Immanuel Wallerstein Research Paper

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Immanuel Wallerstein has been one of the most influential and prolific American sociologists in the post-World War II (1939-1945) period. He obtained his B.A. (1951), M.A. (1954), and PhD (1959) from Columbia University in New York City. In his early years as an assistant professor of sociology there, Wallerstein was primarily a political sociologist. His expertise in Africa’s independence movements led to his meeting social theorist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) while doing fieldwork in the region. The political and revolutionary activity sweeping the African continent in the late 1950s and early 1960s caused Wallerstein to question the traditional focus on the nation-state as a meaningful unit of analysis, particularly in those areas of the world where such entities were an obvious byproduct of prolonged colonialism and imperialism. In the late 1960s, Wallerstein politically sided with students in their anti-Vietnam War (1957-1975) protests against university administrators, a confrontation that resulted in his book University in Turmoil (1969) and his decision to leave Columbia to join the Department of Sociology at McGill University in Montreal. It was during his tenure there, and inspired by French economic historian Fernand Braudel’s (1902-1985) long-term vision of historical processes, that he published the first volume of The Modern World-System (1974), which has been translated into thirteen languages. In combination with Volume 2 (1980) and Volume 3 (1989), the trilogy has had a significant impact in the fields of sociology, political economy, history, geography, and more recently, anthropology and comparative literature.

Wallerstein’s main thesis in these and other studies is that capitalism is a specific socioeconomic system, characterized by an axial division of labor resulting from intense yet unequal bulk trade linkages between different zones, which he labeled the core, periphery, and semiperiphery. This capitalist world-system emerged in sixteenth-century Europe and subsequently expanded to incorporate more areas (e.g., various minisystems and world empires not characterized by the same primacy of ceaseless capital accumulation). In the context of the colonialism and imperialism that unfolded from 1492 until the early twentieth century, the entire world became interlinked through these trade patterns constitutive of unequal exchange. The latter was also a major concern of the Latin American dependency school, which in the 1960s argued that the unequal power relationships reproduced through world trade mechanisms in the context of imperialism were the result of the relationship between metropolis and periphery. By stressing the importance of economic cycles and the commodity chains of leading sectors, however, Wallerstein espoused the idea that the upward and downward social mobility of specific polities was possible (as demonstrated, for example, by Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan).

Wallerstein also argued against the modernization or developmentalist school, dominant in the 1960s, which assumed that every country could achieve upward social mobility as long as it implemented the correct policies. For Wallerstein, the growth of world trade does not alter the fact that it is essentially a polarizing zero-sum game, reproducing and expanding poverty and inequality on a world scale. The crucial Wallersteinian concept of semiperiphery was introduced to clarify this idea theoretically: the three zones in which different political entities (nation-states, principalities, etc.) are located contain divergent practices (in terms of life expectancy, standard of living, labor control, production of items for sale on the world market, and political regimes) precisely because of their hierarchical location within the capitalist world-economy.

Unlike the orthodox Marxists’ focus on the nation-state, Wallerstein and other world-system analysts (e.g., Samir Amin) conceptually regard free labor and slavery as coexisting within the same mode of production. Using the world-economy as the sole unit of analysis, Wallerstein insists that labor control and production for trade are historically, relationally, and therefore mutually constitutive: only because wage remuneration in the periphery, which mostly exports raw materials for the world market, is so low, is wage remuneration so relatively high in the core, where value-added products are exported.

After joining the Sociology Department at the State University of New York at Binghamton, Wallerstein created the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations in 1976 and its scholarly journal, Review. There he systematically wrote on cycles and trends of the world-economy, commodity chains, hegemony, antisystemic movements, households, racism and sexism, and the geoculture from a world-system perspective. One key historical event was the 1848 world revolution, in which spontaneous antisystemic (especially socialist and nationalist) movements organized themselves politically in order to obtain state power. Their eventual success in turn led to the 1968 world revolution, engineered by different antisystemic movements from the New Left. Wallerstein claims that 1968 put an end to faith in universal progress and related classical liberal paradigms, which coincided with the beginning of American decline because of its loss of significant economic superiority to Western Europe and Japan and its political-military defeat in Vietnam.

Beginning in the 1980s, Wallerstein argued that the United States was from 1945 onward in de facto collusion with the Soviet Union, and he characterized the latter not as a communist experiment but as a typical powerful semiperipheral state that embraced protectionism (as opposed to the typical state located in the core in favor of free trade). Similarly, World War I (1914-1918) and World War II are interpreted as one major war to determine which state would succeed England as hegemon, the primus inter pares in the core zone that temporarily benefits from unprecedented financial, political, and ideological capital. From the late 1980s onward, Wallerstein predicted ever more crisis in the world-system due to a gradually falling rate of profit linked to increasing pressures from antisystemic movements, environmental constraints, democratization, and wage increases concurrent with urbanization. In this period he agreed with most of the studies written by his colleague, Andre Gunder Frank. But in the early 1990s, Frank, who was attempting to trace world-system economic cycles to as far back as 5000 BCE, began to criticize his former collaborator as being Eurocentrist. He also argued, contra Wallerstein, that the modern world-system was not so much in terminal crisis as experiencing yet another transition towards East Asian hegemony.

Starting in the 1990s, Wallerstein’s writings focused more on the changing geoculture of the modern world-system. Since his term as president of the International Sociological Association (1994-1998), his scholarly contributions have been particularly geared towards unthinking nineteenth-century paradigms and critically reflecting upon the structures of knowledge production in the academic realm of the world-system. These efforts are best illustrated by his chairing of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences (1993-1995) and his publishing of The End of the World as We Know It (1999) and The Uncertainties of Knowledge (2004). Not unlike the later years of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), Wallerstein’s increased scholarly recognition—reflected in his move to Yale University in 2000— coincided with an increasing engagement in the political field. Evidence of this can be found in his public interventions at the World Social Forum with regard to potential strategies that progressive movements may consider (see Utopistics [1998]) and in his desire to engage with a broader audience through public lectures and various biweekly commentaries (posted on the Internet as of October 1998). One of his lasting contributions has been the creation of the Political Economy of the World System Section of the American Sociological Association, which has continually increased its membership over the years and for which he is often the keynote speaker.


  1. Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1969. University in Turmoil: The Politics of Change. New York: Atheneum.
  2. Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. Vol. 1 of The Modern World-System. New York: Academic Press.
  3. Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1980. Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750. Vol. 2 of The Modern World-System. New York: Academic Press.
  4. Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1989. The Second Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730–1840s. Vol. 3 of The Modern World-System. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  5. Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1998. Utopistics, or Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century. New York: New Press.
  6. Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1998–2006. Commentaries. Fernand Braudel Center.
  7. Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1999. The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-first Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  8. Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2004. The Uncertainties of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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