaism, and other religions that were important in earlier times.  He used this historical analysis to develop an understanding of various forms of authority, power, legitimacy, social organization, rationality, and other sociologically relevant issues.  He used history in a more comparative manner, to develop an idea of how social organization works and how these comparative experiences can be used to develop ideal types as a form of social analysis.  At the same time, his writings display a certain notion of historical inevitability, with the forces of rationalization in western societies as exercising a dominant influence. 


Other European sociologists such as Simmel and Durkheim each had an historical analysis as well.  While they may not have written as extensively on history as did Weber or Marx, their sociological analysis concerned the social forms that had emerged with modernism, and how these differed from earlier forms of social organization.  Durkheim’s central ideas of mechanical and organic solidarity and division of labour are historical, as is his analysis of different forms of religion.  For Simmel, the forces of urbanism, money, and exchange distinguish modern urban society from earlier, more traditional forms. 


Early sociology in the United States did not devote much attention to historical analysis. 

The social theories of Mead, Parsons, Merton, Blumer, Goffman, and Garfinkel have little or no historical analysis built into them.  This may be a reflection of the differing nature of the United States, with the primary concern being to build a new society, detached from Europe in what immigrants perceived to be a new land with new opportunities and new forms of social organization.   Thus the concerns in the United States were more pragmatic and forward looking.


In Canadian sociology, to the extent that a distinctive approach exists, historical analysis is more prevalent, perhaps because of our longer colonial connection and because of the division of Canada into French, English, and aboriginal cultures and traditions.  Each of these groups has had a different historical experience, these experiences cannot be ignored, and they have influenced Canadian society in various ways.  The historical analysis of Harold Innis has had an important influence on much Canadian sociology – emphasizing the influence of the fisheries, fur, forestry, mining, and grain.  Each of these staple trades and industries, along with our connections with Britain and the United States, has had an important influence on the structure and direction of Canadian society.


2. World-system analysis


One of the primary historical sociological perspectives is that of world-system analysis, a neo-Marxian approach built around historical examination of capitalism and other modes of production, analyzing these on a global scale.  Wallerstein developed this approach by studying the economic world, specifically capitalism as it emerged and developed in Europe beginning in the 1500s.  World-system analysts generally argues that this new economic and social system broke the power of earlier political and economic empires and systems, and developed toward a dominant world system – what we might term globalization today.  While originating in Europe, the world system that emerged over the last five hundred years extends it reach throughout the globe.  This is in contrast to earlier modes of production, which were more limited in geographic and social scope.  In terms of theoretical approach, world-system analysis differs from some Marxian approaches in that it does not focus primarily on production and social class and focuses on the world as a whole as the unit of analysis. 


Immanuel Wallerstein.  World-system analysis was developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-  ) who has been a professor at Columbia University, McGill University in Montreal, Yale University, and the State University of New York at Binghamton – at the latter he is Director of the Fernand Braudel Center.  Wallerstein is best known for his The Modern World-System, published in 1974.  In this work he analyses the origins of the modern system, beginning around 1500, where there began to be a shift from dominance of political and military regimes to dominance emerging from economic influence and power.  In later volumes, Wallerstein traces the development of this new system, showing how it creating core, peripheral, and semi-peripheral regions in the world economy.  While political structures are connected to economic ones, Wallerstein argues that a variety of political structures are compatible with the capitalist world system. 


Unit of analysis.   World-system theory uses the whole world as it basic unit of analysis instead of society, national economy, or nation state as the unit of analysis.  Marxian theory generally works within the framework of national economic and social structures, with a capitalist and working class being rooted in the organization of production and distribution in a nation state.  World-system theory argues that the division of labour, exploitation, and inequality should be analyzed on a world, rather than a national level.  That is, capitalism is not just organized on a national level, but develops and uses resources, labour, production, and markets on a world scale. 


Expansion and change.  Unlike earlier empires where expansion was limited by the ability to politically govern a wide area, there appears to be little internal limit to the expansion of the capitalist world system.  It has expanded over the last five hundred years and shows no signs of ending its influence over the world economy.  Wallerstein argues that this is one difference of the current world system from earlier ones – there was a decisive break around 1500, whereby capitalism, technology, and science became combined to create an expansive and global system.  Wallerstein argued there was an “emergence of capitalist agriculture and a European-dominated world economy” (CST, p. 121). 


Among the characteristics of the expansion were:

  • Geographic expansion.  European explorers went around the world, coming into contact with peoples and lands that were not part of Europe. 
  • Trade/exploitation.  Geographic expansion was associated with furthering the interests of particular capitalists and entrepreneurs, seeking raw materials, markets for commodities, and sources of labour (slave trade).  Merchants and traders produced profits through trade or through theft and extortion, or by a combination of these two.  The development of Europe was assisted through this.
  • Settlement.  Europeans settled in areas around the world, bringing these regions into the world economy. 
  • Economic orientation and capitalist (p. 123).  Rather than empires being built on a political model, the world-system is organized on the basis of capitalist markets.  It is these markets, and their workings, which organize and dominate the world-system.  That is, the expansion is not just geographic, but commodification occurs so that markets and economic structures increasingly organize more aspects of life, as more goods and services become commodities. 
  • Continuous (p. 123).  Once the world-system took root, it has continually expanded geographically and in scope.  While there may be impediments to such expansion (ecological, destruction of raw materials, labour shortages), the tendency is for continuous expansion and change.
  • Differential effect.  The result of these changes has been to produce poverty for some and wealth for others, both between regions and within regions.  Such changes differ over time.  For example, the northern U.S.  became wealthy in the early to middle twentieth century through production of raw materials (forestr, mining, agriculture) and manufacturing (steel, automobiles).   As raw materials became depleted and manufacturing shifted to lower cost regions (U.S. South, Mexico, China), this area has become known as the rust belt. 


Division of labour.  Marx and Durkheim saw how capitalism and modern technologies created and expanded the division of labour in each country of Europe.  This resulted in specialization of occupational tasks in manufacturing and the organization of production and distribution (Wright’s class locations are a result of this).  


For world-system analysts, the division of labour is organized on a world-wide basis, with exchange of products among regions and countries.  Some regions are devoted to raw materials production with other regions more heavily reliant on manufacturing.  Exchange of raw materials and products among regions and countries, on a global basis, leads to different regions expanding or declining and becoming rich or poor.


Examples of interdependence and division of labour were clear in the colonial and imperialist era where colonies were organized to produce raw materials for the colonial power and were dominated politically by the government of the colonizing country.  This was true of the United States before the American Revolution and of Canada until the twentieth century.  In the global system today, political control of one country or region by another may not be so apparent, but many commodity, labour, and capital markets exist on a global scale, so that production and trade in many countries is organized with a view to these markets.  As a result, the class structure of the country (number and types of workers, profits from capital) is affected by its position within these markets.  International agencies, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, may exercise economic and political power over some countries.


Regions/location within world-system.  World-system analysts argue that the result of these developments is to create three types of regions.  These are the core, periphery, and the semi-periphery.  Changes in these have occurred over time, with no region being assured of being able to maintain a privileged position.   In addition, countries that are predominantly core may have peripheral regions within them, just as peripheral countries may have regions that are part of the core of the world-system.

  • Core. The core areas of the world-system are the wealthy countries of Europe and North America, plus Japan, that dominate and exploit much of the rest of the world.  These countries tend to have relatively free labour markets with relatively well-paid skilled workers.  While the initial development of core nations may have occurred for economic reasons, powerful core economic groups used the strength and power of the state to further their interests (colonialism, trade agreements).  Adams and Sydie note how it is the core areas that organize production, finance, markets, and trade, with other regions fitting into the structure organized by the core.  Citizens of the countries that are core to the world-system generally benefit from this core position. 
  • Periphery.   Regions and nations in the periphery are poor and exploited by core regions and countries.  They often export raw materials at low prices to the core economies, paying high prices for manufactured products.  Conditions for workers in the periphery tend to be very poor, and workers in these countries are often coerced through slavery or threat of starvation.  The core countries benefit by maintaining the peripheral countries in a backward state (an application of Wright’s exploitation).  Much of Africa and large parts of Asia and Latin America are peripheral.  Areas such as Northern Saskatchewan and much of the rural part of the province can also be considered peripheral. 
  • Semi-periphery.   Semi-peripheral countries combine aspects of the core and periphery, being exploited and exploiting.  This might include much of the less wealthy countries in Europe (Eastern Europe, Portugal, Greece) or some of the better off South American countries such as Argentina.  China and India have emerged from being peripheral countries to now being considered at least semi-peripheral, and perhaps becoming part of the core (as has Japan).  The key to the division, however, is not so much the countries but the location any area occupies within the international division of labour.  Adams and Sydie note that these regions serve as a buffer between core and periphery (p. 122).  This keeps the system from disintegrating and maintains the hope of peripheral regions.  They also address how a country could move into this position, by seizing the chance, by invitation, or by self-reliance (p. 122)  


In terms of sociological analysis, there appear to be at least three implications of world systems analysis. 


  • Social structure has an international basis.  Any analysis of social structure must consider the international aspect of this.  That is, the particular place any group occupies in an international division of labour may be more important than the seeming place within the national economy and society.  The societies and nations that are part of the world-system are interdependent, so that national social structures cannot be adequately understood without reference to other nations and the position of each in the world-system.  Unlike Marx, for whom the organization of production is key to class structure, for world-system analysis distribution and organization of system as a whole influence social structures – in some cases, class may not even be the central characteristic. 


  • Difference.  In contrast to theories of modernization or globalization that argue that there may be a single, more uniform world in the future, a world-system analyst can argue that there will be continued differences among countries and regions.  This world system does not require similar culture, politics, or even modes of production in different regions.  Rather, the capitalist world system can a accommodate many different political forms (democracy, totalitarian, monarchies, military rule) and different forms of production (slavery, semi-feudal forms of large estates and impoverished peasants, market-oriented agriculture).  Kymlicka and greater diversity within regions while less diversity between.


  • Inequality.  The thrust of world-systems analysis is that continued inequalities and backwardness are furthered at the same time that wealth and progress occur in the core.  While the economic power of capitalism makes it effects felt on a world wide scale, this system creates wealth in some places and takes wealth away from others.  As a result, poverty and inequality are essential aspects of such a system.  This creates strains and can lead to redistribution of power and wealth on a world wide scale.   Further, regions cannot be assured of maintaining their position in the world-system – continual changes with some regions declining and others advancing as production and exchange lead to


World-system analysis provides a useful way of examining changes that have occurred and continue to occur across the globe.  For example, the migration of large numbers of people from poor to richer countries is a result of the developments on the world system – destroying traditional ways of life and livelihood in the sending countries and filling labour supply needs in receiving countries.   At the same time, this approach may be overly economistic in much the same manner as much Marxian analysis.   That is, world systems analysis does not pay much attention to culture and does not appear to consider it as an independent aspect.  Further, the assumption of dominance of European and North American capitalist forces may be somewhat ethnocentric.


Example of Canada.  The development of Canada can be understood and interpreted within a world-system approach.  European expansion led to the development of the Atlantic fisheries to supply food for Europe.  Later the development of the fur trade supplied furs for European consumption.  These were connected to the development of industry and consumer markets in Europe – with an emerging bourgeoisie and working class.  The development of trade and European expansion across North America destroyed much of the aboriginal economies that existed earlier.  Agricultural and industrial changes in Europe led to export of dispossessed and poor Europeans to settle in North America.  Forest, mining, and agricultural products were exported to Europe, thereby assisting in the growth of European and North American capitalism.  While some areas benefited, others became disadvantaged as a result of these developments.  In Canada today, there are core regions and peripheral regions, such as the northern parts of the Prairie provinces and the Territories. 


Social and class structures have a connection to this international division of labour and the forms of development of production and markets on a world scale.  The fate of workers in natural resources and manufacturing in Canada is often a result of decisions in board rooms of corporations.  These companies might be based in Canada, but the global market is their concern.  In the current era, as part of the core of the world-system, Canadian businesses have expanded and entered the international economy, at the same time as corporations based in other countries enter the Canadian economy.  Immigrants come to Canada from around the globe, sometimes as a result of dislocations in economies elsewhere and sometimes searching for better opportunities for themselves and their families. 


Future?  Dramatic changes in technology, communications, and economic organization are transforming the world-system in the current era.  Much manufacturing has left the core economies and moved to semi-peripheral or peripheral countries.  The core economies have retained their strength by dominating services, trade, and finance.  However, these conditions appear to be changing with the increasing economic power of Asian countries, especially China and India.  These have emerged from a peripheral status in the world-system to at least a semi-peripheral position, and perhaps parts of these countries are becoming core regions.   


In a recent commentary, Wallerstein argues that the “United States is a declining hegemonic power” which must rely on military power in an attempt to maintain its geopolitical position.  That is, the economic and political strength of the United States has declined, and these alone have not been sufficient to maintain its geopolitical strategy.  In contrast, China “is a rising economic power.  How powerful it might come to be is yet unsure.  But it is patiently expanding its role.”  Wallerstein concludes “The U.S. emphasis on the military card has the flavor of desperation. China's emphasis on building slowly its economic base seems by contrast an act of patience.”  (Quotes from Wallerstein, 2004a).



Wallerstein, Immanuel.  2004a.  China and the U.S.: Competing Geopolitical Strategies,” Commentary No. 151, Dec. 15, 2004.  Available at

Wallerstein, Immanual.  2004b.  World Systems Analysis: An Introduction.  Durham, N.C., Duke University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel.  1974.  The Modern World-System.  New York, Academic Press.


Last edited February 8, 2006