Posts Tagged ‘Immanuel Wallerstein’


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


Re: On the weakness of the global left

August 10, 2009

Flying Whale, quoting Immanuel Wallerstein, writes that the most audible voices in the world left are either “free-standing intellectuals or…located in very small organizations.” This assertion strikes me as not-quite right. I think it’d be more accurate to say that the principal voices who advocate a comprehensive leftist world-view are free-standing intellectuals or in very small organizations.

I’d argue that there are plenty of powerful voices within large organizations, but that their work (if not their ideology) is confined to a relatively small number of issues. The weakness here is not necessarily that the folks who best articulate a comprehensive leftist world-view are within weak institutions (or no institution at all)– it’s also that the single-issue experts haven’t found better and more consistent ways to build sustainable coalitions that actually aggregate power in meaningful ways.



On the weakness of the global left

August 7, 2009

Once every two weeks, world historical sociology scholar Immanuel Wallerstein writes a lengthy commentary on whatever world affair is currently foremost on his mind. His latest piece, “The World Left and the Iranian Elections,” discusses the fragmented views taken by self-identified leftists around the world. Some support Ahmadinejad openly (for example, Hugo Chávez); others are “virtually unconditional opponents.”

It’s an interesting read but I want to skirt the topic and highlight a single parenthetical sentence: “The principal voices of the world left today tend for the most part to be primarily that either of free-standing intellectuals or of activists who are located in very small organizations.”

I have no real way of evaluating this statement, but it strikes me as fairly accurate. The leading leftist governments of the world are either not particularly “left” per se or are often politically unhelpful (Exhibit A: the aforementioned Hugo Chávez). No one is ready to proclaim Evo Morales or Rafael Correa as a spokesperson of the global left. When I think of such spokespeople or leaders, I think of people like… Noam Chomsky, or Martin Khor, or Naomi Klein, or Vandana Shiva. All of these people have their flaws, but more importantly they fit perfectly into Wallerstein’s characterization. For who they are they have remarkable influence, but on a global (and surely on a world historical) scale their power is extremely limited.

All of which goes a long way towards explaining why – for example – in the midst of a tremendous global financial crisis that could and should be seen as an implication of the neoliberal, deregulatory agenda of the past 20-some years, no real reforms are being proposed in any of the circles that matter. The power dynamics are titled too far to one side.

Flying Whale