C O N T E N T S
General perspectives on world system history ..1
Comparing approaches to the social science history of the world system
AN INTRODUCTION TO WORLD SYSTEM HISTORY
Toward a social science of long-term change
Robert A. Denemark, Jonathan Friedman, Barry K. Gills and George Modelski
This volume is designed as a fundamental starting point for the transdisciplinary study of continuity and change in the global social, economic, and political system over the longest of historical terms. Scholars from a variety of fields have long sought to acquire knowledge of this scope. Attempts to frame such a perspective face several significant challenges.
World history in its proper context
The first challenge is epistemological. What is it that can be known about such broad sweeps of the human experience? The work in this volume is predicated on the belief that there arc real themes, continuities, perhaps even patterns that emerge over the long sweep of world history. These may be explicated, though this must be accomplished with careful attention to relevant context. Our goal is not to frame inviolate historical laws, but to explore continuities, consistent patterns, and recognizable behavioral repertoires, and understand their genesis and development over time.
The first section of this volume includes four major papers on the nature and dynamics of world system history by scholars from different disciplines and perspectives. Each deals in an explicit manner with a number of critical concepts and the processes that arc linked to them. These include:
The world system
While in some sense fundamental to each of the perspectives in this volume, the term 'world system' continues to draw criticism, particularly for its lack of specificity. What constitutes a world system? What are to be considered its legitimate parameters? By what processes is such a world system defined? Does world systemic logic undergo fundamental transformations? Is the world system always basically the same? Has there been a single (evolving) world system, have there been areas external to it, or have separate systems existed side by side? If the latter, how can different world systems be compared?
Hegemonies, leadership and zones of innovation
The nature of global leadership is among the most hotly contested issues in contemporary political science, and plays a fundamental role in each of the four principal perspectives, regardless of the home discipline of the authors. The rise and decline of various powers or areas, and the implications of that process, are given concerted attention by several contributors, who each see such processes as central to world system history.
By what processes are centers and peripheries created? Do all intersocietal systems have center-periphery hierarchies? Do center-periphery relations work in basically the same ways in all systems, or are there fundamental differences that emerge by context? Have center -periphery relations been a constant structural feature of world system history?
The world economy
Questions about the definition and parameters of the world economy mirror those regarding the world system, '['lie term is not always consistently defined, nor arc the nature of its units and the processes which link them always consistently identified. Is there one world economy or many world economics in world system history? Evolutionary conceptions of the world economy, understood as a complex adaptive system, also need to be explored.
Such an agenda places us at odds with a variety of influential contemporary positions in the social sciences. Behavioralists may find the definitions too fuzzy, the hypotheses too complex, and the data that long-term, historically contextual studies produce, too problematic. The authors of this volume are open to criticism that may help us frame our understandings in a more rigorous manner. We also welcome all those who would help us gather data from the historical record. which this volume illustrates is richer, deeper, and more amenable to review than some might suspect. We also believe, however, that the ransacking of history in search of decontextualized data bits adds little to our understanding of long-term social processes. The mass of "results' that such a perspective has created remains unfocused or contradictory. This is true largely because of the lack of a sufficient framework from within which to understand social processes over tile historical long term. We seek to construct such a framework.
Social constructivists and adherents to various post-modern or post-structuralist positions may consider our efforts to be naive because we generally believe that there may be real structural impediments to agents action. We welcome such criticisms to the extent that they help us recognize certain pitfalls of social research designed to reconstruct complex societies. Our position nonetheless remains one of cautious methodological realism. While our history may well be socially constructed, there would seem to be at least as much re-creation of
patterns of social interaction as there is creation. The repetitive nature of the historical process is one of its most disturbing properties. Structural sanctions and other limitations may await those who stray too far from existing social patterns. Structural incentives may be provided to those who follow established paths. We recognize the contestable nature of all social reality, but we also recognize that most individuals in most periods largely conform to the norms, roles and patterns expected of them. The very content of people's strategics are emergent in definite historical conditions. We need, then, to problematize the sources of intentionality in social life.
Critical theorists may show concern because we appear to fail to suggest an explicit program for emancipation. The scholars in this volume do not lack commitment to the betterment of the human condition, but they share a certain concern with the nature of social intervention. Social experiments are expensive in human terms, and policies rarely have their desired effects. Plans and manifestoes can be of more use to those who oppose them than to those they are meant to mobilize.
We do not wish to engage in open-ended methodological debates. Instead we invite our critics to join us in (lie attempt to examine world system history and show us where we have erred, or where such knowledge construction can be improved. We conceive of tills project as a long-term endeavor. Positions are likely to alter with new information and new insights.
Holism and the agent-structure problem
A second challenge, that of the most appropriate 'level' at which to begin, is more practically methodological. Our position is holistic. Large-scale social systems provide the environment within which individuals make choices. Those choices most of them consistent with the re-creation of (the social systems involved, are the frameworks against which social actions are understood. Consistent behaviors presuppose consistent social conditions. Hence our concern is primarily with the system itself, and not with its individual human actors.
This puts us at odds with some current trends in the critical social sciences. The post-Cold War 'triumph of capitalism' appears to have vaulted various forms of methodological individualism and rational choice analysis to the tore. The fundamental argument appears to lie that since only individuals act. individual behavior must rest at the heart of any legitimate social analysis. While we do not deny the utility of individual level analysis, we do question its claims to primacy.
Any attempt to understand broad-scale social processes by starting with the study of individuals must assume both the dominance of intentional action and (lie rather seamless translation of that intentional action through its various individual and institutional manifestations and on to the social environment which constitutes the context against which individual choices are made. Both the dominance of intentionality and such unproblematic translation are questionable.
The ability of individuals to apprehend the full extent of the implications of their behavior seems tenuous. When aggregated in markets or corporations or
bureaucracies or states, individual behavior gives rise to the creation of institutions that have effects beyond the intentional range of their creators. We do not intend to impoverish foreign garment workers when we purchase inexpensive, as opposed to expensive, clothing. We do not intend to create conflict when through our actions we create institutions with inconsistent goals. Nonetheless, these outcomes may result. Giddens recognizes this in his work on structuration when he poses three levels of social interaction. Habermas acknowledges the same thing in his consideration of the tension between 'blocks of norm free sociality' like the global economy, and the more local life world' (cited in Bohman 1991:168). Our actions do not automatically become disembodied 'systems' beyond the control of individuals, but as a result of this potential complexity they are unlikely to be apprehended by methods that begin by positing the primacy of individual intentional action.
The nature of rationality and the content of intentional actions designed to elicit certain outcomes are both dependent on a stable social structure. When social structures change rapidly, preferences are altered. We see the ephemeral nature of rationality as it mutates across a range of time horizons. Individuals also learn. As they learn, their behaviors may change to take into account new information or patterns of expectations. This reflectivity is often found at the base of criticisms of structural analyses. But it seems even more destructive of any attempts at understanding human behavior outside its Specifically historical and experiential context.
Another way of conceiving the problem of the micro is to focus on the way subjects and their strategies are constituted. Rather than accept the common notion of the universal rational actor, one might instead study the way in which motivations and intentionalities are constructed and transformed. This may beg the question of free choice on the surface, but in fact it situates the problem in concrete historical contexts in what is perhaps a more productive way.
Though microfoundations are unsuitable starting points for a social science of long-term change, they do offer a good deal of methodological utility. One of the problems faced by structural analyses is that they arc incomplete. They do not usually trace the microfoundations of macro-level activities. This can be problematic. Macro-level analyses may provide different explanations for the same outcome. There is little basis upon which to choose the superior analysis. Attention to the microfoundations of macro outcomes would provide such a basis, making competing structural explanations amenable to critical comparison and also more complete.
We are sensitive to critics concerned with what they perceive as a lack of attention to agency in our work, but we maintain that any attempt to apprehend long-term social change must begin at the structural level. The individual is not defined away in doing so. Considerations of the manner in which individuals act, come to understand their environments, and change or re-create their milieu, can only sharpen our analyses. Likewise we recognize the ability of individuals to learn and respond to cues in a strategic manner, tempered by experience and designed to alter conditions. Our approaches are compatible with, and do not
preclude attention to, activities and intentions of individual agents, particularly those acting on behalf of states, other organizations and collectivities. Several contributors employ evolutionary concepts, and those accord a key role to innovation (mutation), hence to innovations in such areas as institutions, leading sectors or social movements. We welcome those who would help us extend our analyses to the micro level, while we seek to understand the structural level processes that animate human behavior by providing the context that makes social action intelligible.
The historical long term
A third fundamental challenge is the temporal one. When do we begin? By association, the question of 'when' also speaks to the question of 'where' we begin. There is no shortage of historical stage theories. Food gathering techniques, political styles, astronomical configurations, forms of transportation, habits of mind, and modes of production are but a few of the foundations upon which we have created developmental typologies. Many of these debates have grown old, restating core principles instead of moving to provide new answers to new questions.
The participants in this work sought to push the analysis of world systemic interaction as far back as they could, noting continuities and trends along the way. Though various participants disagree on the proportion of that past which may be relevant to understanding current conditions, the collection deals in a serious manner with at least the past 5,000 years of the historical record. We provide a basis upon which to reconsider some of the fundamental issues relevant to historical 'transitions' and long-term change.
Critics of macro-historical treatments have long sought to marginalize long-term analyses as hopelessly esoteric. Even some proponents of longer term social analyses avoid such broad sweeps. Marxists, for example, have long held that we cannot use information from social orders that existed before the transition to the capitalist mode of production in our attempts to understand current conditions. For Samir Amin (1991) and others, conditions were fundamentally different in the days when power yielded wealth than they arc now that wealth yields power. It is, of course, important to try to identify fundamental discontinuities and focus on issues of contemporary import. We suggest, however, that temporal schemes based on such fragile distinctions as power yielding wealth as opposed to wealth yielding power ought to be re-considered. Our position is that empirical, not doctrinal, grounds must provide the foundation for any temporal self-imposed limits on social analysis. This volume calls for the reopening of such debates. We invite such critics to illustrate for us the error of our ways, not by mere assertion but by concrete example, evidence and argument.
As noted above, the question of when to begin is intimately related to the question of where to begin. Historical understandings are all too vulnerable to conditions and issues in the localities in which they are conceived. Both 'geo-centric' and 'unit-centric' tendencies can be identified.
Our current problems with Eurocentrism derive from the development of
scholarship in a European dominated world system. As Abu-Lughod (1989) suggests, Eurocentric analysis framed a world system that systematically ignored its predecessors, their achievements, and the nature of the system that existed before European hegemony. Both familiar developmental paths, and discontinuities of world system history, go unrecognized as a result. However, the solution to this problem does not rest with the creation of various new countcr-ccntrisms. Instead of calling attention to areas that are ignored, such a strategy would only concretize their compartmentalization. In this work, the authors attempt to focus instead on the extent of human interactions across political boundaries. The similar or differential effects of various processes in different spaces over time promises a more coherent picture of social interaction than do fractured sets of competing centrisms.
Attention may be focused not just on places, but on various units that inhabit those spaces. Historian Frederick Teggart laments that
academic history has not succeeded in liberating itself from the influence of the Romantic period, during which, in every country of Europe, the spirit of nationality demanded the rewriting of history in terms of a new sense of national existence and a new enthusiasm for national achievements in llic past . . . The division of history ... into 'ancient,' 'medieval.' and 'modern' obscures the fact that these terms have reference, not to the world .11 large. but to a relatively small part of the earth's surface. (Teggart 1925:40 1)
The resulting state-centric analysis is narrow, particularistic, and makes it easy for us to ignore social processes that arc not so conveniently packaged. The deleterious effects of acute state-centrism are well understood in the field of political science.
Thus, the contributors to this volume reject both geographic and unit based centrisms, though taking this position may generate criticism. \\'c invite those with particular geographic or organizational interests to add their specialized knowledge and understanding to this broader project of constructing a new world history.
A fourth challenge concerns the locus of research on long-term social interactions. The analysis of social reality and history has been parceled up among denizens of various disciplines and subdisciplines. Divisions of labor have their place. Attempting to understand continuity and change over the long historical term is a daunting task. Scholars may be quickly overwhelmed. The division of history and the various social sciences, with their attendant vocabularies, methodologies, separate time horizons and theoretical strains, facilitated the expansion of specialized knowledge. But this knowledge has been purchased at a cost. Real synthesis has been rendered terribly difficult. Students of society have more to
teach one another than ever before, and arc less likely to be able to do so. Our specialization, our institutionalized separation, and our exclusive literatures, make it harder for us to share our stores of knowledge and construct a history of the world for all of humanity.
Solutions to this problem do not rest with the simple assertion of the need to do 'interdisciplinary' work, or to edit volumes that mix 'theory' with 'cases.' Disciplinary boundaries must be broken down. We must become understandable to one another. We count our attack on traditional disciplinary boundaries as one of the most significant contributions of this volume. It is not an interdisciplinary dialogue, but a transdisciplinary social science we seek. This collection includes works by scholars who have taken their degrees in history, sociology, political science, anthropology and economics. All address the same general issues. All show concern for the manner in which concepts are developed. No regimentation is required, just an agreement to work toward common understandings, if not common concepts and languages.
We are prepared for criticisms of our attempts at transdisciplinary synthesis. Specialists will no doubt complain that we have ignored crucial phenomena, misunderstood critical events, or given short-shrift to important processes. Still others will warn that our desire to dilute disciplinary boundaries will give rise to vague social philosophies better suited to abuse than understanding. We do not eschew specific knowledge. Empirical falsification or support for the hypotheses proposed here must be the basis for this kind of research. But we must work continuously to overcome the incompatible ways students in different disciplines seek to categorize the phenomena we jointly deal with. This can be especially difficult in highly specialized fields. The use of different definitions for the same concepts, the use of impenetrable jargon, and the failure to communicate about problems of mutual interest, are needless hindrances to understanding. It is necessary to overcome these differences in order to establish successful and productive communication and cooperation, and the meeting that gave rise to these papers proved important in this respect. Our experience suggests that specialists in sonic areas marshal evidence that allows them to take very much for granted issues that remain problematic for other scholars, not for lack of agreement but for lack of access.
Our commitment to breaking down disciplinary boundaries is also reflected in our refusal to allow 'theory' and 'cases' to play carefully circumscribed roles. The four major theoretical statements in this volume were all crafted with careful attention to a transdisciplinary body of specific case analysis. Some of the more specialized chapters emerged in response to these structuring principles, while others continue along independent paths and may lead to new theory. Sometimes the fit is good. sometimes not. We take anomalies seriously. Our hope is for a dynamic synthesis of method, theory and case.
A final challenge concerns appraisal. How do scholars know when a research program is productive and when it is not? In our case this is especially important.
There are no clear signposts in transdisciplinary work. Progress is slow when faced with so vast and underspecified a set of questions, and so tremendous a literature. Nor is there much agreement yet on what would constitute progress. This is' perhaps our most difficult challenge. Chapters which assess the state of cumulation of knowledge, clarify the possibilities for convergence, and identify areas for future research and collaboration, conclude the volume. To the extent that we create new understanding we believe we are successful. The point is to generate more light than heat. As our project matures, these are the criteria we shall apply.
Plan of the book
Our volume has four parts. Part I presents four principle perspectives. Each of the four was designed around a similar set of questions and was charged with taking the positions of their colleagues into consideration. In Part II we introduce a transdisciplinary set of regional and temporal studies that illustrate important instances of the key processes discussed in Part I. Part III considers a set of global historical macroprocesses, including the environment, the flow of information, the evolution of war, and urban development and decline. Part IV concerns itself with the problems of comparison, cumulation, and the future development of this field of inquiry.
These papers were originally presented at a special conference that took place in 1995 at the University of Lund in Sweden. They were subsequently refined in light of the interaction made possible by that meeting. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Swedish Council for Planning and Coordination of Research, the Swedish Research Council for Social Sciences and Humanities, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, without whose assistance this work would not have been possible.