World system theory

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The center-periphery model: countries in the center of world trade (blue), countries in the periphery (red) and countries in the semi-periphery (purple) according to Christopher Chase-Dunn, Yukio Kawano and Benjamin Brewer, Trade Globalization since 1795

The world system theory is a development theory that studies the relationships between societies and the changes resulting from them. It stands in conscious contrast to earlier sociological theories, which offer models of social change that are limited to the level of individual societies. It was originally developed by André Gunder Frank , Immanuel Wallerstein , Samir Amin and his colleagues in response to new developments in the world capitalist economy during the 1970s and is based on two intellectual sources, namely the neo-Marxist literature on development and the French Annales school . Other important representatives are Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver .

Wallerstein, who prefers the term analysis to the general classification of theory , describes the world system theory in his work World-System Analysis (1987) as “a protest against the way in which social science research was beginning for all of us in the mid-19th century is structured ". With the attempt (1974, 1980) to reconstruct the laws of global capitalist development and underdevelopment with the help of the history of the modern age from a sociological perspective, Wallerstein solved the debate on the structures of the world economy and its social structures in Germany at the end of the 1970s Movements off. In general, the world system theory has received a great deal of attention.

Wallerstein also criticized the prevailing concept of the dependency theory , noting that the world is far too complicated to be classified in a bimodal system that only includes centers and peripheries . Against this background, one of the most important components of the world system theory arose: the belief in the semi-periphery, which provides a three-part model. Parallel to Wallerstein, André Gunder Frank and Samir Amin also work on the topic of capitalist accumulation on a world scale and contributed to suggestions for the theory of dependence.


In his four volumes "The Modern World System", Immanuel Wallerstein traces how the capitalist world economy emerged throughout history. If one wants to examine social phenomena, it is first of all important to embed them in the historical context: "one cannot analyze social phenomena unless one bounds them in space and time." (Wallerstein 1974: 245)

After the Habsburgs failed to establish a world empire in the 16th century , according to Wallerstein, the center of the European world economy emerged, including the Netherlands and England in particular . At this time the nobility turned away from subsistence farming towards profit-oriented use of the farmed lands. In this initial stage there were still countries that moved outside the capitalist world economy, such as Russia .

With the rise of imperialism , industrial capitalism first emerged in England in the last third of the 18th century and then spreads worldwide. With its global triumph, according to Wallerstein, there were no other world systems apart from the capitalist world economy until the 19th century . A crisis inevitably arises in the central societies: Although the societies achieved prosperity and the associated prosperity with advancing industrialization , the workers are more and more degraded to pure productive power and exploited, which is why crisis situations arise.

At the beginning of the 20th century , according to Wallerstein, the world was divided into two hostile camps, one Soviet-socialist and one western-capitalist. In the capitalist central or core countries, the social democracy had established welfare states, with which the indicated crisis of the workforce was to be put to a halt. The United States of America replaced the United Kingdom as a hegemonic power . The USA could undoubtedly have held this position until the late 1960s . After that, due to the economic strengthening of Western Europe and the sharp rise in military spending in America, the first signs of wear and tear can be seen.

World system

Wallerstein assumes that the social system arose as early as the late Middle Ages , which developed into a capitalist world economy from the 16th century. Until then, typical modes of production in Europe were transformed into the “modern world system” of the capitalist world economy. Since then, the capitalist world economy has spread all over the world. According to Wallerstein's understanding, cyclical upswing and shrinking phases are characteristic of the capitalist world economy.

World hierarchy

Wallerstein differentiates between three layers of the world system, each of these layers having specific economic structures. This distinction shows a hierarchical order of world society. This classification into one of the three strata is by no means rigid; in principle, every country is able to move up or down.

Core / center

The territories of the world economy, which can be classified as a core ("core") or as a center, are characterized by high productivity, thus prosperity occurs here. This prosperity leads to a number of relatively strong states , since it guarantees that states can act without conflict at the international level. In the centers there are also "cyclical rhythms" which are characterized by phases of growth and recession and which, for Wallerstein, represent an indication of the centers' capitalist orientation.


According to Wallerstein, the states that can be assigned to the semi-periphery are largely to be classified as authoritarian, which can be seen as an indicator of the weakness of their political framework. They are exploited by the centers through unequal relations of production . The production conditions in the semi-peripheries (e.g. high proportion of manufacturing industry and wage slaves ) are designed in such a way because they are no longer profitable or impossible in the centers and are therefore being outsourced. The authoritarian state structures arise because the centers can thus keep social standards such as working conditions and wages as low as possible for their own benefit. Ultimately, the semi-peripheral zone should prevent the polarization between the center and the periphery from endangering the entire system. The semi-periphery thus has the function of political stabilization.


The periphery is characterized by the provision of resources and the production of primary goods for the semi-peripheries and centers, whereby this production takes place at a relatively low level: "The periphery of a world-economy is that geographical sector of it wherein production is primarily of lower ranking goods ”(Wallerstein 1974: 302). In contrast to the central states, these states are weak because their lack of prosperity reveals internal conflicts that destabilize the state from within. According to Wallerstein, these internal conflicts also result from the fact that the governments and elites of these states act exclusively in the interests of the elites of the centers and not in the interests of their own people.

Relationship between layers

There is a close connection between the three different layers, which is expressed in an existing division of labor. The center, which is able to produce high-quality goods, is dependent on the raw materials and labor of the periphery. The center succeeds in creating added value from the unequal exchange with the periphery, which manifests itself through wealth and luxury. As indicated, the semi-periphery as an intermediate layer enables the system to continue to exist in a manner that is as conflict-free as possible by assuming a kind of buffer function and helping the entire system in a stabilizing manner.

There are also other ways of assigning a specific country to the center, semi-periphery, or periphery. Using an empirically based, strictly formal definition of dominance in a relationship between two countries, Piana 2004 defined the center as consisting of "free countries" that dominate others without being dominated, while the dominated countries are in the periphery and in the semi- Periphery, the countries are to be settled that are dominated (usually - but not necessarily - by center countries) and at the same time dominate other countries (mostly those of the periphery).

Central institutions

For Wallerstein, today's world system is a world economic system organized in the form of a market. Other systems are mini-systems based on reciprocal exchange relationships, or empires that keep themselves alive by redistributing resources. According to Wallerstein, the reason for the development and functionality of this world economic system are some central institutions. These are the market, companies, households, states, classes and status groups.


Wallerstein's view of the history of the modern age from a sociological perspective took over Janet Abu Lughod and expanded the theory up to the age of Mongolian rule in the 13th century . Archaeologically, the world system was even extended to the late Copper Age and early Bronze Age , in which Uruk ruled an area from Egypt to the Indus .


Critics of the world system theory accuse Wallerstein above all of economic determinism . In his theory he traces all events and developments in international relations back to purely economic interests. As a result, it would in fact give social actors, states and international organizations no room for maneuver. Only in the crisis of the capitalist world system could these actors play a role for Wallerstein.

In addition, historians criticize the causes and origin of Wallerstein's theory of capitalism. One argument is that the exploitation of the global south by colonization did not necessarily lead to the establishment of capitalism in Europe at the beginning of the 16th century, as Wallerstein claims, since capitalism did not emerge in the societies of the colonial powers of Spain and Portugal at the time , but in England , so it was not "exported". However, it ignores the fact that the countries of origin of capitalism, namely the Netherlands and England, were also colonial powers.


Primary literature

  • Wallerstein, Immanuel: The Modern World-System I . New York et al. a. 1974.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel: The Capitalist World Economy . Cambridge 1979.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel: The Modern World-System II . New York et al. a. 1980.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel: The Modern World System III . New York et al. a. 1989.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel: The Modern World-System IV . University of California Press 2011.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel: The Essential Wallerstein . New York 2000.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel: World Systems Analysis: An Introduction . Durham 2004.

Secondary literature

  • Hans-Heinrich Nolte : The one world. Outline of the History of the International System . 2nd edition, Fackelträger-Verlag, Hanover 1993.
  • Andreas Nölke: World System Theory . In: M. Spindler and S. Schieder (eds.): Theories of International Relations . Opladen, 2nd edition 2006, pp. 325–351.
  • Walter R. Godfrank: Paragidm Regained? The Rules of Wallerstein's World-System Method . In: Journal of World Systems Research . 6: 2, pp. 150-195.
  • Encyclopedia of social theory, Vol. II . Sage Publications, pp. 875-891.
  • Peter Imbusch : The modern world system . Verl. Work and Society, Marburg 1990.
  • Jochen Blaschke (Ed.): Perspectives of the World System - Materials on Immanuel Wallerstein “The Modern World System” . Campus Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, New York, 1983.
  • Frank, Andre G: ReOrient . Global Economy in the Asian Age. ProMedia, Vienna 2016, ISBN 978-3-85371-404-1 , p. 496 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Wallerstein rejects the term world system theory for his work and uses the term world system analysis throughout, cf. Lutz Zündorf: On the topicality of Immanuel Wallerstein. Introduction to his work , Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag, 2010, p. 9. as well as Immanuel Wallerstein: Directions for the analysis of world systems, or: How do you avoid becoming a theory? In: Zeitschrift für Weltgeschichte , Vol. 2 (2001), Issue 2, pp. 9–31.
  2. Andreas Nölke: World system theory. In: M. Spindler and S. Schieder (eds.): Theories of International Relations. Opladen, 2nd edition 2006, pp. 325–351.