II.1 Introduction

Previous

 

This chapter will present the theoretical framework within which the current position of Europe in the world will be studied in Chapter IV. It will be assumed that the appropriate unit of analysis is the world system . There are, however, as many world system theories as there are world system theorists. Here a particular blend will be adopted, with references given to alternative or complementary positions. Constraints of space will lead to a condensed presentation.

 

II World system theory

II.1 Introduction

That is, an attempt at elegant theory construction that emphasizes overarching system-level causality risks deemphasizing “unit level processes” such that they become either insignificant or are conceptualized as mere epiphenomena of the system itself. Oversystematicity thus implies that system structure (over)determines the behavior of all the constituent elements thereof. It is, therefore, criticized as being reductionist. (Barry K. Gills 1995: 149)

The rule seems to be, if you want to study the mid-period …, begin at the end of it and let the problems lead you back. Never try to begin at the beginning. Historical research progresses backward, not forward. (John K. Fairbank, quoted in Gills 1993b: 151-152, emphasis in original)

This chapter will present the theoretical framework within which the current position of Europe in the world will be studied in Chapter IV. It will be assumed that the appropriate unit of analysis is the world system[1]. There are, however, as many world system theories as there are world system theorists. Here a particular blend will be adopted, with references given to alternative or complementary positions. Constraints of space will lead to a condensed presentation.

Fernand Braudel first proposed the notion of a world-system to understand the Mediterranean region in the early modern times (Braudel 1949). This concept was then taken up by Immanuel Wallerstein to encompass a much larger system, both spatially and temporally, that is, the five hundred years old capitalist world‑system (Wallerstein 1974). He took it to be fundamentally different from previously existing world-systems, world-empires (politico-militarily unified) or world-economies (not unified). The main and determining difference was the mode of production, with commodification of labour and ceaseless accumulation of capital in the capitalist world-system. More recently, Andre Gunder Frank and Barry K. Gills proposed that a single world system[2] has continually existed for about five thousand years (Frank 1993a), of which Wallerstein’s capitalist world-system is just one particular instance.

One can divide world(-)system(s) theories into ‘continuationist’, that consider a single world-system, and ‘transformationist’, that accept different ones and hence compare them and study the transitions between them. Another divide is that between the classic ‘post-1500’ theories that do not accept extension of concepts to earlier societies, and ‘pre-1500ers’ that extend analysis much farther back (Sanderson 1995b: 102-103 names some of the theorists involved).

The version of the theory that will be presented here is decidedly pre-1500, and involves both continuationist and transformationist aspects inasmuch as a single world system with very general constant properties is considered, but allowing for fundamental transformations within it[3]. The unfeasibility of describing here all the geographic areas, civilisations and cultures involved, as well as the determining relations between them, means that this presentation will concentrate on general systemic features and hence will suffer from over‑systematicity. It also means that we will begin by the ‘beginning’ and proceed forwards, which is the simplest and most economical method.

We will then focus on the last five hundred years of the world system, corresponding to the transition of hegemony from the East to the West. The main theoretical tools used will be Giovanni Arrighi’s concept of systemic cycles of accumulation of capital with successive (Western) hegemonies (Arrighi 1994), together with Wallerstein’s (and Frank’s) concept of core-periphery structure (Wallerstein 1995a, Frank 1966).

 

Next


[1] “Wallersteinian world-system theory has been severely criticized over the years …, but it has survived nevertheless. … Even if one does not accept all of its premises … it can be argued that it established a basic methodological dictum: the world-system itself is the fundamental unit of analysis.” (Sanderson 1995b: 99).

[2] Frank and Gills make an emphatic distinction between their “world system” (without hyphen), that is (nearly) world-wide, and Wallerstein’s “world-systems” (with hyphen), that are autonomous and exist in a world of their own (Frank 1993b: 3). This debate is similar to that between civilisationists, where to the traditional study of many civilisations that rise and fall independently, David Wilkinson proposes a single Central Civilisation that was formed at about 1500 BC with the coupling of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and has since incorporated all other civilisations (Wilkinson 1993, 1995a, 1995b). In this work we will use Frank and Gills’ distinction between hyphenated and non-hyphenated phrases, such as world(-)system and world(-)economy.

[3] Much the same as phase transitions in Thermodynamics. For instance, water, water vapour, and (the many different types of ) ice have some essentially different properties (e.g. being liquid, gaseous, or solid) while being made of exactly the same molecule.