Wallerstien: Is the Semi-Periphery Useful?

How useful is Wallerstien’s notion of a semi-periphery? Is his thinking any different to that of realists?

2nd June 2008


During the 1970s, Immanuel Wallerstein [1] proposed what he called the World Systems’ Theory. He believed there were many things that could not be explained regarding the continued poverty occurring in the world if its countries were only studied as individuals.  As a means to better understand their development, he felt that it was necessary to analyse specific countries within one social whole: a theory that Wallerstein was to label the modern world-system.

Wallersteins theory looks at the world from the point of view that the world itself is the single unit. It attempts to explain the need of capitalism to have developed, developing and underdeveloped countries. Wallerstein defines a world system as:

a social system [2], one that has boundaries, structures, member groups, rules of legitimation, and coherence. Its life is made up of the conflicting forces which hold it together by tension and tear it apart as each group seeks eternally to remold it to its advantage. It has the characteristics of an organism, in that it has a life-span over which its characteristics change in some respects and remain stable in others. One can define its structures as being at different times strong or weak in terms of the internal logic of its functioning. (Wallerstein 1974)

In the modern world, capitalism [3] can be seen as the driving force behind the constant expansion and amalgamation that has expanded to cover the globe. Under monopoly capitalism a two-tiered structure develops within the world economic structure. This construct houses an elite and dominant core that exploits the less developed nations of the periphery. Wallerstein (1976) argued that between the two outer limits of the core and the periphery lie the semi-peripheries. Some of these areas, he says, are “represented as core-areas of earlier versions of a given world-economy which are now in a state of decline” while others had been “peripheral areas that were later promoted, as a result of the changing geopolitics of an expanding world-economy.” This semi-periphery region often serves as a buffer between the regions of the core and those of the periphery. Economically, these nations retained limited, though declining access to international banking and the production of high-cost, high-quality manufactured goods. In contrast to the core they failed to gain sufficient development in the area of international trade and as a result did not benefit to the same extent. “With a weak, capitalist, rural economy, landlords in semi-peripheries frequently resort to sharecropping. This lessens the risk of crop failure for landowners, while at the same time makes it possible to enjoy profits from the land as well as the prestige that goes with landownership” (Halsall, P 1997). Wallerstein tells us that, the semi-peripheries are often exploited by the core. He states that “the middle stratum is both exploited and the exploiter” (Wallerstein cite in Griffiths 1999) , as in the case of the American Empire of Spain[4].

Basically, Wallerstein argues that interdependent relationships are generated between the core countries and the developing countries of the semi-periphery; which in turn are also established between the semi-periphery and the underdeveloped countries of the periphery. Any economic instability or fluctuation within the core automatically has an impact on the economic performance of the semi-periphery. Political instability within the semi-periphery can in turn cause economic complications for the core, as a result the core is vitally interested in maintaining political stability within the semi-periphery regardless of the current political system and the social cost that this system may have on its people.[5]

Conversely, in the view of the realists, the sovereign [6] states are the major players in the world arena and as such views each state as an independent party.  The autocratic form of state leadership [7] is more conducive to the realist view since realism focuses on the politics concerning national security and the relationships, which exist or are developed, between prominent powers. Realists view human nature as fixed and selfish, to them this is of central importance to their outlook on world systems. Viewing world politics from this point of view, it represents a struggle for power between states, each trying to increase, develop and maintain the maximum potential of their respectful national interests. The realist view may be becoming increasingly obsolete as more and more states move toward becoming liberal democracies [8], since pluralist governmental systems [9] are contradictory of the unitary actor model as portrayed through the realist model (Gangale 2002). In these forms of society, the state can only approach the ideal of being a unitary actor in areas where the state holds a controlling position [10]. Despite this, the world is becoming increasingly more interconnected, via economic globalization and through the growth in number and influence of transnational political organizations (Gangale 2002, Smith, Baylis and Owens 2008 p.8). More recently, as in the case of September 11th, non-state, transnational actors have gained the ability to directly threaten national security.[11]
As a system realism makes several important assumptions. Rice states that, “It assumes that the international system is anarchic” [12]. He also declares that:

Realism also assumes that; sovereign states, rather than international institutions, non-governmental organizations, or multinational corporations, are the primary actors in international affairs and that each state is seen as a rational actor [13] who always pursues self-interest. In such a system the primary objective of each state is to ensure its own security.  In the pursuit of that security, states will attempt to amass resources. Relations between states are therefore determined between states by their relative level of power in terms of military and economic capabilities” (Rice 2006)

In this event, he says, “military capabilities must be at least sufficient to deter attack and that strategic planning should always be made in reference to the worst-case scenario.” (Rice 2006) Adversely, in a pluralist society, there is seldom a general consensus reached on what is in the national interest. Realism, by definition, “leads to power-oriented strategies with power as an end in itself.” Therefore, realism, it would seem, leads to war, since rational pursuit of power simplifies calculations for war (Rice, D 2006). To realists the issues of national security are of viewed as being of the highest importance. In practice, the decision as to what are the most important issues is decided according to the values of the policymakers. In a pluralist society, national security issues only gain ascendency when an acute threat has been anticipated. This means that, as more nations of the world move toward becoming liberal democracies and the world becomes more integrated by international institutions, transnational organizations, global communication, and trade, in most cases, nations no longer require to exercise hard power [14], and frequently have many incentives not to.  This process of global integration means that the world is no longer as anarchic as realists have traditionally viewed it. (Gangale 2002) As an end result of this pluralists and institutionalists are considered closer to the truth in regard to America’s preeminent position in the world as characterized by the increased application of soft power [15] alternatives.

Wallerstein tells us that “Capitalism as a historical system [16] is defined by the fact that it makes structurally central and primary the endless accumulation of capital. This means that the institutions which constitute its framework reward those who pursue the endless accumulation of capital and penalize those who don’t” (Wallerstein 1999). He regards the world economy as an ongoing, extensive and relatively complete social division of labor with an integrated set of production processes that relate to each other through a market. This is likened to the progressive image of international relations where classes, states and societies, and non-state actors operate as part of world capitalist system. In this sense the international system is viewed from the historical perspective, especially in regard to the continuous development of world capitalism. It focuses on patterns of dominance within and among societies, with economic factors being the most important. “The political superstructure of this world economy is an interstate system within which and through which “sovereign states” are legitimized and constrained” (Gangale 2002). Wallerstein tells us that the capitalist world economy is defined by certain patterns “the cyclical rhythms that define its systemic character and which enable it to maintain certain equilibria, at least for the duration of the system and, on the other hand, the secular trends that grow out of these cyclical rhythms defining its historical character” (Wallerstein 1999).

Although Wallerstein describes the action of cyclical forces at work in capitalism, he also suggests that the world economy model is not totally cyclical, but rather that, it has a structure that has been developed historically which can best be considered in reference to its secular trends. With further reference to this he notes that the boundaries of the world economy, their structural limits [17], have reached a point where they can no longer be restructured much further to allow for further expansion, and that now there is only a single social division of labor within the world system. Throughout time the number of Proletarians [18] have grown steadily in number, Wallerstein estimated in 1983 that only 10 to 15 percent of the population constituted the upper stratum of the worlds capitalist system and 85 percent constituting the working class. More conservative estimates however suggest that they are still probably no more than half of the world’s work force.

Cyclical movements also imply economic downturns, at regular intervals. Wallerstein explains that regular intervals Kondratieff cycles and other cyclic movements in the system cause economic stagnations followed by a counter movement (Wallerstein 1999). Since it has been observed that expansion immediately follows periods of stagnation, stagnation cannot be called a crises [19]. “It is this combination of cyclical rhythms and secular trends that define a system that is functioning “normally” (Wallerstein 1999). Wallerstein also argues however, that the current world system is now undergoing a period that can be defined as a crisis.

The primary causes of crisis are the contradictions that are built into both the system and its function. Because of this, there are a number of things are likely to be involved. Phases of economic downturn and stagnation can no longer be overcome by expansion of the outer boundaries of the world economy since those limits have nearly been reached.  Another way downturn phases have been overcome in the past has been through the proletarianization of primary producers and by redistribution of surplus among the world bourgeoisie.  But proletarianization too, has inbuilt limits (Gangale 2002). Wallerstein believes “that a number of trends have today at last reached points where they threaten the basic functioning of the system” (Wallerstein 1999). The limits may not have yet been reached, but as time progresses the process has been accelerating. He states that “the capitalist world-economy has now entered its terminal crisis, a crisis that may last up to fifty years (Wallerstein 1999). He feels that we have entered into a period of time where rapid escalation is inevitable. Capitalism, in his opinion, is seen as the major cause of the crisis and contrary to logical progression its continued activity will increase the occurrence of contradictions inherent to the system.

In conclusion it could be said that, Immanuel Wallerstein’s theories are useful in understanding the current and ever changing relationships that exist in the world. They provide a valuable platform with which to analyze the historical foundations of sociological politics with respect to the current economic situation. Wallerstein adjusts the unit of analysis from the unitary nation state to the world system as a whole with the belief that by looking at individual states answers cannot provide to broad questions of political economy, such as why some states are rich while others are poor. Individual states are connected to each other in an economic world system, and only through an analysis of the structures of the world system can the current global economy be understood. Wallerstein perhaps views the current economic world system as being similar to the intra-state divisions of labor where the core countries, like capitalists, extract surplus from the peripheral, in this case proletarians. In our current world system, the generalization, that most of the Western orientated countries behave like core countries, while those frequently described as Eastern behave like peripheral countries, could be made. For Wallerstein, the defining characteristic of an economic system is the existence of a single division of labor. A single division of labor exists when any unit within the system cannot subsist without the system as a whole, while a realist system of sovereign states can not exist within the system, where the system is a single unit.


[1] Immanuel Wallerstein (born 28th September 1930, New York City) He is a US sociologist by credential but a historical social scientist or world systems analyst by trade.
[2] A system is defined as a unit with a single division of labor and multiple cultural systems [Wallerstein]
[3] Wallerstien defines capitalism as “a system of production for sale in a market for profit on the basis of individual or collective ownership”. Within the context of this broader relationship, institutions are continually being created and recreated. [Wallerstein, 1979]
[4] From the middle of the 16th century, “Spain imported silver and gold from its American colonies, obtained largely through coercive labor practices, but most of this specie went to paying for manufactured goods from core countries such as England and France rather than encouraging the formation of a domestic manufacturing sector.” [Halsall, P 1997]
[5] A good example of this is, in 1927 the US bolstered the power of the Somoza family in Nicaragua, because of Nicaragua’s economic relationship with the US. The provision of this aid however, resulted in massive costs to the general population of Nicaragua. [Wagner, S]
[6] Sovereignty means that there is no actor above the state that can compel it to act in specific ways.  A government free from external control [Princeton University, Wordnet, 2006] “Sovereignty” in reality means formal autonomy with real limitations on it, implemented via the explicit and implicit rules of the interstate system and enforced through the power of its member states. [Gangale T, 2002]
[7] The Autocratic Leadership Style was first described by Lewin, Lippitt, and White in 1938 along with the democratic leadership and the laissez-faire leadership styles. The autocratic leadership style is sometimes referred to as the directive leadership style [money-zine.com] in which the administration has the freedom to act in the national interest, without the restrictions and obligations imposed by legislative discussion and public debate.
[8] Liberal democracy is a form of representative democracy where elected representatives that hold the decision power are moderated by a constitution that emphasizes protecting individual liberties and the rights of minorities in society (for further detail on liberalism Doyle, 1997 p. 207 in Baylis, Smith and Owens p. 583)
[9] The view that in liberal democracies power is (or should be) dispersed among a variety of economic and ideological pressure groups and is not (or should not be) held by a single elite or group of elites. Pluralism assumes that diversity is beneficial to society and that the disparate functional or cultural groups of which society is composed [Britannica Online]
[10] Such as in issues relating to security since the ‘general consensus’ is that states are the only body capable of exercising military power in the international environment.
[11] Examples of these include Terrorists, International crime syndicates, computer hacking and espionage, proliferators of illicit weapons and military technology, narco-traffickers and alien smugglers. On September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon in the United States of America, transnational terrorists were able to kill more Americans than the government of Japan did with its attack on Pearl Harbor, during the Second World War, in 1941. [Keohane 2002a:284 in Baylis, Smith and Owens p.27, Nye, J 2004]
[12] In the sense that there is no authority above states capable of regulating their interactions, which is to say that states must arrive at relations with other states on their own, rather than being dictated to by some higher entity (i.e., no true authoritative world government exists) [Dunne, T and Schmidt, B 2008 p.93]
[13] Realists view the state as a rational actor seeking to maximize its own interest or national objectives in foreign policy.  However, particularly in an authoritarian state, which, ironically, is the form that most tends to behave unitarily, the leadership’s rationality is not guaranteed.  Personal aggrandizement rather than national interest may be a leader’s objective.  [Gangale, T 2002]
[14] In contrast to soft power, hard power is an opposing theory that indicates the use of military and economic means to influence the behavior or interests of other political organizations. Hard power lies at the command end of the scale in opposition to that of soft power. It represents the ability to coerce or induce another nation to perform a course of action. These actions may be achieved through the use of military power which consists of coercive diplomacy and war or by the use of threats and force with the aim of coercion, deterrence and protection.
[15] Professor Joseph Nye defines soft power as a term used in international relations theory to describe the ability of a political body, such as a state, to indirectly influence the behavior or interests of other political bodies through cultural or ideological means. [Power: The Means to Success in World Politics,2004]
An important example of the use of soft power is to be found in the larger context of the war on terrorism If you think of it “as a clash between Islam and the West—Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”—you are mischaracterizing the situation. It’s a clash within Islamic civilization, between a group of people at the extreme who are trying to use force to impose their view of a pure version of their religion on others, a majority who want things that are similar to what we want: a better life, education, health care, opportunities, and a sense of dignity.“ [Nye, J 2004]
[16] Meaning that it existed from some given point in time till another (in this case, till now). It has existed since the 16th century without either disintegrating or being transformed into a world empire (with a singular political structure). [Gangale, T 2002]
[17] The structural limit of the transformation of goods and services to a commodity, or commoditization, is one where primary producers have no access to means of production except by selling their labor on the market becoming proletarians.
The structural limit of commoditization of land and capital is one where controllers of land and capital, including human resources as a from of capital, have no access to the maintenance and reproduction of land and capital except by pursuing an active policy of maximal accumulation of capital, hence becoming bourgeois. [Gangale, T 2002]
[18] Proletarian  1658 (n.), 1663 (adj.), from L. proletarius “citizen of the lowest class,” in ancient Rome, propertyless people, exempted from taxes and military service, who served the state only by having children; from proles “offspring, progeny”. Proletariat is first recorded 1853, from French. [Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001 Douglas Harper]
[19] A crisis is a situation that arises due to change when the recitative mechanisms of the system are in a state which prevents them from functioning adequately resulting in a loss of the systems integrity. At this point disintegration or transformation of the current system occurs. An example of this is the emergence of capitalism from crisis ending feudalism in Europe. [Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2008]


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