Immanuel Wallerstein World Systems Theory Explained

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Immanuel Wallerstein developed one of the most known world-system approached in 1974, but offers several definitions for it. His goal was to replace the flawed systems offered in the 19th century, built from separate logics, when his observations showed that world systems theories should be overlapping.

To summarize the Immanuel Wallerstein world systems theory: a system is a single unit, with a single division of labor, but with several cultural systems.

This makes the world a set of mechanisms. Each set then redistributes their surplus values from the edge of the system to its core. According to Wallerstein, the edge of the system would be the under-developed societies of the world, while the developed societies would make up the core.

The 4 Temporal Features of Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory

Wallerstein notes that there are 4 temporal features that are found within the world system.

1. Cyclical Rhythms. These represent the fluctuations which occur on a short-term basis within the economy.

2. Secular Trends. These are the long-term economic factors that affect the world system. It is what represents the general economic growth or decline which occurs over months, years, or even decades.

3. Contradiction. This occurs whenever there is a discrepancy within the mechanisms of the world system. If the core were to under-consume what the periphery of the system is providing to it, then this would could drive down product costs, employee wages, and create long-term effects in other categories that are dependent upon normal consumption.

4. Crisis. This feature happens if there is a set of circumstances, in any format, that brings the system to an end or a conclusion.

Although other world systems theories suggest that the entire planet is the foundation for the general welfare of all populations, Wallerstein suggests that people can create their own “worlds” within the scope of a planetary system. Smaller systems may not have the same level of cultural diversity as larger systems, but the process of bringing surplus values from the periphery to the core still apply.

Questions to Ask with a World Systems Theory

To gather the necessary information to understand how the systems work within every specific world, Wallerstein suggests that those studying the systems asks 5 specific questions.

1. How does the world system become affected by any change within its components, such as socioeconomic classes, cultures, ethnicity, or bordered nations?
2. How does this affect the components of the system?
3. Does the core need the periphery to remain undeveloped in certain areas for some reason?
4. Is there something present within the systems which could cause it to change?
5. What systems are present that could potentially replace capitalism, Communism, or whatever governmental structure is in place?

Not every system would have all these questions specifically apply to it. Others may need to have the questions slightly altered to gather the information that is needed to study it. For example: if a system is culturally diverse, the question would need to examine what would occur if that diversity were to be eliminated.

Why Does a World System Ask About Capitalism?

Within the world systems theory, capitalism is treated as a historical system. It integrates labor, in its many forms, as part of a functioning division. Instead of treating each nation as its own economy, it part of a global presence instead. Labor is divided into the various zones that are present within each world, which is then distributed to the various zones as needed.

By asking if a system can replace capitalism, the world systems theory seeks to find information that can improve the division of labor. Replacing capitalism with Communism, for example, might help a world system delegate labor to what society needs the most at that given moment. That delegation, however, would be at the cost of labor expertise.

The change would change high labor for low labor and that could have a negative long-term effect on the world system, even if short-term gains are found.

It is important to remember that the world systems theory isn’t advocating for a specific form of government within a system. It is simply looking to maximize the logistics of the system itself. The periphery supports the core within the system and those that exist between the two, the semi-periphery, may contribute to both areas.

The Immanuel Wallerstein world systems theory added definition to past theories so that it societies could be looked at in local, regional, national, and global scales. Instead of focusing only on the logistics, but adding diversity into the mix, Wallerstein adds a human factor to his observations.