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A world-system is a socioeconomic system, under systems theory, that encompasses part or all of the globe, detailing the aggregate structural result of the sum of the interactions between polities. World-systems are usually larger than single states, but do not have to be global. The Westphalian System is the preeminent world-system operating in the contemporary world, denoting the system of sovereign states and nation-states produced by the Westphalian Treaties in 1648. Several world-systems can coexist, provided that they have little or no interaction with one another. Where such interactions becomes significant, separate world-systems merge into a new, larger world-system. Through the process of globalization, the modern world has reached the state of one dominant world-system, but in human history there have been periods where separate world-systems existed simultaneously, according to Janet Abu-Lughod. The most well-known version of the world-system approach has been developed by Immanuel Wallerstein. A world-system is a crucial element of the world-system theory, a multidisciplinary, macro-scale approach to world history and social change.


World-systems are defined by the existence of a division of labor. The modern world-system has a multi-state political structure (the interstate system) and therefore its division of labor is international division of labor. In the modern world-system, the division of labor consists of three zones according to the prevalence of profitable industries or activities: core, semiperiphery, and periphery. Countries tend to fall into one or another of these interdependent zones core countries, semi-periphery countries and the periphery countries.[1][2] Resources are redistributed from the underdeveloped, typically raw materials-exporting, poor part of the world (the periphery) to developed, industrialized core.

World-systems, past world-systems and the modern world-system, have temporal features. Cyclical rhythms represent the short-term fluctuation of economy, while secular trends mean deeper long run tendencies, such as general economic growth or decline.[3] The term contradiction means a general controversy in the system, usually concerning some short term vs. long term trade-offs. For example, the problem of underconsumption, wherein the drive-down of wages increases the profit for the capitalists on the short-run, but considering the long run, the decreasing of wages may have a crucially harmful effect by reducing the demand for the product. The last temporal feature is the crisis: a crisis occurs, if a constellation of circumstances brings about the end of the system.

The world-systems theory stresses that world-systems (and not nation states) should be the basic unit of social analysis.[2][3] Thus we should focus not on individual states, but on the relations between their groupings (core, semi-periphery, and periphery).

Immanuel Wallerstein[edit]

The most well-known version of the world-system approach has been developed by Immanuel Wallerstein, who has provided several definitions of what a world-system is, twice in 1974, first

"...a system is defined as a unit with a single division of labor and multiple cultural systems."[4]

and second as

"…a social system, one that has boundaries, structures, member groups, rules of legitimation, and coherence."[5]

In 1987 he elaborated his definition:

"...not the system of the world, but a system that is a world and which can be, most often has been, located in an area less than the entire globe. World-systems analysis argues that the units of social reality within which we operate, whose rules constrain us, are for the most part such world-systems [...]. ...there have been thus far only two varieties of world-systems: world-economies and world empires. A world-empire (examples, the Roman Empire, Han China) are large bureaucratic structures with a single political center and an axial division of labor, but multiple cultures. A world-economy is a large axial division of labor with multiple political centers and multiple cultures."[3]

Thus, we can differentiate world-systems into politically unified (world-empires) and not unified (world-economies).[2] Small, non-state units such as tribes are micro-systems.[2]

World System vs. world-system(s)[edit]

World system refers to the entire world, whereas world-system is its fragment - the largest unit of analysis that makes sense.[2] Wallerstein stresses the importance of hyphen in the title:

"... In English, the hyphen is essential to indicate these concepts. "World system" without a hyphen suggests that there has been only one world-system in the history of the world."[3]

There is an ongoing debate among scholars whether we can talk about multiple world-systems. For those who support the multiple world-systems approach,[6] there have been many world-systems throughout worlds history, some replacing others, as was the case when a multipolar world-system of the 13th-14th centuries was replaced by a series of consecutive Europe- and the West-centered world-systems.[7] Others coexisted unknowingly with others, not linked to them directly or indirectly; in those cases the world-systems weren't worldwide (for example, prior to colonization of Americas, the Americas world-systems had no connection with the one encompassing Eurasia and Africa).[8] From around 19th century onward, due to the process of globalization, many scholars agree that there has been only one world-system, that of capitalism.[9][10] There are, however, dissenting voices, as some scholars do not support the contention that there is only one world-system in the modern day;[11] Janet Abu-Lughod states that multiple world-systems did exist in past epochs.[12]

The alternative approach insists that there was only one World System that originated in the Near East five[13] or even ten[14] thousand years ago, and gradually encompassed the whole world; thus, the present-day truly global World System can be regarded as its continuation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Carlos A. Martínez-Vela, World Systems Theory, paper prepared for the Research Seminar in Engineering Systems, November 2003
  2. ^ a b c d e Thomas Barfield, The dictionary of anthropology, Wiley-Blackwell, 1997, ISBN 1-57718-057-7, is" hyphen&f=false Google Print, p.498-499
  3. ^ a b c d Immanuel Wallerstein, (2004), WORLD-SYSTEMS ANALYSIS, in World System History , [Ed. George Modelski, in Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), Developed under the Auspices of the UNESCO, Eolss Publishers, Oxford ,UK
  4. ^ Wallerstein. 1974. "The Rise and Future Demise of the World-Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis." Comparative Studies in Society and History 16: p. 390. Cited after [1]
  5. ^ Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) the Modern World-System, New York, Academic Press, pp. 347-57.
  6. ^ E.g., Chase-Dunn Ch. K. and Hall Th. D. (1997), ‘Rise and Demise. Comparing World - Systems’ Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
  7. ^ Abu-Lughod, Janet (1989), "Before European Hegemony: The World System AD. 1250-1350"
  8. ^ André Gunder Frank, Barry K. Gills, The world system: five hundred years or five thousand?, Routledge, 1996, ISBN 0-415-15089-2, Google Print, p.3
  9. ^ J. Timmons Roberts; Amy Hite (4 January 2000). From modernization to globalization: perspectives on development and social change. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 192–. ISBN 978-0-631-21097-9. Retrieved 21 January 2011.
  10. ^ Robert Asen; Daniel C. Brouwer (2001). Counterpublics and the state. SUNY Press. pp. 235–. ISBN 978-0-7914-5161-8. Retrieved 21 January 2011.
  11. ^ Gerard Delanty (1999). Social theory in a changing world: conceptions of modernity. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 70–. ISBN 978-0-7456-1918-7. Retrieved 21 January 2011.
  12. ^ Janet Abu-Lughod. Discontinuities and persistence. One world system or a succession of systems?. In André Gunder Frank; Barry K. Gills (1996). The world system: five hundred years or five thousand?. Psychology Press. pp. 278–. ISBN 978-0-415-15089-7. Retrieved 21 January 2011.
  13. ^ André Gunder Frank, Barry K. Gills, The world system: five hundred years or five thousand?, Routledge, 1996, ISBN 0-415-15089-2
  14. ^ Korotayev A. A Compact Macromodel of World System Evolution // Journal of World-System Research 11 (2005): 79–93; Korotayev A., Malkov A., Khaltourina D. (2006). Introduction to Social Macrodynamics: Compact Macromodels of the World System Growth. Moscow: KomKniga. ISBN 5-484-00414-4; Korotayev A. The World System urbanization dynamics. History & Mathematics: Historical Dynamics and Development of Complex Societies. Edited by Peter Turchin, Leonid Grinin, Andrey Korotayev, and Victor C. de Munck. Moscow: KomKniga, 2006. ISBN 5-484-01002-0. P. 44-62