6 minute read

Latin America World Systems Theory

Developments And Critiques Of World Systems Theory Since 1980

World systems theory was enormously influential throughout the world for several decades, although its influence was more profound in Third World regions such as Latin America, and in Europe, than in the United States. Even in the United States, however, major works such as Eric Wolf's study of Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (1969) or Sidney Mintz's magisterial study of the relationship between slavery and capitalism, Europe, and the Caribbean, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), took their inspiration directly from world systems theory.

There were always critics on the right, of course, and over time other criticisms arose, and intellectual trends that began as part of world systems theory gradually moved away from it. Conservative development theory gained new ground among politicians and development experts in the 1980s with the popularity of neoliberal reforms; within academic circles, postmodernism has both been influenced by world systems theory, and profoundly suspicious of it. The current emphasis on transnationalism clearly looks back to Wallerstein's insistence that in the face of a global economy, nation-states and local cultures cannot be analyzed in isolation from one another; at the same time, however, a distaste for "master narratives" marked the death knell for the mono-causal insistence on looking for a single underlying structure with vast explanatory reach. Yet, as postcolonial theorists have shown, a multicausal conception of master narrative, such as colonialism, avoids the problem of any single overarching explanation that homogenizes history.

Thus by 1996, statements such as those made by York Bradshaw and Michael Wallace, two sociologists from the United States, in their book Global Inequalities, that despite its historical importance "world-systems analysis" is simply "out of touch with current realities," have become commonplace. Two of their criticisms are especially revealing. First, they say that "just as modernization theory places too much blame on poor countries for their own underdevelopment, [so] world-system theory errs in the other extreme: It places almost total blame for Third World poverty on core countries" (p. 51). This point has been taken up by many activists in Third World countries, who see their own leaders and educated elites using criticism of the First World to evade responsibility for their own failures. Political positions, such as cultural policies, and artistic production are all marked by a "relative autonomy" from the world system that must be acknowledged before much needed local self-criticism is possible and democratic accountability can occur.

Second, Bradshaw and Wallace observe that sometimes "world-system theory had exaggerated the harmful effects" of multinational corporations. They and others point to the relative success story of China and the four "Little Dragons" in Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong) on the advanced semiperiphery of the world system as an instance of how "underdevelopment" is less in evidence as a result of Western-style modernization. This point is related to one made by intellectuals from within the world systems tradition, who in the late 1980s and 1990s began to move from a simple view of world history in which European domination was the single, central fact to a more complex vision of history. New studies of the past looked at the emergence of previous core-and-periphery systems, before the rise of Europe, in which the core might be found in Asian empires, or in the Middle East. In a similar vein, studies of the contemporary world have emphasized a multicentric vision, in which Japanese capitalist expansion in Southeast Asia, Australian neocolonial influence in the Pacific, and the rise of India's technology centers create multiple centers of economic power, while still perpetuating an underlying capitalist system in which the drive for profit overrides all other motives, and drastic inequality is continually reproduced and exacerbated.

Indeed, critics who dismiss world systems theory as irrelevant may be both losing sight of its most critical insights and overlooking current political trends. The much-vaunted neo-liberal reforms of the 1990s, modernization theory's successors, seem to have produced a series of economic crises; overall, most Latin Americans lost considerable economic ground during that dismal decade. Enlarging the definition of the core to include the bourgeosie of Third World nations, and the periphery to include the disenfranchised poor of First World nations such as Britain or the United States, is entirely in keeping with the original vision of unequal development; nor has the brunt of poverty and political repression ceased to fall on the world's nonwhite population, whether they live in Paris, London, or the Caribbean. Furthermore, presidents elected in some Latin American nations in the early 2000s, including Lula da Silva of Brazil and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, as well as the rise of powerful new popular movements such as the indigenous movements of Ecuador and Bolivia, or the landless movement of Brazil, and the international antiglobalization movement, may indicate a new wave of political activism on behalf of the poor, which in turn may produce a new intellectual movement that will take off where world systems theory left off.

The underlying global inequalities that motivated world systems theory are still evident: in the early twenty-first century 5 percent of the population (the percentage of the population that resides in the United States) continues to control more than half of the world's resources. Unlike modernization theory, world systems theory not only highlights this grave situation, but also gives compelling reasons for how the world could be more justly organized otherwise.


Amin, Samir, Giovanni Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank, and Immanuel Wallerstein. Dynamics of Global Crisis. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1982.

Baran, Paul A. The Political Economy of Growth. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957.

Bradshaw, York W., and Michael Wallace. Global Inequalities. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 1996.

Cardoso, Fernando Henrique, and Enzo Faletto. Dependencia y desarrollo en America Latina. Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1969.

Castro, Fidel. The World Economic and Social Crisis. Havana, Cuba: Public Office of the Council of State, 1983.

Fanon, Frantz. Peau noire, masques blanc. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952.

Frank, André Gunder. Capitalismo y subdesarrollo en América Latina. Mexico City: Sigloveintiuno, 1987.

——. Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967.

González Casanova, Pablo. Imperialismo y Liberación en América Latina. Mexico City: Oceano, 1968.

James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins. New York: Dial Press, 1938.

King, Anthony D., ed. Culture, Globalization, and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. Binghamton: State University of New York, 1991.

Kitching, Gavin. Development and Underdevelopment in Historical Perspective: Populism, Nationalism, and Industrialization. New York and London: Methuen, 1982.

Magdoff, Harry. The Age of Imperialism: The Economics of U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969.

Marini, Ruy Mauro. Subdesarrollo y revolución. Mexico City: Siglo Veialiuno Editores, 1969.

Núñez Soto, Orlando, and Roger Burbach. Democracia y Revolución en las Américas. Mexico City: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo, 1987.

Ramirez, Sergio. Estás en Nicaragua. Barcelona: Muchnik, 1985.

Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1972.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press, 1976.

Wolf, Eric R. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

David Craven

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Well-being to Jan Ɓukasiewicz BiographyLatin America World Systems Theory - The Age Of Decolonization And The Failings Of Modernization Theory, Precursors To World Systems Theory, Wallerstein And World Systems Theory