GEOG 128
Geography of International Affairs

Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis


Box 7.2 (Flint, p. 198) gives only a cursory mention of Wallerstein’s world-systems theory. This video provides a good overview of the theory. You will need to re-read the box and also watch the video below in order to complete the blog assignment for this week.

World Systems Analysis

Watch this video on Immanuel Wallerstein's World Systems Analysis.

Click for a transcript of "Immanuel Wallerstein's World Systems Analysis" video.


Now, the first thing I'd like to discuss with you now is the legacy of colonialism.

Now colonialism is defined as how a foreign power maintains political, social, economic, and cultural domination for an extended period of time over a group of people or a country. In simple terms, colonialism is ruled by outsiders. Relations oftentimes between the colonial nation and the colonized people are very similar to relationships that are described in class terms between the dominant capitalist class and the proletariat. This is very reminiscent of the work of Karl Marx when he talked about the haves and the have-nots.

Now, by the nineteen-eighties in the world, traditional colonization - colonialism –had pretty much disappeared. Most of the nations that had been colonies prior to, say, World War I, had achieved some sort of political independence and had established their own governments. And the way that that occurs is the colonizing nation had swooped in and set up a government in these countries, and after a period of time, when these nations decided that they no longer needed to be in the country for whatever reasons - whether that was they no longer needed the labor resources or they no longer needed natural resources -they largely just sort of left. And they left the country to set up its own government and to try and fix many of the problems that had been inherent in the colonial systems of the past.

Colonial domination established some patterns of economic exploitation and a lot of these countries that continued on even after they achieved their own nationhood. And part of the reason for that is because some of these nations had never been allowed to develop their own infrastructure, develop their own industry and technology. And they had become very dependent on the countries that had come in to colonize them (what we would refer to as colonial masters). So when the colonists moved out it caused a continuing dependence and foreign domination, which today we refer to as neo-colonialism: the continued dependence on more industrialized nations for managerial and technical expertise by the former colonies.

This is a pretty common occurrence with countries that were once colonized. So whether we're actually talking about colonialism or neocolonialism it's important to note that the economic and political consequences are very real.

Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has done a lot of work in this area. He has what he termed world systems analysis which is a perspective or a theory which says that there are unequal economic and political relationships in which certain industrialized nations (among those the United States) and their global corporations still continue to dominate at the core of the world system. At the semi-periphery of this system would be countries that have somewhat marginal economic status. They're kind of in the middle. They're not a dependent country necessarily. However, they do depend on the assistance of those core nations at times. The countries that fall into this category could be South Korea, India, Mexico.

And then there's a third category: the peripheral nations. The peripheral nations of the world are still in an exploitative relationship to the core nations. And the core nations and their corporations often control and exploit the non-core nations’ economies, natural resources, and labor pools.

So the division between core and periphery nations is significant and it's a very stable relationship. And what I mean by stable relationship is once you find a place in one of these categories it's extremely challenging to move yourself out. The core nations have pretty much been the core nations for decades, if not a few centuries. The semi-peripheral nations, however - we have had some countries that have lifted themselves from the periphery into that semi-peripheral state. It will be challenging, indeed, for those semi-peripheral nations, however, to bump up into the core nation category, with the exception of a couple of nations. I would have to say that China and India are probably the two that would be most readily poised to move themselves up into a core nation category. And the largest reason for this is the development of an infrastructure, industrialization, and the size of their population. They have so many people to contribute to a workforce in those countries that that will very rapidly help them to overcome their semi-peripheral status and maybe move into that core nation ranking.

So Wallerstein kind of speculated that the system as we currently understand it will undergo some changes as the world becomes increasingly urbanized. Once we do become urbanized we will actually start to eliminate the large pools of low-cost workers that live today in rural areas. And so, in the future, core nations are going to have to find other ways to reduce labor costs. So we're exhausting land or exhausting resources such as water through clear-cutting and pollution. We're driving up the cost of production and we're also depleting our labor source. This has some serious ramifications for quote-unquote business as we know it on the world labor market.

Wallerstein world systems analysis is a very widely used theory that falls under the broader spectrum of what we call dependency theories. So dependency theories, in general, talk about developing countries -even while making economic advances -will remain subservient and weak to core nations and large corporations.

And I think there is a lot of truth to Wallerstein’s assumptions and to dependency theories in general and you really can see that it is conflict type of theory. The interdependency of industrialized nations allows them to continue to exploit developing countries. The industrialized nations playing the roles of the bourgeoisie, or the haves, and the developing countries playing the role of the proletariat, or the have-nots. So what's actually happening here with regard to natural resources in the world? A growing share of the human resources and the natural resources of developing countries is actually being shifted. It’s being redistributed to the core industrialized nations. This happens because developing countries go into debt to core nations as a result of foreign aid, loans, trade deficits, etc. And when that happens and the developed nations start to call in their markers - one of the ways in which they can pay us back is by allowing corporations to exploit the workers and the natural resources of that country.

So what actually ends up happening in developing nations is, for example, the currencies may be devalued, workers wages might be frozen. You'll have an increased privatization of industry and a reduction in government services and employment because as the government scrambles to try and pay back the debts they owe to core nations, they take money away from building their own infrastructure.

This is problematic for those dependent countries because it puts them in a position of spinning their wheels more or less. They don't really ever get to significantly lift themselves out of the status that they're in because they're caught in a cycle of having to pay the man, basically.

All right, I hope this helps you to understand these basic concepts. We'll talk again soon. Have a great day. Take care! Bye bye!