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September 16th, 2019

↳ Interdisciplinary

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Immanuel Wallerstein's contributions to research in the social sciences

Two weeks ago today marked the passing of the great Immanual Wallerstein. His work has had resounding influence across fields: from literature, to legal theory, education, development studies, and international relations. Among his foremost contributions is the four volume Modern World System series, which recount the transformation of feudalism into global capitalism through progressive incorporation of new regions into the European capitalist core. Complementing this history was world-systems theory, an analytical approach which challenged the tendency of social science research to identify simplified and direct causal relationships.

Wallerstein argued that purely economic, historical, or political analyses of society exclude more factors than they incorporate, casting doubt on both their internal and external validity. From the introduction to World Systems Analysis:

The phenomena dealt with in these separate boxes are so closely intermeshed that each presumes the other, each affects the other, each is incomprehensible without taking into account the other boxes. The separate boxes of analysis are an obstacle, not an aid, to understanding the world. Structurally, the social reality within which we live has not been the multiple national states of which we are citizens but something larger, which we call a world-system. This world-system has had many institutions—states and the interstate system, productive firms, households, classes, identity groups of all sorts—which form a matrix which permits the system to operate but at the same time stimulates both the conflicts and the contradictions which permeate it.

The world-system is a social creation, with a history, whose origins need to be explained, whose ongoing mechanisms need to be delineated, and whose inevitable terminal crisis needs to be discerned. For this reason, it is important to look anew not only at how the world in which we live works but also at how we have come to think about this world.

Link to the book's first pages.

  • "My intellectual development led me to historicize social movements, not only to better understand how they came to do the things they did, but also in order to better formulate the political options that were truly available in the present." On his website, Wallerstein reflects on the questions and contradictions that informed his life's work. Link.
  • "The Modern World-System is a theoretically ambitious work that deserves to be critically analyzed as such." Theda Skocpol's sympathetic scrutiny of the weaknesses in Wallerstein's major work, from the 1977 Review of American Sociology. Link.
  • Wallerstein's account of feudal breakdown, which stressed external factors like increased trade, countered that of historians like Robert Brenner, who focused instead on internal factors like peasant revolts. Robert A. Denemark and Kenneth P. Thomas give an overview of the debate. Link.
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