World Systems Theory – An Approach to World History and Social Change

Immanuel Wallerstein coined the term world systems analysis in 1974. It aimed to refer to a broad range of views wheeling around the global political economy. However, it particularly stressed the interaction between Latin America and the leading economies of Europe and the US. Those had gained traction at the time.

Hence, World Systems Theory is a protean approach to world history and social change. Moreover, it stresses the world system (rather than nation-states) as the fundamental (not exclusive) unit of social study. Additionally, it is also called World Systems Analysis or World Systems Perspective at times.

If you would like to probe further and know more about World Systems Theory, you are welcome here. We shall shed enough light on the analysis as a whole. Scroll over and read on to discover it in detail.

World Systems Theory Wallerstein

Marx’s social theory legacy does not lie in his guess of future utopia. However, in his studies of capitalism’s workings and conflicts, World Systems Analysis is a living example of this heritage in modern sociology. This is a stance that Immanuel Wallerstein created in the 1970s. The modern nation-state, as per Wallerstein, resides inside a broad economic, political, and legal framework. Likewise, it is this that he refers to as a world system. You cannot understand individual behavior without considering the sociocultural system in which they are embedded. Similarly, you’ll fail to grasp individual societies or nation-states without assessing the global system in which they are embedded.

The inter-regional and global division of labor that separates the world into the core, semi-periphery, and periphery countries is a world system. The core countries concentrate on higher-skill, capital-intensive industries. On the contrary, the rest of the world focuses on low-skill, labor-intensive production and raw material extraction. As a result, the core countries’ power becomes constantly obvious. Individual states can gain or lose their core status through time, in part due to radical shifts in transportation technology. The division of labor unifies this structure.

Thus, it is a global economy based on the capitalist system. The world system expands geographically and strengthens economically over the last few centuries. Certain countries become world hegemons for a while. Further, at times, this role moves from the Netherlands to the UK, and recently to the US.

Many political theorists and sociologists have looked into world-systems theory to explain several events. These include the reasons for the rise and fall of governments, income inequality, social unrest, and imperialism.

World Systems Theory Origin

One can trace the origins of World Systems Theory back to the 1970s. It has sociological roots though. Nonetheless, it has evolved into a highly versatile area. The goal of World Systems Theory was to displace Modernization Theory.

The Annales school, the Marxist tradition, and the Dependence Theory are the three key forerunners of world-systems theory. The Annales School tradition (representative – Fernand Braudel) led Wallerstein to focus on long-term processes and geo-ecological areas as analysis units. Marxism, however, threw light on social conflict, a relevant totality, capital growth process, and competitive class fights. Additionally, it underlined the fleeting nature of social structures and a logical sense of motion via conflict. Dependency Theory, a neo-Marxist account of development processes, also had a notable impact on World Systems Theory.


The world system has four temporal aspects, as per Wallerstein. Secular trends refer to longer-term drifts, such as general economic growth or decline. Cyclical rhythms represent short-term shifts in the economy. Contradiction refers to a system-wide clash, usually about short-term vs long-term reviews. The final aspect is Crisis, which happens when a set of events leads to the system’s death.

World Systems Theory Sociology

World-systems analysis is a form of analysis that aspires to transcend 19th-century knowledge structures. It particularly stresses the definition of capitalism, divisions within the social sciences, and those between the social sciences and history. Hence, it is a theory arguing that most countries are part of a global interconnected economic and political system. The basis is uneven exchange in labour division and resource distribution between core, semi-periphery, and peripheral states.

World Systems Theory Example

According to Babones (2005), economic and political exchanges between the United States (core nation) and Brazil (semi-peripheral nation) benefit the United States (core nation) unequally (peripheral nation).

World Systems Theory Characteristics

The following are the primary features of this theory:

  • The world systems theory is built on a three-level hierarchy of core, periphery, and semi-periphery regions.
  • For labor and raw materials, the core countries dominate and exploit the peripheral countries.
  • For money, peripheral countries are reliant on core countries.
  • Semi-peripheral countries have traits that are similar to both core and peripheral countries.
  • This theory stresses global inequality’s social structure.

World Systems Theory Importance

World Systems Theory can help us comprehend world history and the core countries’ incentives for power and other actions. These include US aid in developing Central American countries after natural disasters or imposing rules on other core states. The relative economic power of the three levels has the interstate system as a constant. Additionally, it points to the rising internal inequities in states that appear to be growing. Some claim, however, that this view ignores local efforts at new measures that are unrelated to the global economy. Other modern global issues can be linked back to World Systems Theory though.

The G-77 Group

The G-77 group was a union of 77 periphery and semi-periphery states seeking seats at the global climate debate table. The planting of the group was in response to global discussions about climate change and the future of industrial enterprises. The organization founded in 1964 presently has over 130 members who support multilateral decision-making. Since its rise, the G-77 has worked together to achieve 2 key goals. One of them is to reduce their duty based on the relative scale of their economic power. On the contrary, the other one is to enhance national growth outcomes.

The Impact of CO2 Emissions

The World Systems Theory helps in studying the effects of CO2 emissions on the ozone layer. The degree of a country’s part in the global economy impacts the amount of damage it causes to nature. In general, scientists can estimate a country’s CO2 emissions using GDP data. Moreover, the upper-periphery category includes higher-exporting countries, countries with debt, and countries with social structural upheaval. In addition, scientists can use core, semi-periphery, and periphery labels as indicators for CO2 intensity.

The Adoption of Packaged Foods and Beverages loaded with Sugars and Preservatives

Nevertheless, core states benefit from dumping vast amounts of processed, fatty foods into poorer states. Hence, obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes and chronic heart disease have notably risen. While some components of the Modernization Theory help with the global obesity epidemic, a World Systems Theory approach identifies flaws.

Industry Dominance

Likewise, manufacturing has relocated to semi-periphery and periphery nations. On the other hand, the knowledge economy and finance now dominate the industry in core states. Moreover, technology has become a major factor in finding whether a state is in the core, semi-periphery, or periphery. Furthermore, Wallerstein’s thesis allows poor countries to progress to a higher level of economic development.


Core States

Core states are, in general, the most diverse, rich, and powerful, both economically and militarily. Additionally, they have heavy central regimes in charge of vast powers and troops. However, their state structures are more complex and potent to aid in the charge of money matters inside-out.

Further, they have enough material revenue base to allow official institutions to provide the base needed for a strong economy. In addition, they are highly industrial. Instead of raw materials, they produce ready goods for export.

Growing information, financial, and service industries tend to specialize. In addition, core states are more often on the cutting edge of new technology and industries. The electronics and biotechnology industries are two recent examples. One can trace this trend back to the adoption of the assembly line. There are major bourgeois and working classes in the country. These possess a lot of control over non-core states. Likewise, they are relatively not affected by external control.

Thus, core states have these benefits:

  • They have access to a good amount of raw materials.
  • One can easily obtain cheap labor.
  • They earn massive gains from direct capital outlay because of cheap labor.
  • They are a destination for exports.
  • The migration of skilled professional labor from the non-core to the core has led to an increase in skilled fine labor.

Peripheral States

Talking of peripheral states, they are the least well-off in terms of economic hedging. They comprise relatively weak governments. Moreover, they have weak centers and tax bases that are not enough to finance root growth. They often rely on a single economic industry, such as extracting and exporting raw minerals to core nations. In addition, they tend to be the least modern. Global businesses from core nations often invest here to exploit cheap unskilled labor and export it back to their home countries.

Likewise, there is a little bourgeoisie and a big crowd. Populations with a large number of poor and uneducated people are more likely to exist. Few elite classes own much of the land and have fruitful relations with global firms. As a result, there is a lot of social inequity. Core states and their various firms have a strong impact on peripheral states. Hence, they are frequently obliged to implement economic policies that benefit core states. However, in the process, they end up harming peripheral nations’ long-term economic prospects.

Semi-peripheral States

States that are halfway between the core and the periphery are the semi-periphery states. Hence, they avoid falling into the group of peripheral states while trying to enter the category of core states likewise. As a result, semi-peripheries are the most likely of the three types of states to pursue protectionist policies. They are usually countries that push toward progress and diversity of their economies. These areas are often economically developed and diverse, although they are not chief in global trade. In trade, however, they tend to export to periphery states and import from core nations.

Semi-peripheries tend to exercise their control over some peripheries while in the area of impact of some cores. Besides, they also operate as buffers between cores and peripheries. Therefore, they partially deflect political pressures that peripheral organizations might otherwise aim against core-states and stabilizing the global system. Developing peripheries and declining cores can both produce semi-peripheries.

Interstate System

A structure of interrelated state connections, famous as the interstate system, exists between the core, periphery, and semi-periphery states. Governments began to recognize each other’s sway and construct agreements and norms between themselves during the 16th century. Hence, the interstate system evolved either as a parallel process or due to the creation of the capitalist world system.

The ideology of an interstate system is absolute equaity. However, the system normally places limits on sole states’ power. States are neither sovereign nor equal inside the system. Strong states not only force their will on weak states but also impose curbs on other strong states. Hence, they tend to desire stronger global standards. Nevertheless, enforcing effects for breached laws can be very useful and offer great advantages.

External Areas

External areas are those that exist outside of the capitalist world economy and preserve socially essential labor divisions.

Capitalist World System

According to Wallerstein, capitalism has always had a multi-national division of labor from the start. The capitalist world system emerged in Europe around 1500. Likewise, thrust by the cumulus of capital, it grew to include the entire globe over the next few centuries. The capitalist world system has absorbed minor mini-systems, world-empires, and competing world economies in the process of its expansion.

The setting up of long-distance trade in goods and the extension of production processes led to the capitalist world economy foundation. Furthermore, all of these allowed for huge capital inflation in Europe. These commercial ties, on the other hand, did not form in a vacuum. The modern nation-state arose in Europe in tandem with capitalism to serve and safeguard the capitalists’ interests though.

Wallerstein considers the capitalist world economy to be complex and efficient machinery of excess appropriation. It is based on the generation of surplus through continuous productivity growth. Additionally, it creates profit to harvest this surplus for the benefit of the wealthy. Various classes and status groups receive evolving access to resources within nation-states. Likewise, different nation-states get dissimilar access to commodities and services on the global market. Power distorts both internal and external markets.

Modern nation-states are all part of the capitalist world system. Wallerstein showed an interest in learning more about it. According to him, there are only 3 types of social systems:

Mini-systems

The first, which Wallerstein refers to as mini-systems, are the small, homogeneous groups that anthropologists study. Hunting and gathering, pastoral, and primitive horticultural nations are economically self-sufficient. Thus, they produce all products and services within the sociocultural system.

World empires

The second type of social system is the world empire. The economy of such a system is centered on obtaining surplus goods and services from outlying locations. Most of the tribute goes to pay the officials who collect it and the military to secure solid dominance. On the other hand, the balance goes to the empire’s political authorities.

World economies

World economies are the third type of social system. Unlike world empires, world economies lack a cohesive political system though. Moreover, their control is not solely based on military might. However, a world economy is similar to a world empire on one ground. Both are built on the removal of excess from outlying regions and distribution to those who dominate at the center.

World Systems Theory in International Relations

During the 1968 world revolution, social scientists debated the implications of Latin American Dependence Theory for Africa. Thus, this led to the birth of the world-system perspective. In interaction with each other, Wallerstein, Hopkins, Amin, Frank, and Arrighi created slightly distinct versions of the world-system perspective. The key notion was that the global system centered on systemic plunder and had a stratified structure of inequity. This meant that the entire system, not individual societies, was the proper unit of inquiry. Moreover, global power relations had shaped development and economic decline for ages.

The modern world system is a self-contained entity with a regionally distinct division of labour linked by a global market. Capitalism had gained control in Europe and its peripheries in the long 16th century. Furthermore, it had expanded and developed in waves. All the world system analysts were concerned with global disparities. However, their vocabularies differed.

Amin and Frank discussed the concept of core and peripheral. Wallerstein offered a three-tiered structure with an intermediate semiperiphery between the core and the periphery. He refrained from using the term centre, which indicates a hierarchy with a single peak. Instead, he used the term core to represent a multicentric region bordering a group of states. Third Worldism occurred when the world-system perspective developed. Moreover, it focused on the non-core (periphery and semiperiphery). The Global North (the core) and the Global South (the periphery) are now the Global North and the Global South.

World Systems Theory Criticism

Wallerstein’s thesis is historically inconsistent at times. However, Tony Smith claims that he is incorrect in his opinion of official power. The strong states of the 16tth century were not at the center but on the periphery instead. Nevertheless, the late industrializers were successful due to very powerful legal structures committed to upgrading. Russia, Japan, and Germany are examples of periphery countries that could not have grown without the state’s strong leadership.


Nevertheless, many feel there is a major problem in Wallerstein’s Volume I treatment of state creation and structures. It lies in his belief that useful ranks assist the operation of unequal exchange imposed on weak states by stronger states. The opposite view is that countries with the strongest economy failed to build absolute states on the periphery or semi-periphery.

The central focus on economics has been a quite frequent criticism of the World Systems Theory. Economic growth is indeed vital for state development. However, it is not the sole underlying component in a country’s development. Likewise, further measures include sociopolitical development, resource division, and other things.

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