Immanuel Wallerstein

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Immanuel Wallerstein
Wallerstein giving a talk at a seminar at the European University at St. Petersburg in May 2008.
BornSeptember 28, 1930
New York City, U.S.
DiedAugust 31, 2019 (aged 88)
Branford, Connecticut, U.S.
Known forWorld-systems theory
Academic background
Alma materColumbia University
ThesisThe Emergence of Two West African Nations: Ghana and the Ivory Coast[1] (1959)
Doctoral advisorRobert Staughton Lynd[1]
InfluencesKarl Marx • Vladimir Lenin • Rosa Luxemburg • Fernand Braudel • Andre Gunder Frank • Raúl Prebisch[2] • Karl Polanyi • Joseph Schumpeter  • Sigmund Freud • Frantz Fanon • Ilya Prigogine[3]
Academic work
Sub-disciplineHistorical sociologyComparative sociologyWorld-systems theory
InstitutionsMcGill UniversityBinghamton UniversityÉcole des Hautes Études en Sciences SocialesYale University
Notable studentsBeverly J. Silver

Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein (/ˈwɔːlərstiːn/;[4] September 28, 1930 – August 31, 2019) was an American sociologist and economic historian. He is perhaps best known for his development of the general approach in sociology which led to the emergence of his world-systems approach.[5] He was a Senior Research Scholar at Yale University from 2000 until his death in 2019, and published bimonthly syndicated commentaries through Agence Global on world affairs from October 1998 to July 2019.[6][7]

He was the 13th president of International Sociological Association (1994-1998).[8]


Early life and education[edit]

His parents, Sara Günsberg (born in 1895) and Menachem Lazar Wallerstein (born in 1890), were Polish Jews and both came from Galicia. Because of World War I they moved to Berlin, where they married in 1919. Two years later, Sara gave birth to their first son, Solomon. In 1923, the Wallerstein family emigrated to New York, where Immanuel was born.[9] On the “list of alien passengers for the United States” at the time of his family’s emigration, the nationality of his mother and brother was described as Polish.[9]

Having grown up in a politically conscious family, Wallerstein first became interested in world affairs as a teenager while living in New York City.[3] He received all three of his degrees from Columbia University: a BA in 1951, an MA in 1954, and a PhD in 1959. However, throughout his life, Wallerstein also studied at other universities around the world, including Oxford University from 1955–56,[10] Université libre de BruxellesUniversite Paris 7 Denis Diderot, and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

From 1951 to 1953 Wallerstein served in the U.S. Army.[3] After his discharge from military service, he wrote his master’s thesis on McCarthyism as a phenomenon of American political culture; the widely cited work, as Wallerstein himself later stated, “confirmed my sense that I should consider myself, in the language of the 1950s, a ‘political sociologist'”.[3] Eleven years later, on May 25, 1964, he married Beatrice Friedman; the couple had three children and 5 grandchildren.[10]

Academic career[edit]

Wallerstein’s academic and professional career began at Columbia University, where he started as an instructor and later became an associate professor of sociology from 1958 to 1971.[10] During his time there he became a prominent supporter of the students during the Columbia University protests of 1968.[11] In 1971 he moved from New York to Montreal, where he taught at McGill University for five years.[10]

Originally, Wallerstein’s prime area of intellectual concern was not American politics, but politics of the non-European world, most especially in India and Africa.[3] For two decades Wallerstein researched Africa, publishing numerous books and articles,[3] and in 1973 he became president of the African Studies Association.[12]

In 1976 Wallerstein was offered the unique opportunity to pursue a new avenue of research, and so became head of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilization at Binghamton University in New York,[13] which has a mission “to engage in the analysis of large-scale social change over long periods of historical time”.[14] The Center opened with the publishing support of a new journal, Review,[10] (of which Wallerstein was the founding editor), and would go on to produce a body of work that “went a long way toward invigorating sociology and its sister disciplines, especially history and political-economy“.[10] Wallerstein would serve as a distinguished professor of sociology at Binghamton until his retirement in 1999.[15]

During his career Wallerstein held visiting-professor posts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, British Columbia, and Amsterdam, among numerous others.[16] He was awarded multiple honorary titles, intermittently served as Directeur d’études associé at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and served as president of the International Sociological Association between 1994 and 1998.[17] Similarly, during the 1990s he chaired the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences, whose object was to indicate a direction for social scientific inquiry for the next 50 years.[18]

Between 2000 and his death in 2019 Wallerstein worked as a Senior Research Scholar at Yale University.[19] He was also a member of the Advisory Editors Council of the Social Evolution & History journal. In 2003, he received the “Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award” from the American Sociological Association,[12] and in 2004 the International N. D. Kondratieff Foundation and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences (RAEN) awarded him the Gold Kondratieff Medal.[20] Wallerstein died on August 31, 2019 from an infection, at the age of 88.[21]


Wallerstein began as an expert of post-colonial African affairs, which he selected as the focus of his studies after attending international youth conferences in 1951 and 1952.[22] His publications were almost exclusively devoted to this until the early 1970s, when he began to distinguish himself as a historian and theorist of the global capitalist economy on a macroscopic level. His early criticism of global capitalism and championship of “anti-systemic movements” made him an éminence grise with the anti-globalization movement within and outside of the academic community, along with Noam Chomsky and Pierre Bourdieu.

His most important work, The Modern World-System, appeared in four volumes between 1974 and 2011.[23] In it, Wallerstein drew on several intellectual influences:

  • Karl Marx, whom he followed in emphasizing underlying economic factors and their dominance over ideological factors in global politics, and whose economic thinking he adopted with such ideas as the dichotomy between capital and labor. He also criticized the traditional Marxian view of world economic development through stages such as feudalism and capitalism, and its belief in the accumulation of capital, dialectics, and more;
  • Dependency theory, most obviously its concepts of “core” and “periphery”.

However, Wallerstein categorized Frantz FanonFernand Braudel, and Ilya Prigogine as the three individuals that had the greatest impact “in modifying my line of argument (as opposed to deepening a parallel line of argument).”[3] In The Essential Wallerstein, he chronologically lists the three individuals and described their influence on his views:

  • Frantz Fanon: “Fanon represented for me the expression of the insistence by those disenfranchised by the modern world‑system that they have a voice, a vision, and a claim not merely to justice but to intellectual valuation.”[3]
  • Fernand Braudel: who had described the development and political implications of extensive networks of economic exchange in the European world between 1400 and 1800, “more than anyone else made me conscious of the central importance of the social construction of time and space and its impact on our analyses.”[3]
  • Ilya Prigogine: “Prigogine forced me to face the implications of a world in which certainties did not exist – but knowledge still did.”[3]

Wallerstein also stated that another major influence on his work was the “world revolution” of 1968. He was on the faculty of Columbia University at the time of the student uprising there, and participated in a faculty committee that attempted to resolve the dispute. He argued in several works that this revolution marked the end of “liberalism” as a viable ideology in the modern world system. He also argued that the end of the Cold War, rather than marking a triumph for liberalism, indicates that the current system has entered its ‘end’ phase; a period of crisis that will end only when it is replaced by another system.[24] Wallerstein anticipated the growing importance of the North–South divide at a time when the main world conflict was the Cold War..[citation needed]

He argued since 1980 that the United States is a “hegemon in decline”. He was often mocked for making this claim during the 1990s,[citation needed] but since the Iraq War this argument has become more widespread. Overall, Wallerstein saw the development of the capitalist world economy as detrimental to a large proportion of the world’s population.[25] Like Marx, Wallerstein predicted that capitalism will be replaced by a socialist economy.[26]

Wallerstein both participated in and wrote about the World Social Forum.

The Modern World-System[edit]

Wallerstein’s first volume on world-systems theory (The Modern World System, 1974) was predominantly written during a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (now affiliated with Stanford University).[5] In it, he argues that the modern world system is distinguished from empires by its reliance on economic control of the world order by a dominating capitalist center (core) in systemic economic and political relation to peripheral and semi-peripheral world areas.[27]

Wallerstein rejected the notion of a “Third World“, claiming that there is only one world connected by a complex network of economic exchange relationships — i.e., a “world-economy” or “world-system” in which the “dichotomy of capital and labor” and the endless “accumulation of capital” by competing agents (historically including, but not limited, to nation-states) account for frictions.[28] This approach is known as the world-system theory.

Wallerstein located the origin of the modern world-system in 16th-century Western Europe and the Americas. An initially slight advance in capital accumulation in Britain, the Dutch Republic, and France, due to specific political circumstances at the end of the period of feudalism, set in motion a process of gradual expansion. As a result, only one global network or system of economic exchange exists in modern society. By the 19th century, virtually every area on earth was incorporated into the capitalist world-economy.

The capitalist world-system is far from homogeneous in cultural, political, and economic terms; instead, it is characterized by fundamental differences in social development, accumulation of political power, and capital. Contrary to affirmative theories of modernization and capitalism, Wallerstein did not conceive of these differences as mere residues or irregularities that can and will be overcome as the system evolves.

A lasting division of the world into coresemi-periphery, and periphery is an inherent feature of world-system theory. Other theories, partially drawn on by Wallerstein, leave out the semi-periphery and do not allow for a grayscale of development.[28] Areas which have so far remained outside the reach of the world-system enter it at the stage of “periphery”. There is a fundamental and institutionally stabilized “division of labor” between core and periphery: while the core has a high level of technological development and manufactures complex products, the role of the periphery is to supply raw materials, agricultural products, and cheap labor for the expanding agents of the core. Economic exchange between core and periphery takes place on unequal terms: the periphery is forced to sell its products at low prices, but has to buy the core’s products at comparatively high prices. Once established, this unequal state tends to stabilize itself due to inherent, quasi-deterministic constraints. The statuses of core and periphery are not exclusive and fixed geographically, but are relative to each other. A zone defined as “semi-periphery” acts as a periphery to the core and as a core to the periphery. At the end of the 20th century, this zone would comprise Eastern Europe, ChinaBrazil, and Mexico. It is important to note that core and peripheral zones can co-exist in the same location.

One effect of the expansion of the world-system is the commodification of things, including human labor. Natural resources, land, labor, and human relationships are gradually being stripped of their “intrinsic” value and turned into commodities in a market which dictates their exchange value.

In the last two decades of his life, Wallerstein increasingly focused on the intellectual foundations of the modern world-system and the pursuit of universal theories of human behavior. In addition, he showed interest in the “structures of knowledge” defined by the disciplinary division between sociology, anthropologypolitical scienceeconomics, and the humanities, which he himself regarded as Eurocentric. In analyzing them, he was highly influenced by the “new sciences” of theorists like Ilya Prigogine.


Wallerstein’s theory provoked harsh criticism, not only from neo-liberal or conservative circles, but even from some historians who say that some of his assertions may be historically incorrect. Some critics suggest that Wallerstein tended to neglect the cultural dimension of the modern world-system, arguing that there is a world system of global culture which is independent from the economic processes of capitalism;[29] this reduces it to what some call “official” ideologies of states which can then easily be revealed as mere agencies of economic interest. Nevertheless, his analytical approach, along with that of associated theorists such as Andre Gunder FrankTerence HopkinsSamir AminChristopher Chase-Dunn, Thomas D. Hall and Giovanni Arrighi, has made a significant impact on the field and has established an institutional base devoted to the general approach of intellectual inquiry. Their ideology has also attracted strong interest from the anti-globalization movement.

Terms and definitions[edit]

Capitalist world-system
Wallerstein’s definition follows dependency theory, which intended to combine the developments of the different societies since the 16th century in different regions into one collective development. The main characteristic of his definition is the development of a global division of labour, including the existence of independent political units (in this case, states) at the same time. There is no political center, compared to global empires like the Roman Empire; instead, the capitalist world-system is identified by the global market economy. It is divided into core, semi-periphery, and periphery regions, and is ruled by the capitalist mode of production.

Defines the difference between developed and developing countries, characterized e.g. by power or wealth. The core refers to developed countries, the periphery to the dependent developing countries. The main reason for the position of the developed countries is economic power.

Defines states that are located between core and periphery, and who benefit from the periphery through unequal exchange relations. At the same time, the core benefits from the semi-periphery through unequal exchange relations.

Defines a kind of monopoly where there is more than one service provider for a particular good/service. Wallerstein claims that quasi-monopolies are self-liquidating because new sellers go into the market by exerting political pressure to open markets to competition.[30]

Kondratiev waves
Kondratiev wave is defined as a cyclical tendency in the world’s economy. It is also known as a supercycle. Wallerstein argues that global wars are tied to Kondratiev waves. According to him, global conflicts occur as the summer phase of a wave begins, which is when production of goods and services around the world are on an upswing.[31]

Honors and fellowships[edit]

  • International Sociological Association Award for Excellence in Research and Practice, 2014
  • N.D. Kondratieff Gold Medal, Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, 2005
  • Distinguished Fellow, St. John’s College, University of British Columbia, 2004–present
  • Centro de Estudios, Información y Documentación Immanuel Wallerstein, Univ. de la Tierra-Chiapas y el CIDECI Las Casas, 2004–present
  • Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, American Sociological Association, 2003
  • Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, Political Economy of the World-System Section of American Sociological Association, 2003
  • Premio Carlos Marx 2003, Fondo Cultural Tercer Mundo, Mexico
  • Leerstoel (Chair) Immanuel Wallerstein, University of Ghent, 2002- [Inaugural Lecture by IW on Mar. 11, 2002]
  • Fellow, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1998
  • IPE Distinguished Scholar, International Studies Association, 1998
  • Gulbenkian Professor of Science and Technology, 1994
  • Medal of the University, University of Helsinki, 1992
  • Wei Lun Visiting Professor, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1991
  • University Award for Excellence in Scholarship, Binghamton University, 1991
  • George A. Miller Visiting Professor, University of Illinois-Urbana, 1989
  • Officier, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France, 1984
  • Sorokin Prize (for Distinguished Scholarship), American Sociological Association, 1975
  • Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, 1970–71
  • Ford Fellow in Economics, Political Science and Sociology, 1970–71
  • Foreign Area Fellowship, Africa, 1955–57
  • Phi Beta Kappa, 1951


1961Africa, The Politics of IndependenceImmanuel WallersteinNew York: Vintage Books
1964The Road to Independence: Ghana and the Ivory CoastImmanuel WallersteinParis & The Hague: Mouton
1967Africa: The Politics of UnityImmanuel WallersteinNew York: Random House
1969University in Turmoil: The Politics of ChangeImmanuel WallersteinNew York: Atheneum
1972Africa: Tradition & ChangeImmanuel Wallerstein with Evelyn Jones RichNew York: Random House
1974The Modern World-System, vol. I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth CenturyImmanuel WallersteinNew York/London: Academic Press
1979The Capitalist World-EconomyImmanuel WallersteinCambridge University Press
1980The Modern World-System, vol. II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750Immanuel WallersteinNew York: Academic Press
1982World-Systems Analysis: Theory and MethodologyImmanuel Wallerstein with Terence K. Hopkins et al.Beverly Hills: Sage
1982Dynamics of Global CrisisImmanuel Wallerstein with Samir AminGiovanni Arrighi and Andre Gunder FrankLondon: Macmillan
1983Historical CapitalismImmanuel WallersteinLondon: Verso
1984The Politics of the World-Economy. The States, the Movements and the CivilizationsImmanuel WallersteinCambridge: Cambridge University Press
1986Africa and the Modern WorldImmanuel WallersteinTrenton, NJ: Africa World Press
1989The Modern World-System, vol. III: The Second Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730-1840’sImmanuel WallersteinSan Diego: Academic Press
1989Antisystemic MovementsImmanuel Wallerstein with Giovanni Arrighi and Terence K. HopkinsLondon: Verso
1990Transforming the Revolution: Social Movements and the World-SystemImmanuel Wallerstein with Samir AminGiovanni Arrighi and Andre Gunder FrankNew York: Monthly Review Press
1991Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous IdentitiesImmanuel Wallerstein with Étienne BalibarLondon: Verso.
1991Geopolitics and Geoculture: Essays on the Changing World-SystemImmanuel WallersteinCambridge: Cambridge University Press
1991Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth Century ParadigmsImmanuel WallersteinCambridge: Polity
1995After LiberalismImmanuel WallersteinNew York: New Press
1995Historical Capitalism, with Capitalist CivilizationImmanuel WallersteinLondon: Verso
1998Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first CenturyImmanuel WallersteinNew York: New Press
1999The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-first CenturyImmanuel WallersteinMinneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
2001Democracy, Capitalism, and TransformationImmanuel WallersteinDocumenta 11, Vienna, March 16, 2001
2003Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic WorldImmanuel WallersteinNew York: New Press
2004The Uncertainties of KnowledgeImmanuel WallersteinPhiladelphia: Temple University Press
2004World-Systems Analysis: An IntroductionImmanuel WallersteinDurham, North Carolina: Duke University Press
2004Alternatives: The U.S. Confronts the WorldImmanuel WallersteinBoulder, Colorado: Paradigm Press
2006European Universalism: The Rhetoric of PowerImmanuel WallersteinNew York: New Press
2011The Modern World-System, vol. IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789–1914Immanuel WallersteinBerkeley: University of California Press
2013Uncertain Worlds: World-Systems Analysis in Changing TimesImmanuel Wallerstein with Charles Lemert and Carlos Antonio Aguirre RojasBoulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers
2013Does Capitalism Have a Future?Immanuel Wallerstein with Randall CollinsMichael MannGeorgi Derluguian and Craig CalhounNew York: Oxford University Press
2015The World is Out of Joint: World-Historical Interpretations of Continuing PolarizationsImmanuel Wallerstein (editor)Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers

See also[edit]

Johan GaltungHistorical sociologyLate capitalism


  1. Jump up to:a b Wallerstein, Immanuel Maurice (1959). The Emergence of Two West African Nations: Ghana and the Ivory Coast (Dissertation). ProQuest LLC. ProQuest 301893682.
  2. ^ Robinson, William I. (November 1, 2011). “Globalization and the sociology of Immanuel Wallerstein: A critical appraisal” (PDF). International SociologySAGE Publications26 (6): 723–745. doi:10.1177/0268580910393372. Retrieved October 11, 2016.
  3. Jump up to:a b c d e f g h i j Wallerstein, I. 2000. The Essential Wallerstein.New York, NY: The New Press. For a slightly adapted version of the Introductory essay to The Essential Wallerstein, see:
  4. ^ “China and the World System since 1945” by Immanuel Wallerstein
  5. Jump up to:a b “Wallerstein, Immanuel (1930- ).” The AZ Guide to Modern Social and Political Theorists. Ed. Noel Parker and Stuart Sim. Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997. 372-76. Print.
  6. ^ Agence Global
  7. ^ “This is the end; this is the beginning”Immanuel Wallerstein. 2019-07-01. Retrieved 2019-07-04.
  8. ^ “ISA Presidents”. International Sociological Association. Retrieved 2012-07-25.
  9. Jump up to:a b M. J. Minakowski (May 27, 2018). “Wallerstein to Polak, są dokumenty” (in Polish). Retrieved September 2, 2019.
  10. Jump up to:a b c d e f Sica, Alan. 2005. “Immanuel Wallerstein”. Pp. 734-739 in Social Thought: from the Enlightenment to the present. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  11. ^ Ed. Lemert, Charles. 2010. “Immanuel Wallerstein.” Pp. 398-405 in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classical Readings. Westview Press.
  12. Jump up to:a b Wallerstein, I. (April 2009). Curriculum Vitae. Retrieved from
  13. ^ Sica, Alan. 2005. “Immanuel Wallerstein.” Pp. 734-739 in Social Thought: from the Enlightenment to the present. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  14. ^
  15. ^ Wallerstein, I. (April 2009). Curriculum Vitae. Retrieved from
  16. ^ Allan, Kenneth (2006). Contemporary social and sociological theory: visualizing social worlds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
  17. ^ Lemert, edited with commentaries by Charles (2010). Social theory : the multicultural and classic readings (4th ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. ISBN 9780813343921.
  18. ^ Wallerstein, Wallerstein. “Immanuel Wallerstein”. Retrieved 27 February 2014.
  19. ^ Ed. Parker, Noel and Stuart Sim. 1997. “Wallerstein, Immanuel (1930- ).” Pp. 372-76 in The AZ Guide to Modern Social and Political Theorists. Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf.
  20. ^ The International N. D. Kondratieff Foundation
  21. ^
  22. ^ Wallerstein, I. 2000. The Essential Wallerstein. New York, NY: The New Press.
  23. ^ Williams, Gregory. P. 2013. Special Contribution: Interview with Immanuel Wallerstein Retrospective on the Origins of World-Systems Analysis. Journal of World-Systems Research 19(2): 202-210.
  24. ^ Baylis, John (2011). The Globalization of World Politics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-956909-0.
  25. ^ Paul Halsall Modern History Sourcebook: Summary of Wallerstein on World System Theory, August 1997
  26. ^ Carlos A. Martínez-Vela, World Systems Theory, paper prepared for the Research Seminar in Engineering Systems, November 2003
  27. ^ Ed. Lemert, Charles. 2010. “Immanuel Wallerstein.” Pp. 398-405 in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classical Readings. Westview Press.
  28. Jump up to:a b So, Alvin Y. (1990). Social Change and Development: Modernization, Dependency, and World-Systems Theory. Newbury Park, London: Sage Publications. pp. 169–199.
  29. ^ Abercrombie, Nicholas, Hill, Stephen, and Bryan Turner. 2006. Dictionary of Sociology. 6th ed. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd.
  30. ^ Wallerstein, Immanuel (2004). World-systems analysis : an introduction (5. print. ed.). Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0822334422.
  31. ^ “What Is the Kondratiev Wave?”. Retrieved 30 September2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kenneth, A. “Contemporary social and sociological theory: visualizing social worlds”. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2006.
  • Brewer, A., Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical survey, London: Macmillan, 1990.
  • Frank, A.G. and B. Gills (eds), The World System: 500 years or 5000?, London: Routledge, 1993.
  • Hout, W., Capitalism and the Third World: Development, dependence and the world system, Hants: Edward Elgar, 1993.
  • Sanderson, S., Civilizations and World Systems, London: Sage, 1955.
  • Shannon, T., An Introduction to the World-System Perspective, Oxford: Westview Press, 1989.
  • Wallerstein, I., The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century, New York: Academic Press, 1974.

External links[edit]

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