Some Further Thoughts on Disciplines: World-Systems Theory, Sociology and Public Policy

February 4, 2011

Some personal background is useful for this post (which is likely to barely scratch the surface of what I ultimately would like to think and talk about), so bear with me.

As an undergraduate, I studied sociology at an institution in which the department’s Senior Research Scholar was Immanuel Wallerstein, the founder of world-systems analysis – so it’s little surprise that my two most influential professors, including my academic adviser, were to no small extent world-systems theorists. In fact, one served as chair of the Political Economy of the World-System (PEWS) section of the American Sociological Association, while the other recently won a PEWS “best article” award for his work studying whether domestic vs. foreign ownership of capital matters in terms of contribution to national development.

World-systems theory was such a big part of my education that I came rather close to becoming a sociology doctoral student studying under Giovanni Arrighi (RIP) at Johns Hopkins University. But instead, I’m now in public policy school, rather far from my intellectual “roots,” as it were, in macro-historical sociology. And I have some desire to tie these two disparate strands together somehow. That is to say: how can macro-historical sociology, and world-systems theory in particular, inform public policy?

Let’s back up briefly. In the spirit of Jonas’ recent post, we should first answer the question: What does it mean to take a world-systems theoretical perspective? The fundamental shift in perspective that sets world-systems analysis apart is a rejection of the nation-state, the household, or anything in between as the primary unit of analysis for social science. Instead, world-systems theorists look at the entire world as their unit of analysis: specifically, a deeply interconnected world-system in which political and economic processes cannot be examined independently of their place in (and effect on) the whole. As Wallerstein says in The Modern World-System I, “It was a false perspective to take a unit like a ‘tribe’ and seek to analyze its operations without reference to the fact that, in a colonial situation, the governing institutions of a ‘tribe,’ far from being ‘sovereign,’ were closely circumscribed by the laws (and customs) of a larger entity of which they were an indissociable part, the colony.” He transfers this assertion from tribes in a colonial context to nation-states in a world-systemic context.

The implications of this radical reconceptualization of social science are a bit difficult to grasp; I certainly don’t have a complete sense of them myself. One of the more obvious ones, though is an increased emphasis on history, and an examination of change over time. Historical context really matters to a world-systems theorist – if the only unit of analysis is the entire world, then understanding that world requires an understanding of the process by which the current system evolved. Or, as Timothy Patrick Moran puts it in a recent issue of the excellent Journal of World-Systems Research:

The difference between macro comparative social science in various forms and world-systems analysis in particular can be illustrated by looking at how each frames relevant questions for analyzing inequality, for example. Scholars of the former are currently asking questions like: why do the countries of Latin America have higher levels of inequality than those in say Western Europe? This directs inquiry inward, toward the nation-states themselves, as in: What are the conditions within the countries of Western Europe in contrast to the countries in Latin America that allow the former to have relatively egalitarian income distributions and the others to not? From a world-system perspective, inequality goes from being a condition to a process, and the questions are restated: How did the countries of Western Europe come to occupy the level of inequality they have in the world and the countries of Latin America the level of inequality they have? More interestingly, are the two related? At fundamental issue is the unit of analysis.

What world-systems analysis demands, then, is an awareness of how the structures of the modern world are embedded in a continual process of global change. It follows that this conception of the world has implications for policymaking, particularly in the arenas of foreign policy and global economic policy. (Wallerstein in his biweekly commentaries writes a great deal about U.S. foreign policy, from his general frame that the U.S. is in the midst of a long period of hegemonic decline.)

The field of public policy, if it can be thought of as such, is one that is largely based on neoclassical economic theory: rational actors, risk analyses, cost-benefit considerations, and such tend to dominate policy analysis techniques, although qualitative methods do appear to be gaining traction. For me, bringing a world-systems perspective (or even, more broadly speaking, a sociological perspective) into policy analysis has thus far been less than fruitful. For instance: a cost-benefit analysis or a process/impact evaluation of a development project is naturally somewhat confined to the boundaries of the project in question. Questions about how the project fits into a broader development agenda are often sidelined. Questions about how the project fits into a broader process of world-historical inequality are completely ignored. How does one bring such considerations into the agenda?

I’ll digress briefly into another example to illustrate how my instincts as a sociologist are difficult to apply to the policy realm. Public policy regarding work and pay – labor market regulations and institutions – are premised around labor unions as a stakeholder in a process of making policies dealing with the relationship between firms and workers. The idea of U.S. labor unions as a broader social movement, with a particular historical context in which they were the driving force behind domestic left-wing politics for some considerable part of the 20th century, never enters the discussion.

So, I see my task for the next year and a half as figuring out ways to connect sociological and world-systemic analysis – which, I believe, has a particular potency in its ability to discern both structures of power and potential leverage points in which human agency matters – to public policy analysis and policymaking, without becoming marginal in either field. (Starting with world-systems analysis is probably a terrible way to avoid becoming marginal in any situation, but if anything my inclination to do so just shows how historical context – in this case my personal historical context – matters.)

Flying Whale


One comment

  1. I found this post fascinating. Here’s my rambling, half-formed reaction. I’m trying to wrap my head around the implications, especially the interaction between the unit of analysis and potential leverage points for human agency.

    I think the use of a nation-state as a standard unit of analysis in international development makes it easier for us to imagine that an outside actor (e.g. a multilateral or bilateral donor) can understand the system well enough to decide on the proper course and dictate the results. But we’ve got plenty of examples where that fails (e.g. the Washington Consensus). The world-systems frame suggests that there are no “outside” actors. Those donor agencies and others operate under influences and constraints as well. If you’re looking for a place to create change, you have to back up a step to see what those influences and constraints are. But – how far back up the chain do you go? Because it’s a world-system, there is no starting point. Like you said, the analysis can finding points of leverage. And points of leverage are all about the influence that human agents can have. So a world-systems approach to public policy might actually have to take two paths: 1. starting with the perceived problem and working backwards along the causal chain (or web, since causality doesn’t really work in a chain) to find the *points* where leverage can be applied; and 2. starting with the actor (or, perhaps, the development project) and moving outward along the causal web to find the *leverage* that can be applied to the points.

    Okay, sorry if that wasn’t totally coherent. I finally came back to this post starred in my reader and I wanted to put some thoughts out there. Looking forward to your future commentary on the subject.

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