Seeing the Globe as a World-System

Issue Date: 
April 7, 2014

TheJackie Smith University of Pittsburgh will host 30 scholars from around the globe April 10-12 for an international conference titled “Social Movements and World-System Transformation.” The event marks the 38th annual conference of the Political Economy of the World-System Section of the American Sociological Association. Attendees will consider various global social movements and how they may be shaping and changing the world-system.

The conference will feature two prominent keynote speakers, including Immanuel Wallerstein, a professor of sociology and a senior research scholar at Yale University, who developed the world-system approach to social analysis. He will deliver his talk, titled “Dilemmas of Alter-Movements,” at 4 p.m. April 10 in Room 324, Cathedral of Learning.

Sylvia Walby, professor of sociology at Lancaster University, England, will discuss how global politics and economics shape and are shaped by the work of feminist activists in her talk, “Feminism as Counter-Hegemonic,” at 3:30 p.m. April 11 in Room G24, Cathedral of Learning.

Pitt Professor of Sociology and conference co-organizer Jackie Smith recently discussed the conference themes with the Pitt Chronicle’s Sharon Blake. 

What is a world-system?
This approach, developed by Immanuel Wallerstein, treats the entire world as a unit of analysis. We cannot understand any particular country without reference to its relationships with other players in the world. Was a country a colonizer or was it colonized? Where did it fit in the hierarchy of global trade relations? The modern world-system is characterized by a hierarchical division of labor whereby the “core” states—the U.S. and European countries—define the rules and generate the most profits from the world economy, while “periphery” and “semi-periphery” states take part in less-profitable trade. They tend to produce the raw materials and commodities that are less profitable.

What is the benefit of employing the world-system approach?
This approach helps us understand how the actions of countries, groups, and even individuals are shaped by a system that has a particular logic and predictable patterns. It helps uncover the operation of power in the world in an attempt to find ways to transform long-standing and often extreme inequalities. It builds upon the insights of Latin American scholars who advanced the dependency theory to account for the persistence of under-development in postcolonial countries. They showed that the exploitative economic relationships that had origins in colonialism continued in later patterns of economic relations, preventing postcolonial countries from advancing economically.

How can the layperson benefit from learning about it?
I think Wallerstein’s work is popular because it helps make clear the ways the United States (and other world powers) has operated to defend its position as the world hegemon. Since the 1970s, Wallerstein has argued that the period of U.S. dominance is in decline. Now people are starting to listen, because it is much more apparent that he was right. The weakening of the United States follows a familiar historical pattern of previous hegemonic leaders (the Dutch and British). Today, however, we may be seeing not just the decline of a hegemonic leader, but of the system itself. There is no longer one player defining the rules of the world-economy, and new challengers—such as China, or regional groupings like the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) are competing to set the rules. And they want rules that will better serve the needs of their economies, just as the United States used its power to promote its own economic growth.

Employing this type of analysis, how would one describe what is taking place in the Ukraine?
This is a good example of one of those challenges to U.S. hegemony. It also reflects a crisis of global leadership. The situation raises questions about the legitimacy of international norms and may invite even more challengers to the existing political order. This crisis is also about access to the resources key countries need to strengthen their economies and make claims to global leadership.

Do you use this approach when studying social justice issues around the globe?
Yes I do. The social movements coming together in many parts of the world are very aware that they can’t change their local conditions without making changes to the larger global system. That’s why they’re coming together more frequently across national borders to develop global networks and analyses that advance more explicit anti-systemic struggles.

Just last week, Gar Alperovitz [internationally known activist, political economist, and professor] was here at Pitt speaking about the “new economy”—an idea which has been developing in global movements and local communities around the world, as people have sought to remedy the failures of the market economy to serve basic needs. This new economy seeks to relocalize markets in ways that reinforce community relationships and utilize local resources to serve local needs.

Movements are more united internationally around a vision of a world-system that is not defined by capitalism and endless accumulation. They are responding to the severe crises they face in the many places where people live and fight for survival. Even rich states are no longer capable of responding to many of the crises they face (witness Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy and their aftermaths). People are beginning to see that there is no way to survive in the long-term without a very different world-system.