Immanuel Wallerstein

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Immanuel Wallerstein (born 1930) is a U.S. sociologist.

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Immanuel Wallerstein

Training and academic career

Born in New York, Wallerstein attended Columbia University in New York, where he received a B.A. in 1951, an M.A. in 1954 and a Ph.D. degree in 1959, and subsequently worked as a lecturer until 1971, when he became professor of sociology at McGill University. As of 1976, he served as professor of sociology at Binghamton University (SUNY) until his retirement in 1999, and as head of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilization. Wallerstein held several positions as visiting professor at universities worldwide, was awarded multiple honorary titles, intermittently served as Directeur d'tudes associ at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and was president of the International Sociological Association between 1994 and 1998.


Wallerstein started as an expert of post-colonial African affairs, 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 grey eminence with the anti-globalization movement within and without the scientific 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;
  • French historian Fernand Braudel, who had described the development and political implications of extensive networks of economic exchange within the large empires of antiquity;
  • and--presumably--the practical experience and impressions gained from his own work regarding post-colonial Africa and the various theories addressing "developing nations".

One aspect of his work that Wallerstein certainly deserves credit for, was anticipating the growing importance of the North-South-Conflict already on the height of the Cold War.

Wallerstein rejected the notion of a "Third World", claiming there was 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 labour, and the accumulation of capital by competing agents (historically including, but not limited to nation-states) account for frictions.

Wallerstein locates the origin of the modern world-system in 16th century north-western Europe. An initially only slight advance in capital accumulation in Britain 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. A major development occurred during the era of imperialism, which brought virtually every area on earth into contact with European-style capitalist economy.

The capitalist world-system is, however, far from homogeneous in cultural, political, and economical terms--instead characterised 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 labour 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 labour for the expanding agents of the core. Economic exchange between core and periphery takes places 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. As Naomi Klein has recently demonstrated with the example of "sweat shops" in developed countries, peripheral, semi-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 labour. Natural resources, land, labour and human relationships are gradually being stripped of their "intrinsic" value and turned into commodities in a market which dictates their exchange value.

Wallerstein's theory has also provoked harsh criticism, not only from neo-liberal or conservative circles. Historians have revealed some of his assertions to be historically incorrect, and there is no doubt that Wallerstein tends to neglect the cultural dimension, reducing it very much to "official" ideologies of states, which can then easily be revealed as mere agencies of economic interest. Nevertheless, his theory now attracts strong interest from the anti-globalization movement which so far lacks a solid and unified theoretical underpinning which had characterised the classic labour movement of the 19th and 20th centuries.


The following paragraphs demonstrate that Wallerstein is far from being a radical theorist of revolution, but well aware of the complex and ambiguous character of the world-system.

"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."

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


  • 1961: Africa, The Politics of Independence. New York: Vintage.
  • 1964: The Road to Independence: Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Paris & La Haye: 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 Etienne 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.

External links

he:עמנואל ולרשטיין ja:イマニュエル・ウォーラステイン tr:Immanuel Wallerstein fr:Immanuel Wallerstein es:Immanuel Wallerstein


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