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Wallerstein’s World-Systems Theory

By Frank W. Elwell


Marx’s legacy in social theory does not lie in his predictions of future utopias but rather in his analyses of the workings and contradictions of capitalism. Within contemporary sociology this tradition is very much alive in world-systems analysis, a perspective developed by Immanuel Wallerstein in the 1970s. According to Wallerstein, the modern nation state exists within a broad economic, political, and legal framework which he calls a “world-system.” Just as individual behavior cannot be understood without reference the sociocultural system in which they are members, individual societies or nation states cannot be understood without reference to the world-system in which they are embedded.

Modern nation states are all part of the world-system of capitalism, and it is this world-system that Wallerstein seeks to understand. Wallerstein believes that there are only three basic types of social systems.

The Modern World-System
  • Mini-systems

  • World empires

  • World-economies

The first he terms as “mini-systems,” these are the small, homogenous societies studied by anthropologists. Hunting and gathering, pastoral, and simple horticultural societies are relatively self-contained economic units, producing all goods and services within the sociocultural system itself. The second type of social system  is a “world-empire.” This system has an economy that is based on the extraction of surplus goods and services from outlying districts. Much of this tribute goes to pay for the administrators who extract it  and for the military to ensure continued domination, the rest goes to the political rulers at the head of the empire. The third type of social system, according to Wallerstein, is the world-economies. Unlike world-empires, the world-economies have no unified political system; nor is its dominance based on military power alone. However, like a world-empire, a world-economy is based on the extraction of surplus from outlying districts to those who rule at the center.

From the start, Wallerstein argues, capitalism has had a division of labor that encompassed several nation states. The capitalist world-system began in Europe in about 1500 and under the spur of the accumulation of capital, expanded over the next few centuries to cover the entire globe. In the process of this expansion the capitalist world system has absorbed small mini-systems, world-empires, as well as competing world-economies. The capitalist world-economy was created by establishing long-distance trade in goods and linking production processes worldwide, all of which allowed the significant accumulation of capital in Europe. But these economic relationships were not created in a vacuum. The modern nation state was created in Europe along with capitalism to serve and to protect the interests of the capitalists. What was in the interest of early European capitalists was the establishment of a world-economy based on an extremely unequal division of labor between European states and the rest of the system. Also in the interest of early European capitalists was the establishment of strong European states that had the political and military power to enforce this inequality.

For Wallerstein, the capitalist world-economy is a mechanism of surplus appropriation that is both subtle and efficient. It relies upon the creation of surplus through constantly expanding productivity.  It extracts this surplus for the benefit of the elite through the creation of profit. The capitalist world-system is based on a two-fold division of labor in which different classes and status groups are given differential access to resources within nation states; and the different nation states are given differential access to goods and services on the world market. Both types of markets, those within and those between nation states, are very much distorted by power.

Core & Periphery

Wallerstein divides the capitalist world-economy into three areas:

  • peripheral areas. 

  • Semi-peripheral

  • Core states

The peripheral areas are the least developed; they are exploited by the core for their cheap labor, raw materials, and agricultural production. The semi-peripheral areas are somewhat intermediate, being both exploited by the core and take some role in the exploitation of the peripheral areas. In the recent past they have been expanding their manufacturing activities particularly in products that core nations no longer find very profitable. The core states are in geographically advantaged areas of the world—Europe and North America.

These core states promote capital accumulation internally through tax policy, government purchasing, sponsorship of research and development, financing infrastructural development (such as sewers, roads, airports—all privately constructed but publically financed), and maintaining social order to minimize class struggle. Core states also promote capital accumulation in the world-economy itself. These states have the political, economic, and military power to enforce unequal rates of exchange between the core and the periphery. It is this power that allows core states to dump unsafe goods in peripheral nations, pay lower prices for raw materials than would be possible in a free market, exploit the periphery for cheap labor, dump in their environment, abuse their consumers and workforce, erect trade barriers and quotas, and establish and enforce patents. It is the economic, political, and military power of the core that allows significant capital to be accumulated into the hands of the few, the capitalist world-system that produces and maintains the gross economic and political inequalities within and between nations.

World-Systems Map

As with capitalism within nation states, this unequal power between nation states is not uncontested. It is the subject of struggle. There are internal contradictions that with the passage of time cause political and economic instability and social unrest. Eventually, according to Wallerstein, a world-wide economic crisis will be reached and the capitalist world-system will collapse, opening the way for revolutionary change. The coming crisis of capitalism, as predicted by Wallerstein’s world-systems theory, will be the topic of the next short-paper.

For a more extensive discussion of Wallerstein's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Elwell, F. W. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1980. The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750. New York: Academic Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1989. The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730-1840. New York: Academic Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1998. Utopistics:  Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1999. The End of the World as We Know It. Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2000. The Essential Wallerstein. New York: The New Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2003. The Decline of American Power. New York: The New Press.


To reference Wallerstein's World-Systems Theory you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W. 2013. "Wallerstein's World-Systems Theory," Retrieved August 31, 2013 [use actual date]

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