chapter  7
27 Pages

World systems theory and the epidemiological transition. Martin Hyde and Anthony Rosie


The American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-) is a founding figure in world-system theory and research. Educated at Columbia University he completed a PhD on political systems in West Africa in the late 1950s. While he continued to write about Africa thereafter his attention moved to how Africa fitted into a larger world picture. The work of the historian Fernand Braudel (1993; 2002a; 2002b; 2002c), whose major study included an analysis of civilisation and capitalism, convinced Wallerstein of the need for both an analysis at the world-system level and a deep engagement with historical data. Rather than marking a radical change of direction, the emerging analysis of how lives are organised under a single world-system sought to contextualise all that Wallerstein had undertaken to the 1970s. His output since has been extensive and wide-ranging. However, his three volumes on the modern world-system are perhaps the most enduring part of his legacy. Published in 1974, 1980 and 1989, they chart the rise of a single, capitalist world-system from the late fifteenth century onwards. Through this work he argued that world-systems had replaced world-empires. However he was keen to stress that imperialism has not disappeared and that it remains relevant to the lives of many people around the globe. Wallerstein’s research into world-systems drew on Marx’s analyses of production

without being a Marxist theory. Braudel’s civilisational analyses provided a mainspring and the Centre Wallerstein went on to found at Binghampton in 1979 was named in honour of Braudel. By the time he published the first volume of the history in 1974, Wallerstein was joining others in a critique of modernisation theory, the idea that if only ‘less developed’ countries did certain things borrowed from successful Western nations then they could have a brighter future. By 1974 the critiques of modernisation by dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank and Fernando Cardoso, later the thirty-fourth president of Brazil, were becoming well known. Dependency theory posits that metropoles, or core areas, exert control through trade and other practices on peripheral nations through both the means of production and the cost of commodities. One contribution Wallerstein made to this analysis was to point to the role of

the semi-periphery, which acts to keep the other two components in place. The

core areas act directly on both semi-periphery and periphery, but the expanding division of labour draws largely on the ways in which regions in the semi-periphery act directly on the periphery while also supporting the core. Of course if there is downward movement from countries in the core there is always a potential upward mover from the semi-periphery. The rise of China and India in the last 20 years provides an example. Wallerstein remarked somewhat ruefully that students often read only the

journal article he published in 1974 alongside the first volume of the history of the world-system. Certainly the journal article encapsulates the key arguments found across the three volumes, but a reader interested in how parts of the world were incorporated into the single world-system would need to read at least volume three of the history. Here the reader will find how West Africa was an external zone to the rising European capitalist system from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and how it was first peripheralised through the slave trade before becoming part of the periphery in the ever-strengthening single world-system. Wallerstein’s work provided a very real starting point for world-systems analysis.

He sustained a wide range of inquiries from scholars all over the world, many coming to study at the Fernand Braudel Centre. Then the publication of journals and currently the Journal of World-Systems Research marked the establishment of the field as a point of reference in global sociology. As a convenor and then president of the International Sociological Association (ISA), Wallerstein has worked to bring together world social science scholarship in ways that are accessible to many.