Back to Contents
16. CUMULATION AND DIRECTION IN WORLD SYSTEM HISTORY
Robert A. Denemark
Students of world system history are seeking to shed light on long-term global processes, in great part dirough die reintegration of the fractured social sciences. This chapter considers intellectual cumulation, problems of method, and questions of academic praxis faced by this group. Important elements of cumulation are identified. These elements are not of a sort likely to generate lock-step interaction, and this is to be considered a strength and not a weakness. World system history also eschews the individual level of analysis and so finds itself out of step with contemporary methodological currents. Though the system level is defended, possible gains from seeking to provide microfoundational linkages are suggested. Finally we turn to the question of academic praxis. The ability of world system history to explain important social phenomena is not sufficient to ensure its survival, let alone its popularity. Specific strategies are suggested.
Are students of world system history, born of different fields and backgrounds, creating a coherent body of knowledge to which they and subsequent students may add? There are reasons for concern. We are separated by our disciplinary backgrounds, assumptions and commitments. Terminological differences abound, sometimes highlighting conceptual disagreements. Some have been disheartened by our inability to agree on what data would be most important to gadier, or to see clear evidence of cross-fertilization. Lack of resources and a tendency toward the development of individual research programs exacerbate these difficulties.
I contend that such pessimism is unwarranted. The intellectual conformity mat is apparendy missing is not necessarily what we should expect or desire. Some critics point to mediodological conformity in die hard sciences as die model to be followed. Contrary to general wisdom, lock-step conceptual and methodological convergence is not the model presented us by die successful hard sciences. Cumulation may instead be disaggregated into six different processes, many of which we already appear to be engaging in quite successfully. We may also note significant instances of 'analytical conversion.' Finally, our terminological problems may be more apparent than real, while our different mediodologies, concepts, and processes may actually be a source of strength.
Does convergence spell success?
How central is broad-based agreement on critical issues to the success of an analytical endeavor? Coming from the social sciences, where there is generally little agreement, it is easy to romanticize both the unity allegedly inherent in the hard sciences, as well as its value. Histories of the unraveling of the structure of DNA and the mathematics of quantum mechanics offer a very different picture.
The fundamental structure of DNA was uncovered by a Ph.D. candidate and a postdoctoral fellow in their spare time. The first was a refugee from biology who wanted to study chemistry. The second was a refugee from physics doing the same. There existed no consensus regarding the importance of DNA in the field of biology, in the relevant sub-fields of genetics or biochemistry, in the various more specific areas of study within which Watson and Crick worked, or even in the lab where the discovery was made. Even the biologists involved in the hunt for DNA's structure did not agree on its significance, what empirical or theoretical methods should be used to explore it, or about the processes that might distinguish DNA's function from those of other proteins. Watson and Crick were nonetheless able to draw upon insights from a wide array of work best characterized by its lack of agreement, methodological coherence, and direction. Watson and Crick each brought to the hunt very different sets of analytical tools and interests. They agreed to work together in the search for the solution to a common interesting problem. There is little evidence that they spent much time on the development of a common outlook beyond their immediate interaction (Watson 1968).
A similar picture emerges in the study of quantum physics. Werner Heisenberg's search for a form of mathematics that would be adequate to model the quantum wave function led him to matrix mechanics. While the quantum interpretation of physics was dominant, there was little if any agreement over how to conceive of the relevant forces. Heisenberg was basically a mathematician, having nearly failed his physics orals because he could not explain the principles behind the functioning of a common battery. His methods were so complex and arcane that only a very few of his colleagues understood his work (Cassidy 1992). Heisenberg's mathematics also required a radical decontextualization of the physical nature of matter, which was contrary to the main methodological currents of the day (Baggott 1992:28-33). Heisenberg's insight was soon to be matched by Erwin Schrodinger and his wave equation (Wessels 1983:259). Schrodinger was working on a quantum theory of gas, and came from the explicitly descriptive tradition of Mach whose proponents abhorred decontextualization (Moore 1989:ch. 6). Schrodinger's work was easier to understand and conceptualize in physical terms, and for that reason even the likes of Einstein preferred it. Niels Bohr created the synthesis in which the incompatible elements of the two interpretations were identified, some ideas as to why they were incompatible were forwarded, and the entire field was simply asked to understand that proponents of the various interpretations would all simply have to agree to disagree if progress was to be made possible (Baggott 1992:81-8). Lack of lock-step conformity allowed for the development of various potentially useful approaches.
The manner in which what Kuhn calls 'normal science' or Lakatos a 'fruitful research program' promotes advancement is clear. General agreement allows a significant portion of the appropriate research community to engage in the solving of relevant puzzles. Scholars no longer need to start from first principles or justify the use of each concept. When a group of scholars are dedicated to producing knowledge relevant to a single area it is far easier to advance. But this condition may be quite rare. Kuhn argues that 'History suggests the road to a firm research consensus is extraordinarily arduous' (Kuhn 1970:15). More prevalent is science lacking a strong paradigm. When this happens all facts look equally relevant, fact gathering is unstructured, the output is an incoherent morass, and descriptions often miss critical details necessary to later theoretical development (Kuhn 1970:1417). This is a more apt description of my native field of international politics than of the nascent study of world system history. Where has world system history gone right?
The elements of cumulation
Cumulation might be considered in terms of six elements. These include the questions asked, the methods utilized, the terms adopted, the concepts developed, the processes that are hypothesized, and finally the disciplinary strategy most generally employed. How much cumulation does the world system history school '' manifest?
This group is characterized by little other than the fact that we ask the same general questions. Our collective interest is in the long-term development of the global system. 'It is all the more notable that the four principal papers in this volume were written by scholars from three fields, and scholars from five fields responded. It is rare enough that scholars from two fields agree to deal with similar subjects. It is rarer still that five fields would be represented. This diversity is destined to make convergence more difficult, and increase the already significant intellectual start-up and keep-up costs required. On the plus side, it will increase the scope of the substantive, theoretical, and methodological knowledge at our disposal.
The focusing by scholars of world system history on 'the questions' is important. It underscores the fact that this set of questions is far broader than any single discipline, and that our responses must be as well. This escape from disciplinarity is a difficult and an important one. The university system, with independent departments for the study of various fields, confers legitimacy on those who can separate their subject matter from that of others. The specialized knowledge that results constitutes a formidable achievement, but falls short of providing broad insights exactly because it was acquired at the cost of possible synthesis.
There are three alternatives to disciplinarity. Multidisciplinary work includes those from different fields applying their unique lenses to a problem. While useful, positive effects of cross-fertilization end with the collaboration. Another option is interdisciplinarity, where scholars learn and use a second set of
analytical tools in considering an issue. Such work is rewarding, but still treats a phenomenon as having separate facets that need to be considered as interactive. World system history is, instead, transdisciplinary. The approach to a complex question is viewed as requiring the simultaneous use of several sets of analytical tools. The focus is not on the 'interaction' of separate analytics, but on their integration in the pursuit of understanding. This is a powerful form of cumulation.
Students of world system history also identify many of the same processes as critical. Cycles or pulses, concentration and deconcentration, historical symmetries, and core/periphery relations sit near the heart of each perspective. We create concepts (e.g. innovation, evolution, accumulation) of joint interest, and gather data (as on city systems, wars, or upswings/downswings) that we each acknowledge as relevant.
We can therefore question the degree to which we are atomistic scholars building independent programs immune to significant change. A number of important conversions have already taken place. Modelski now rejects 1500 as a starting date. Chase-Dunn (1989) considered core/periphery relationships universal. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) do not. Thompson's (1995) work on the shifting of dominance from Asia to Europe is an important alteration, as is Frank and Gills' new reticence about hegemony, likely the result of longstanding arguments by Wilkinson. This group of scholars has remained remarkably open to one another and to those in other areas. This is a significant strength.
Contrast the significance of these and other alterations with the relatively simple problem of non-standard terminology. While it would certainly be nice to have all the scholars in the area adopt a single nomenclature, it is not necessary. We have better things to do than deal with such nuisances until and unless they become real impediments to the creation of further knowledge.
We show very few of the tendencies identified by Kuhn as the telltale signs of paradigmlessness. We have also avoided what Lakatos called the 'degeneration' of our research program into ad hoc debates in defense of core hypotheses (Bohman 1991:3). There are still significant areas where agreement does not exist. We do not agree on terms or methods, significant conceptual and processural disagreement remains, and the question of strategy remains open. But methodological, processural and conceptual agreement was also lacking among the major students of biology and physics involved in some of the most important physical research of our time. The lessons to be learned in the history of science and in reflecting on our own interaction are several:
1 'Cumulation' is better understood and more effective if it is defined in terms of the asking of like questions, and not the creation of unified methods and concepts with which to attack diose questions.
2 The asking of similar questions drives us to search for similar information. We do this more efficiently as a group, even if we do not all agree on what information would be best to consider. Given the breadth of our topic area,
this rather requires that we remain as open as possible to transdisciplinary interactions.
3 Though the gulf that separates the four principal perspectives remains wide, some significant convergence has already taken place. These changes have not always been minor in nature, nor have they been coerced in any way. This is evidence that our interactions have been effective and that the process of cumulation is ongoing.
On the meaning of our method
While methodological diversity was not a significant impediment to major work in the hard sciences, there was probably more agreement among biologists and physicists over the critical questions of why one would select, how one would pursue, and by what criteria one should evaluate research. Students of social phenomena are more vulnerable to methodological traps and difficulties. In this section I argue that while the adoption of the individual as the sole legitimate unit of analysis is gaining ground in the social sciences, it is an error. While its champions often justify this method by expressing the desire to emulate the success of the hard sciences, the a priori identification of a unit of analysis is contrary to the model adopted there. Individual level analyses are also narrow, internally inconsistent and biased. These difficulties notwithstanding, I argue that we ought still pay some attention to the manner in which various 'structural' logics can be linked to individual action.
The ills of the individual level of analysis
It is ironic that the current methodological trend in areas as diverse as neoclassical liberal microeconomics, analytical Marxism, and some of postmodernism, is to call for a grounding of one's work in an analysis that must begin with the preferences, beliefs and decision processes of 'individual' human beings. Such a strategy can be seen as harmful from several perspectives. First, use of the 'individual' may actually constitute another, albeit less obvious form of 'structuralism.' Second, though the prespecification of units of analysis is often touted as the model of the hard sciences, it is not. Such prespecification is quite the opposite of successful methodological models in fields like physics. Third, exclusive focus on the individual, and particularly on individual behavior as the phenomena to be explained and/or understood, is destructive of broader understanding in the social sciences. Finally, we have good reason to believe that radical adherence to the individual level of analysis is nothing more than the expression of a particular ideological predisposition.
How unitary is the individual? In a novel attack upon rational choice analysis, McKeown (1986) argued that the assumption that individuals constitute coherent units may be unwarranted. Individuals have highly complex sets of desires and interests that vary over time, across contexts, and can be notoriously inconsistent. The 'individual' may be no more than a convenient form of social aggregation.
Those who privilege the individual in their analyses may therefore be just as guilty of illegitimate reification as those they accuse of 'other' forms of structuralism.
Neoclassical liberal economics is often touted as the closest of the social sciences to the hard science model. But the prespecification of a fundamental unit is inconsistent with the models offered us by the hard sciences. The terrain of physics, for example, is littered with the corpses of assertions as to the primacy of one physical entity or another. 'Atoms', and later 'protons, neutrons and electrons' proved no more useful than 'earth, wind and fire' in the search for fundamental physical units. The model that has instead developed deals directly with phenomena in their relevant contexts. Physicists find a phenomenon they cannot readily explain. They set to work on an explanation. If the phenomenon is pernicious enough to appear insoluble by means of the extension of known forces or relationships, new ones are hypothesized. Both theoretical and experimental processes allow for a full range of assertion about the nature of the phenomena and their components. The search for physical knowledge is not constrained by debates about what forces are or are not a priori legitimate foci of attention. As a result we have added various quarks, other leptons, and even anti-matter to the list of those particles we recognize, and the level of sophistication of physical explanation has been enhanced. To prespecify the fundamental units involved would narrow the search for understanding, and possibly doom it to failure. It would halt progress in the field. It is a bad idea.
Prespecification of fundamental units is not much more helpful with regard to social phenomena. If individuals are the sole legitimate focus of our attention, then individual behavior becomes the obvious candidate for explanation. Rational choice models, for example, take opportunities and preferences as givens and 'generate from them a stream of intended outcomes' (Modelski in this volume). Many forms of microfoundational analysis stress that individuals are 'rational actors,' meaning they take careful note of and respond in a calculated manner to the incentives with which the environment presents them. Nonetheless it remains the behavior, and not the environment, that serves as the focus of attention. This emphasis on immediate behavioral outcomes casts a necessarily static and ahistorical pall. Action is assumed to emerge from incentives, but the creation, maintenance, and alteration of incentive structures are off limits to analysis. Some studies assume them to be static, or to change only in response to some form of exogenous (hence untheorized) modification. Liberal economics is fond of using 'ideas' as the prime exogenous variable, as if nothing could possibly explain the emergence of ideas at certain times, much less their successful adoption. Hence a recent nobel laureate in economics parrots the old refrain that religious beliefs explain the variables that ultimately lead to the 'rise of the west' (North 1993). From this perspective the world is viewed as being reducible to inherently simple tendencies where trajectories and relationships are reversible, where lawful and deterministic behavior reigns, where generalizations may be universal in scope and where the operation of systemic wholes are unaffected by the movement of the constituent parts (Thompson 1994). This 'mechanical'
model of the world saw its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but has proven less useful across a range of disciplines since.
In the end much of the radical individualism we find appears to be little more than ideological window dressing. Whether in the hands of microeconomists seeking to justify some politically charged principal, or in the hands of postmodernists struggling against what they see as the tyranny of all metasociological projects, the individual level of analysis is touted for essentially instrumental purposes.
The individual level of analysis suffers from any number of important ills. It is for that reason that calls for a 'grounding' of world system history in the logic of individual action have been ignored. But the structural approaches of world system history do not lack the potential for microfoundational grounding, and may well benefit from it.
Strengths and weaknesses of structuralism
The four major perspectives represented here all assume that individuals can only be understood when considered in their social contexts. Social contexts constrain the beliefs and actions of individuals, though without completely determining them. Replication is not seamless. Changes emerge that may be traced to the interaction of individuals and their social contexts. But it is the social structure", viewed as a set of incentive systems, that needs to be explained and/or understood. Individual behavior is more determined than determinative of those incentives, and is usually organized in such a way as to reproduce the system. Systemic behavior will likely exhibit characteristic chains of responses. Fundamental alterations, if they occur, will be rare. Does such a perspective allow our work to successfully explain both systemic replication and change?
There is little agreement among the major perspectives over the mechanisms by which tliese incentive systems emerge or play themselves out. \\brse yet, all of the perspectives contain anomalies or lacuna that raise critical questions as to their validity. This is to be expected in a field so young and brash. It is nonetheless a problem.
Wilkinson's 'engulfing' perspective considers the rise and functioning of 'central civilization.' It envisions population growth driving urbanization, enhancing the division of labor, hence increasing demand to mobilize new resources, and driving production which supports the larger population (Wilkinson 1993c: 235-6). An uneven distribution of resources and technology provides another incentive for civilizations to couple or engulf. When they do, peripheral areas are formed.
Is population increase a truly independent variable? Could the drive for wealth and the uneven distribution of resources and technology suffice to drive civilizational interaction in the absence of population increase? Did production gains in Europe out-pace production losses in places like India during central civilization's late eighteenth and early nineteenth century? Why might technology be unevenly distributed? A 'pulse' is noted in the expansion process. Why does it exist? What explains it?
Chase-Dunn and Hall's 'comparative' perspective also seeks to explain the consolidation of social units. Population pressure leads to hierarchies and eventually expansion. Increased competition, new resource scarcities, risks of failure, and collective needs for savings and investment are the new problem areas created. A set of four types of systems may be identified that covary, expand and contract. There are both pulsations and fundamental transformations. Semi-peripheries are formed within which the dynamics of change and transformation are easiest to find. Peripheries are also formed most of the time.
Again we must ask whether population increase is a truly independent variable? There are numerous forms by which to deal with all the changes and challenges posed by the system. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997), acknowledge that actual outcomes can be situationally specific. Specific to what? How do we know when we have identified all the relevant forms in which 'systems' might exist? Each system has a pulse in that it expands and contracts. Why? How do these iterations lead to systemic transformations? How do we know when such a thing has occurred?
Gunder Frank and Gills' 'continuity' perspective stresses the development of a single social system over the last 5,000 years and seeks to understand its functioning. Trade and the world economy are its centerpieces. Capital accumulation is the motor force of this world system. The system is characterized by a core/ periphery hierarchy, cycles of hegemony and rivalry, and economic long cycles. It is not punctuated by any fundamental alterations, though it is characterized by long cycles throughout its history.
Why is there a drive for ceaseless accumulation? Whv is the drive for ceaseless accumulation ceaseless? What drives those long cycles?
Modelski and Thompson's 'evolutionary' perspective posits a symmetrical set of sociopolitical layers that undergo change on a variety of schedules. The master processes are those of evolutionary learning. Initial variety, cooperation, a process of selection, and finally consolidation (preservation and transmission) are reproduced in hypothesized global processes that aggregate from twenty-five to 8,000 years duration. The shorter cycles hypothesized are more carefully explained than any processes in any of the other perspectives. Problems nonetheless emerge.
The evolutionary perspective offers a model with a frightening symmetry. As carefully explained as the first 1,000 years appear, the evolutionary learning model itself seems inadequate to account for the symmetry. Innovation drives the initial level of the model. What drives innovation? Why is it so regular?
Evolutionary and/or learning processes are models designed to facilitate survival and progress. War emerges as the primary selection process in this model, but can our ability to destroy; progressing steadily over the years until we now possess the ability to end all human life on the planet, be an effective adaptation? It has not increased the chances for species survival. The chances for accidents, imprudent use, and the debilitating costs involved, increase the likelihood of catastrophe. Can we conclude that the resources needed to win a war are similar to those necessary to progress within the system? The USSR took a prominent place among the victors of the last systemic war. Germany and Japan were the losers.
How are we to understand what appears to be a cumulative learning process
that spans some 8,000 years in the context of the periodic rise and decline of civilizations? Abu Lughod (1989, introduction) suggests that what might be termed 'civilizational knowledge' is lost or discarded during crises and must later be replicated. How then does it aggregate?
Finally, what drives the frighteningly uniform regularities across spatial and temporal contexts of dizzying proportions? Can we hope to address such an issue when the reasons for and the periodization of innovation, the lowest level fundamental process, remain unclear?
Back to the individual?
Each of the perspectives forwarded suffers from three difficulties. First, they do not yield unique predictions. Their very different logics allow for a variety of nonetheless similar predictions. Many agree on the existence of cycles or pulses, the centrality of central Asia, and the development of exploitative core/periphery relations, though for different reasons. Second, they each undertake issues relevant to the thorny question of determinism. A variety' of anomalies and agency effects are identified as sufficient to alter the predictions that would otherwise emerge from a more linear analysis. Can we further specify where they come from and when they might emerge? (See Denemark 1999 on the methodological challenges involved here.) Finally, we have the substantive questions above. What leads to population increase? Why is there innovation? Why is there 'ceaseless' accumulation? Why do all these things appear to cycle?
Unfortunately the problems of indeterminacy, determinism, and the failure to theorize initiaf processes cannot be dealt with at the structural level alone. They do not concern the extension of our knowledge, but the establishment and consideration of the link between the macro-level phenomena that constitute the critical incentive structures, and the behaviors that these then elicit. These are the behaviors that define the actual functioning of the svstem, its replication or its alteration.
The solutions to these problems require some consideration of the individual actions that emerge in the context of ongoing world system relations. We need not fall into the trap of the 'rationalists' and consider behavior itself (as opposed to the dynamic link between structure and behavior) the issue to be explained. We also need not fall into the trap of assuming that behaviors and outcomes must be intentional. Instead our consideration of behavioral outputs should focus on why different relevant behaviors emerge as they do, and what the various impacts on the dominant incentive structure might then be.
James Bohman (1991) uses Marx to illustrate the power of the integration of the micro- and the macro- levels. In Capital, Marx establishes why accumulation is necessary in capitalist systems, and goes on to show that technical innovation contributes to crisis tendencies. Bohman suggests that for many Marxists:
this tendency operates 'independently of our will,' entirely at the macro-level as a consequence of systemic relationships in the mode of production. But
technical innovation is pursued by the capitalist to increase productivity and reduce wages; at the same time, other capitalists are pursuing the same innovation, resulting in a drop in the price of a commodity along with wages, leading to a new round of innovations. Thus, Marx seems to be providing a 'micro-analysis of macro-patterns,' rather than simply explaining one macro pattern (technical innovation) by another (increase in average profit).
Is Marx simply aggregating micro behavior into macro structure? Bohman argues to the contrary:
Marx is also not simply reducing such macro-patterns to micro-motives, as rational choice Marxists assert. Certainly, part of the explanation relies on the maximizing behavior of individual capitalists. However, the explanation ultimately rests on institutional facts about the interdependency of such choices in market situations and shows the systemic consequences of individual strategies; without such interrelated consequences, no downward spiral is created. Hence such micro-analyses require that there exist a stable set of institutions which aggregate choices and interrelate actions. Those institutions cannot themselves be explained by the choices and actions of individuals within them, since their structures create consequences that undermine many of these same goals and objectives.
Bohman (p. 173) illustrates a three level Marxist model. There exists (1) a large-scale social system (capitalism) with (2) its attendant structuring institutions (state and market) and the actions of (3) individuals (in this case grouped as classes) making choices defined within the system.
There is also a three-step form to this analysis. First, relationships within a social structure are described or modeled as accurately as possible. Second, the conditions of action and agency in the social system are specified, including the goals that actors pursue and the knowledge necessary for participation. Finally, the description of the social institutions and practices analyze those recurrent processes or practices that link the system to the agents.
The most interesting part of this particular illustration is the ability of the analysis to avoid the traps into which studies generally adopting individual levels of analysis fall. There are no atomistic value maximizers wandering vacuously through ahistory. Action may be purposeful, but intentionality is not assumed. Indeed the contradictory elements of the social interactions emerge as a specifically unintended consequence of short-term rationality. The overall scale is by no means short term. Feedback, both reinforcing and destructive, can be found and analyzed in the dynamic elements that are readily identified in the mixture of systemic, institutional, and individual action. Adoption of this form by all concerned would make it easier to compare perspectives, to merge coincident
analyses, and to search for non-obvious conclusions or potential volatilities. (A review of some of the difficulties in creating micro-macro linkages is also provided in Denemark 1999.)
How large a leap?
How close do the four perspectives come to following the steps Bohman suggests are necessary to 'ground' their work? All are adept at the first, the specification of relationships within the social structure. They are weaker in step two. Agents are only rarely theorized, and their motives or capacities are usually simply assumed. But models which carefully link structures to outcomes via the review of sets of resulting incentives and behaviors are prevalent. Note, for example, Gunder Frank (1978a) and Chase-Dunn (1989) on the nature of relationships in the periphery, Hall (1989) on the effects of regional incorporation on individuals. And this linkage is certainly no more than a breadth away in the work of Gills (1993) on state domination of economic planning in parts of Asia; Modelski and Thompson (1996a) on innovation; and Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) on the potential for change in the semiperiphery.
There is no necessary contradiction between 'structural' and 'individualist' analyses. They each make assumptions and they each have shortcomings. Studies produced by 'individualists,' particularly of the more virulent sort, are vapid and sterile. But there is nothing inherent in the methodology that renders it useless to those with a greater sense of the context within which social action must be ultimately situated.
Academic praxis: a note on strategy
World system history emerges as a school with much to recommend it. It invests serious scholarship in non-trivial questions. It is open, takes transdisciplinary cooperation seriously, and continues to grow. It is capable of shedding significant light on long-standing puzzles. Without extraordinary care, however, its prospects mav not be particularly bright. World system history exists in tandem with a variety of perspectives with which it has little in common, and relative to which it exists at a significant disadvantage. We arc small and new. Our ideological roots are highly suspect in this age of neo-liberal orthodoxy. Likewise our methodology. We have adopted a position that requires significant transdisciplinary work, making the way forward much more complex. World system history requires far greater than average intellectual start-up costs. This slows our progress and reduces the number of potential students. Our analyses are not state or policy centric. They only rarely and indirectly address the question of 'what we should do' in any given situation. This makes us less potentially 'relevant' than other perspectives, and affects our ability to garner research funds. Being more accurate than others in our understandings of social reality is not enough.
I offer four palliatives. First, we ought work to generate more light than heat. There are a series of questions in a large number of other fields and subfields that
the world system history can shed significant light upon (Chase-Dunn 1981; Frank and Gills 1992; Frank 1993a,b;Modelski and Thompson 1996a;Wilkinson 1987). We ought to work to highlight these explanations.
Second, where insights are particularly significant, we ought not to shy away from creating heat. There are few clear, concise, contemporary statements in support of world system history, its structure and its methods. Some ought to be forwarded. In international relations the myths of anarchy, of the predominance of military power as revealed in the parable of the Peloponnesian War, and of the birth of both the form and the relevant dynamics of the European state system at Westphalia, are all directly challenged by this literature. Other myths, like the logic of comparative advantage or European exceptionalism are likewise vulnerable. Given the need to attract students and attention, and the huge tasks world system history sets for itself, the generation of a little well directed heat will be worth the time required.
Third, students of world system history might pursue some important joint projects. This does not imply an expectation of unity, only a collective effort to focus intellectual energies on an important topic. An obvious and strategically important choice would be cycles. The possibility that cycles exist in human affairs is intoxicating. Students in a variety of fields have mentioned the existence of regularities, but given the complexities involved they can usually neither confirm nor explain them. Should these regularities be more real than apparent a number of important implications would follow. It would be clear that critical social processes are at work that we have yet to define or come to understand. Apprehension of these processes would provide significant, possibly unparalleled insights into human society.
Least enamored with the idea of cycles or pulsations is Wilkinson's engulfing perspective, though he identifies any number of potential cycles in his listing of those processes which might someday be sufficient to provide a process-based definition of the world system (Wilkinson in this volume). He hypothesizes a general war/general peace cycle, a rise and decline of core powers cycle, polycultural fluctuations, and a cycle that drives large scale social units to come into and go out of existence.
More important for Wilkinson are the fluctuations between state systems and world state/universal empires (within which there may also be a polarity fluctuation), and an economic/demographic growth and decline cycle, as revealed by city-size data. Decline in the first is at least in part a function of exhaustion, as taxes designed to allow for expansion sap the strength of the society and lead to upheaval (Wilkinson 1991:155-60 citing Quigley favorably in this regard).
The problem with fluctuations of growth and stagnation (identified primarily in city-size data), is that trends are hidden against the backdrop of a strong secular upswing, are irregular, and are convoluted by a series of interactional variables. Lacking evidence of any truly global downturn, Wilkinson suggests that the dynamic underpinning of any pulse must be located at the local or national level.
The comparative perspective is motivated primarily by the search for a logic of macro-transitions. The move from kin-based to state based or tributary modes
was followed by the transition to capitalism in this more traditional interpretation. A move to some future, potentially socialist world system might be facilitated by an understanding of previous systemic transformations. Along the way, however, Chase-Dunn and Hall (this volume: 108) discover another set of cycles. 'Iterations of population pressure, intensification and hierarchy-formation provided the engines of development and the dynamics of political rise and fall that are visible in all systems.' Cycles of rise and decline, waves of territorial expansion followed by slower expansion or contraction (pulsation), and processes of internal differentiation and similarity are all in evidence. Pulsations cross all temporal, spatial and organization boundaries, and are associated with trade expansion (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997:234). These pulsations also appear to be a local or national level phenomena as opposed to a global one. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997:ch. 6) suggest that a fundamental element of historical evolution rests with the interaction between their various iterations and transformations. Even if our goal is to understand transitions, one has to also, or perhaps first, understand iterations.
It was a recognition of-the regularity with which these iterations emerge that drove the continuity school to turn away from the study of both epochal characterizations (e.g. feudalism, capitalism, socialism) and 'transitions.' Gunder Frank and Gills assert a unity and essential consistency across 5,000 years of human interaction. They have gathered extensive information on cycles within what they, believe to be a single world system of considerable duration. It would therefore be most reasonable to compare the processes which propagate upturns and downturns across these contexts. The continuity school is also unique in suggesting that the generative processes of these cycles are global, and not national. This also alters the nature of the comparisons to be made. Instead of searching for internally generated processes in areas we assume to be otherwise similar, we must look to the position of each area in the overall system to understand its functioning.
While the continuity perspective has gone the farthest in charting long cycles, the nature of cyclical interactions are most carefully explicated by Modelski and Thompson. Though a variety of cycles are nested in a learning/evolutionary model, the basic 100-year dynamic features a paired K-wave nested within a single political leadership cycle. Innovation driving an upswing leads to war. War produces a downswing, which after victory is achieved turns again to expansion. These paired K-waves coevolve with a political process of agenda setting, coalition building, macro decision (usually a war) and execution. Innovation initiates the cycle, war provides its pulse. 'Leaders' are usually only good for one round. Then the focal point of the process moves along. Further iterations produce other macro-level evolutionary alterations. These cumulate into a hypothesized 8,000 year civilizational evolutionary circuit.
All four perspectives consider the issue of cycles or pulses. Each identifies different forms of cyclical behavior, and each attributes it to different phenomena. Once again we are asking similar questions and applying a variety of methods, data sets, and hypotheses to its explication. Given the central nature of the question of cycles or pulses, this would be an excellent topic for joint consideration.
Finally, it would be nice if we could somehow lower the barriers to entry to this
field. This, however, may simply not be possible. The nature of the tasks of reintegrating the social sciences and history, and of using that synthesis to elucidate social processes over the longest term, may not be amenable to many shortcuts. At least not at this time. Perhaps the best strategy remains the production of clear statements for important journals in as many fields as possible. Sharp analyses of difficult problems, coupled with concise statements of the logic underlying their solutions, could capture the imaginations of both students and colleagues and inspire them to dig deeper. In the meantime the projects represented in this volume will provide the next critical steps for those who wish to help us undertake this exciting intellectual journey.
Back to Contents