Article Globalization and the sociology of Immanuel Wallerstein: A critical appraisal International Sociology 1–23 © The Author(s) 2011 Reprints and permission: sagepub. co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0268580910393372 iss.sagepub.com William I Robinson University of California at Santa Barbara, USA Abstract By the turn of the 21st century the concept of globalization had earned its place in the social sciences and debate turned more squarely to the theoretical significance of globalization. Yet not all scholars were happy with the notion of globalization. Some claim that is merely a new name for earlier theories and concepts. Among those who reject new paradigmatic thinking on the current age is Immanuel Wallerstein, the world-renowned sociologist and ‘father’ of the worldsystem paradigm. This article is intended as an appraisal of Wallerstein’s œuvre in the context of the debate on global transformations in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and from the vantage point of the present author’s own critical globalization perspective. The first three parts summarize and assess Wallerstein’s theoretical system and his many contributions to macro, historical and comparative sociology, to development studies and international political economy. The fourth discusses Wallerstein’s assessment of the evolution of the world capitalist system in recent decades, including his views on the concept of globalization, and the fifth focuses on earlier and more recent critical appraisals of his work, including the present author’s own, in light of the recent transformations in world capitalism identified with globalization. Keywords development, globalization, history of sociology, social change, sociological theory Most would agree that if we are to understand the 21st-century social world we must come to grips with the concept of globalization. The term first became popularized in the 1980s. The 1990s saw raging debates on the usefulness of the concept for the social sciences and humanities. By the new century the concept had clearly earned its place and debate turned more squarely to the theoretical significance of globalization. Yet not all Corresponding author: William I Robinson, University of California, Santa Barbara Campus, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, USA. Email: email@example.com 2 International Sociology scholars are happy with the notion of globalization. Some claim that it is old wine poured into a new bottle, merely a new name for earlier theories and concepts. Certainly the world has experienced dramatic changes since Immanuel Wallerstein published in 1974 the first volume in his seminal trilogy, The Modern World-System. But not all believe that these changes signal any sort of qualitative transformation in the system of world capitalism that merits new theoretical claims. Among those who reject new paradigmatic thinking on the current age is Immanuel Wallerstein, one of the most renowned sociologists and who is identified as the ‘father’ of the world-system paradigm. This article is intended as an appraisal of Wallerstein’s œuvre in the context of the debate on global transformations in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. What is the explanatory purchase of this oeuvre to our understanding of contemporary 21st-century world affairs, specifically, to systemic level transformations coming into focus one decade into the new century? The first three parts summarize Wallstein’s theoretical system and his many contributions to macro, historical and comparative sociology, to development studies and international political economy, and assess these contributions from what I have termed a critical globalization perspective (Robinson, 2008). The fourth discusses Wallerstein’s assessment of evolution of the world capitalist system in recent decades, including his views on the concept of globalization, and the fifth section focuses on earlier and more recent critical appraisals of his work, including my own, in light of the recent transformations in world capitalism identified with globalization. Reinvigorating historical sociology Some see the world-systems paradigm as a ‘precursor’ to globalization theories (Waters, 2001). World-system theory, however, started out not as a theory of globalization but of development. In the late 1950s, the field of development was dominated by the modernization school, which came under attack by dependency theories and other radical Third World approaches to international inequalities. By the late 1970s, world-system theory had become established as an alternative perspective from which to examine issues of development and world inequalities (see e.g. Roberts and Hite, 2000; So, 1990). Wallerstein’s colleague the late Giovanni Arrighi observed that ‘world-systems analysis as a distinctive sociological paradigm emerged at least 15 years before the use of globalization as a signifier that blazed across the headlines and exploded as a subject of academic research and publication’ (Arrighi, 2005: 33). The paradigm did indeed come of age in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet what is distinctive to world-systems theory is not that it as been around longer than more recent globalization studies. Rather, this paradigm – and certainly Wallerstein himself – tends to view globalization not as a recent phenomenon but as virtually synonymous with the birth and spread of world capitalism, circa 1500. Indeed, Wallerstein is credited for having reinvigorated historical sociology. If one of the hallmarks (and in my view, strengths) of the world-system paradigm is its deeply historical focus, it also represents the problematic nature of the paradigm if it is seen as a theory of globalization. One of the key issues in the globalization debate, and one that cuts to one of the underlying ontological issues in globalization studies, is when does globalization begin? What is the time dimension of the process? How a theory answers this question will shape – even determine – what we understand when we speak of globalization, or if the term – and Robinson 3 the process of change in historical structures that the term is assumed to explicate – is worthwhile, or simply superfluous and misleading. We can identify three broad approaches to the temporal question of globalization – a process that dates back to the dawn of history, with a sudden recent acceleration; a process coterminous with the spread and development of capitalism over the past 500 years; and a recent phenomenon associated with social change of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The world-system paradigm clearly argues the second of these. In fact, a number of world-system theorists suggested in the 1990s that to talk of globalization was merely to reinvent the wheel (see later). Wallerstein himself does not see anything new in globalization. ‘The proponents of world-systems analysis’, states Wallerstein, have been talking about globalization since long before the word was invented – not, however, as something new but as something that has been basic to the modern world-system ever since it began in the sixteenth century’ (Wallerstein, 2004a: x). My own view, albeit briefly, is that the current period marks a qualitatively new epoch in the ongoing evolution of world capitalism, one that involves certain discontinuities and qualitatively novel dimensions that cannot be explained within the world-systems paradigm. If globalization simply means the only geographic extension of material and cultural exchanges then it has been going on for thousands of years, and if it means the spread and development of capitalism, including that which the capitalist system implies, then it has been going on for 500+ years. In my own conception, I reserve the term globalization to refer to the novel changes associated with the past few decades. These changes involve, to reiterate, qualitatively new dimensions that the world-system paradigm cannot account for given the imminence of its core concepts, as I discuss later, albeit briefly. World-systems theory shares with several other approaches to globalization, most notably the global capitalism approach with which I myself am identified (Robinson, 2004a, 2007), a critique of capitalism as an expansionary system that has come to encompass the entire world over the past 500 years. These distinct theories share a common genealogy that traces back to Marx and his critique of capitalism, and in turn grew out of a long tradition in Marxist and radical analyses of world capitalism dating back to the writings of Lenin, Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg and other early 20th-century theorists of imperialism (see, inter alia, Brewer, 1991; Worsley, 1977). But accounts of world capitalism among radical academics and political actors began to diverge in the post-Second World War period. In particular, more traditionally oriented approaches followed Marx’s view that capitalism would develop the forces of production worldwide as it spread, while others saw the backwardness and underdevelopment of some regions of the world as the alter-ego of the advancement and development of others. A number of schools emerged that argued that it was the very nature and dynamics of world capitalism that resulted in global inequalities among countries and regions, bringing about the development of some and the underdevelopment of others. This view was first put forward by the structural school of Raul Prebisch and the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by more radical and explicitly neo-Marxist dependency theorists – or the ‘dependentistas’ – of the 1960s and 1970s (Chilcote, 1984). At the same time, radical intellectuals and political leaders from other parts of the Third World were reaching similar conclusions, among them, Samir Amin and Walter Rodney, inspired in part by the Latin Americans (see e.g. Amin, 1974; Rodney, 1981; Worsley, 1977). 4 International Sociology It was in this milieu that Wallerstein forged his distinctive world-system theory, as part of a broader intellectual exchange with Amin and others, including Andre Gunder Frank and Terrence Hopkins. Wallerstein had himself lived in France and Africa and began his career as an Africanist (on Wallerstein’s intellectual biography, see Goldfrank, 2000). His first major work, Africa: The Politics of Independence, became an academic bestseller. But what launched the world-system paradigm was the publication in 1974 of the first volume of his magnus opus, The Modern World-System. The first volume, under the subtitle Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, lays out the basic postulates of the theory. It was followed by a second volume in 1980, subtitled Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World Economy, 1600–1750, and then a third volume in 1988, The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World Economy, 1730–1840s. Wallerstein is a remarkably prolific writer and has produced dozens of books and hundreds of articles and essays. More recent works have continued to elaborate and refine the world-system paradigm, and to apply it to an array of contemporary and historical phenomena (see esp. Wallerstein, 2000c, a collection of essays spanning some 40 years; see also, inter alia, Wallerstein, 1979, 1998, 2004a). Other recent works have focused on matters of method, epistemology and ontology of social science, particularly with his call for a unification of the disciplines and of history into a historical social science (Wallerstein, 2001, 2004b). If the radical literature on development was one major influence on Wallerstein’s ideas, the second was the French Annales school that reached its zenith in the post-Second World War years, and in particular, the thought of its leading figures, Fernand Braudel. Braudel had sought to develop ‘total’ or ‘global’ history. By this he meant an approach to history that observes the totality of the field of social forces, so that history is all-embracing and emphasizes the interconnectedness of what conventional approaches consider to be distinct histories. But Braudel also means by ‘global history’ the synthesis of history and social sciences through an emphasis on the longue durée (the long term), what Braudel alternatively referred to as ‘structural time’ in human affairs. The longue durée is a historical process in which all change is slow, involving constant repetition and recurring cycles. It is only through the study of the long term that the totality, the deepest layers of social life, the ‘subterranean history’, and the continuing structures of historical reality are revealed. Wallerstein has pushed further this fusion of history and social science, calling for a historical social science that would reunify history with sociology, the other social sciences and the humanities, and that would operate on a global scale. Two of the hallmarks of world-system approaches are the transdisciplinary nature of much research and the deeply historical perspective it brings to bear on research. In 1976, Wallerstein and several of his colleagues established the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilization at the State University of New York at Binghamton. According to the Center’s founding statement: [The Center] exists to engage in the analysis of large-scale social change over long periods of historical time. We operate on two assumptions. One is that there is no structure that is not historical. In order to understand a structure one must not only know its genesis and its context; one must also assume that its form and its substance are constantly evolving. The second Robinson 5 assumption is that no sequence of events in time is structureless, that is, fortuitous. Every event occurs within existing structures, and is affected by its constraints. Every event creates part of the context of future events. Of course, there are ruptures in structures which represent fundamental change. But such ruptures too are explicable in terms of the state of the structures. We therefore do not separate the study of historical sequence and the study of structural relationships.1 The modern world-system World-system theory as elaborated by Wallerstein starts with the proposition that the appropriate unit of analysis for macrosocial inquiry in the modern world is neither class, nor state/society, or country, but the larger historical system, in which these categories are located. The defining boundaries of a historical system are those within which the system and the people within it are regularly reproduced by means of some kind of ongoing division of labor. Central to the idea of a historical system is the division of labor – a core concept in the social sciences. The existence of a division of labor implies specialized work roles among individuals and groups along with the coordination or synchronization of these different roles, or labor activities. Hence, the division of labor naturally forms the outer boundaries of any social order in that it sets the boundaries for and social relations and interdependencies. In human history, Wallerstein argues, there have been three known forms of historical systems: mini-systems, and world-systems of two kinds – world-empires and worldeconomies. Mini-systems largely correspond to the pre-agricultural era. They are selfcontained systems that tend to be small in space and brief in time. They are generally subsistence economies, governed by the logic of reciprocity in exchange. Mini-systems were highly homogeneous in terms of cultural and governing structures and they split up when they became too large. World-systems do not exhibit this homogeneity. For Wallerstein, a world-system is an economic entity not circumscribed by political or cultural boundaries, and is a self-contained social system. World-empires were the dominant form of historical systems from the earliest civilizations until about 1500 ad. The defining characteristic is a single political center or structure encompassing an extensive division of labor and a wide range of cultural patterns. World-empires operated through the extraction of tribute, or surplus, from otherwise locally self-administered communities of producers that was passed upward to the center and redistributed to a network of officials. In turn, a world-economy involves vast, uneven chains of integrated production structures brought together through a complex division of labor and extensive commercial exchange. This may be true of a world-empire as well. For Wallerstein, the boundaries of a world-system are formed by the extent and reach of a given social division of labor. For instance, the Roman Empire was a world-system, in that all of the lands and peoples encompassed within its realms participated in a single empire-wide division of labor, and were connected by specialized regional roles and economic contributions, and trading networks among them. In Wallerstein’s own words, a world-system is a ‘spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units, one that represents an integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules’ (Wallerstein, 2004a: 17). In turn, Wallerstein distinguished between 6 International Sociology two types of world-systems. One is world-empires, in which there is a single political boundary. Hence the Roman world-system was a world-empire. In distinction, a world-economy is a world-system that has multiple political centers rather than a single political center or boundary. The peculiar strength of the modern or capitalist world-system is that it has not transformed into a world-empire, which would imply a single political system or center. The capitalist world-economy that emerged from circa 1500 and on expanded to cover the entire globe, absorbing in the process all existing mini-systems and world-empires, establishing market and production networks that eventually brought all peoples around the world into its logic and into a single worldwide structure. Hence, by the late 19th century there was but one historical system that had come to encompass the entire globe, the capitalist world-system. It is in this sense that world-system theory can be seen as a theory of globalization even if its principal adherents reject the term globalization (see later). As Wallerstein lays out in Volume I of The Modern World-System, the modern worldsystem as a capitalist world-system came into being during the ‘long sixteenth century’ of 1450–1640 out of the general crisis of European feudalism that began in the 14th century. ‘Structures are those coral reefs of human relations which have a stable existence over relatively long periods of time’, states Wallerstein. ‘But structures too are born, develop, and die . . . the study of social change . . . should be restricted to the study of changes in those phenomena which are most durable’ (1974: 3). He then goes on to proclaim two ‘great watersheds in the history of man . . . the so-called Neolithic or agricultural revolution. The other great watershed is the creation of the modern world’ (1974: 3). Prior to the creation of this European-centered world-system there were a number of world-economies and world-empires around the planet, including the Mediterranean world-economy, the Indian Ocean–Red Sea complex, the Chinese region, the Central Asian land mass from Mongolia to Russia and the Baltic area, among others (Wallerstein, 1974: 17). But the European world-economy did away with these other world-economies and world-empires through its own expansion. Emerging capitalist elites (merchants, financiers, political elites) from Portugal, later Spain, Holland, England, France and elsew…
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