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Wallerstein vs. Frank: imploding paradigms?
by Elson Boles
06 March 2002 21:04 UTC
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Here's an except of a somewhat draft essay I'm presenting at a the Michigan Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters conference this Friday.  Footnotes, etc. have been omitted.  Feedback and comments, and suggestions on venues for publication on a later draft welcomed.

When Worlds Collide: The Debate among World-Systems Analysts over Method and Abstraction

Elson E. Boles
Assistant Professor
Dept. of Sociology
Saginaw Valley State University
University Center
Saginaw MI, 48710


       The ongoing unraveling of the legitimacy of Liberalism and national development coincides with the apparent unraveling of the world-systems perspective.  This is somewhat ironic because world-systems analysts had been predicting both.  As for the latter, Wallerstein has expected that as the perspective becomes widespread, it will develop a thousand variations and no longer cease to have a meaningful identity, as occurred with Marxism (Wallerstein 1999: 192).  However, in my view the world-systems perspective is unraveling due to the success of the debates among world-systems scholars in pointing to flaws in the perspective's elemental methodological concepts.
        The debate within the world-systems perspective began over substantive-empirical issues.  Between the mid-1970 and 1980s, the works of Wallerstein, Chase-Dunn, Arrighi, Amin, and other practitioners suggested a consensus on a theory of the modern world-system: that it emerged during the sixteenth century and covered Europe, North Africa, colonized areas of the Americas.  With the publication of Janet Abu-Lughod's Before European Hegemony (1989), that theory was put in doubt with an alternative theory.  She argues that there existed a larger world-system that spanned Eurasia during the thirteenth century in which Europe played only a peripheral role as a "sub-system."  Developing this view, Frank (1990) began to argue that Abu-Lughod's thirteenth century Eurasian world-system and Wallerstein's sixteenth century world-system were not separate world-systems, but the same Eurasian world-system that began 5000 years ago.  In reviewing this debate,    I will cover three topics.  The first examines the false starts and mutual mis-readings by the three main protagonists.  It is important to know which criticisms are accurate and which are not.  The second topic concerns Frank's claim that Wallerstein's work is Eurocentric and the response by Wallerstein and others that Frank's work is Orientalist.  The third and last topic assesses the substantive or real issues in the debate and alternative methods for world-historical analysis.

False Critiques
        There are a number of false representations of other's positions that stem apparently from sloppy reading or reflection on the part of the participants.  It is surprising given the high-level quality of their works.  The first issue concerns jargon.  Wallerstein invented the concept "world-systems" (hyphenated and plural) to distinguish his method vis--vis the Establishment social sciences, and Frank and Gills created the term "world system" (singular and unhyphenated) used by Frank, and Gills to distinguish their theory vis--vis Wallerstein's theory of the modern world-system.  The distinction, according to Wallerstein, is that "world-systems" refers to the existence of numerous world-systems in Eurasia and elsewhere prior to and during the time of Frank's single "world system."  Wallerstein, however, misrepresents Frank when he writes that, "They use the singular because, for them, there is and has been only one world system through all of historical time and space" and "They cannot conceive of multiple 'world-systems' coexisting on the planet" (1996 [1991]: 294, 295).  Similarly mistaken, Abu-Lughod claims that Frank and Gills contend "there [has] been only a single world-system that has continued to evolve over the past 5,000 years" (Abu-Lughod 1996: 279).   In fact, Frank and Gills are world-systems analysts in this regard, since they believe there existed numerous world-systems.  Wallerstein notes in the first paragraph of the same article that Frank and Gill's 5000 year old system exists only "for several thousand years," and thus not through all historical time.  Further, he observes that it exited within a limited space, "from eastern Asia to western Europe and southward to include at least sought Asia, south-west Asia, and northern Africa," (ibid: 292) which clearly is not all historical space.  Frank and Gills, for their part, are quite explicit: "Unlike our nearly world (wide) system, the world-systems [of which Wallerstein writes] are in a 'world' of their own, which need not be even nearly worldwide.  However, the 'New World' in the 'Americas' was of course home to some world-systems of its own before its incorporation into our (pre-existing) world system after 1492" (Frank and Gills 1996: 3).  Frank and Gills also tentatively follow the advice of Chase-Dunn and refer to the world system that they analyze as a "Central world system" (Frank and Gills 1993: xix, 298). 
        Thus, not only is Wallerstein and Abu-Lughod's assertions that Frank and Gills "world system" is timeless and spaceless incorrect, but it is also true that Frank and Gills' reference to the world-system they analyze as a "world system" is a misleading reference if not meaningless one. They are world-systems analysts too. 
        Finally, Abu-Lughod misrepresents both Wallerstein, Frank and Gills on this issue.  Regarding her misrepresentation of Wallerstein, she states that he espouses the position that "there has been only one world-system, the one that began with the sixteenth century" (1996: 279).  She also claims that Wallerstein "defends reserving that term [world-systems] only for the modern world-system." (ibid.: 278).  In fact Wallerstein has since 1974 consistently argued that prior to and following the sixteenth century, until about 1900, there have exited many world-systems on the planet, with two types: world-economies and world-empires.  Moreover, in the very same volume dedicated to the debate which contains previously published contributions by Abu-Lughod, Frank and Gills, and Wallerstein, Wallerstein writes, "For me there have been many world-systems.The 'modern world-system' (or the 'capitalist world-economy') is merely one system among many.  Its peculiar feature is that it has shown itself strong enough to destroy all others contemporaneous to it" (1996 [1991]: 294). 
        Given these discrepancies about fundamentals, I find somewhat amusing the statement by Frank and Gills in the Preface to a collection of articles by Abu-Lughod, Gills and Frank, and Wallerstein, among others, that "This book is devoted to elucidating this debate" (1996: xxi).  No doubt the book succeeds in that endeavor if one is already familiar with the works of its authors and is able to spot the erroneous criticisms.

A Fight to the Bitter End: Eurocentrism and ReOrientalism

        The worst feature of the debate is that Frank and Gills go on an ideological warpath, accusing almost all other scholars of Eurocentrism.  They repeatedly take aim at Wallerstein, which makes some readers, who know of the long-time friendship among these writers, wince.  Frank and Gills attack Wallerstein and others' contention that the modern world-system centered on Europe expanded after the sixteenth century to conquer the entire planet.  They retort that Europe was part of a larger world-system, that prior the sixteenth century Europe was a periphery, and that its rise to hegemony between the eighteenth and twentieth century is/was only temporary.  Frank and Gills thus argue that the era of European hegemony has been shorter than alleged, that East Asia was hegemonic longer, and that hegemony is now shifting back to East Asia.  It is this narrative which Frank believes constitutes anti-Eurocentrism. The culmination of Frank's new views came with the publication of Reorient (1999), an obvious play on the word.  In it he claims that the reason others have been unable to "reorient" their views to the 5000-year-old world-system dominated by China, is because of "ideological [Eurocentric] blinkers."
        Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi, and Samir Amin have responded with an entire issue of Review (Volume XXII, Number 3, 1999) devoted to a critique of Franks book and entitled "ReOrientalism," a play on Frank's word play.  That Frank equates Eurocentrism with the alleged denial of the East's domination (in an encompassing Central World System) and an alleged focus on Europe's hegemony, is an accusation that Wallerstein finds irritating and nonsensical.  He contends that by deny European domination, Frank is denying European culpability:  "What is so terrible about Europe's 'conquest of the world' if it is nothing but the latest part of the ongoing march of the [Eurasian] ecumene?" and explains that "My main point here however, is that this line of argument is in no way anti-Eurocentric, since it accepts the basic set of values that have been put forward by Europe in its period of world dominance and thereby in fact denies and/or undermines competing value systems that were, or are in honor in other parts of the world" (Wallerstein 1999: 181).
        What then are the real differences in their positions on the history of systems?  Wallerstein sees numerous world-systems in Eurasia rising and declining until the modern world-system centered on Europe expanded to encompass the entire planet by 1900 destroying as it incorporated all other contemporaneous systems.  Frank and Gills acknowledge, like Wallerstein, that there were multiple world-systems on the planet.  However, they claim that a very large "world system" or Central World System arose some 5000 years ago and spanned most of the Eurasian land mass.  In this view Wallerstein's world-systems are seen as parts of a whole rather than independent systems.  But like Wallerstein's view of the modern world-system, they argue that in the era of European hegemony, the Central World system expanded to incorporate other world-systems on the planet by circa 1900.  Somewhat between Wallerstein and Frank's position is  Abu-Lughod's.  What Wallerstein sees as largely independently developing world-systems, she sees as "sub-systems of the larger trade network.  Although she refers to this larger trade network as a "world system," she contends, closer to Wallerstein's position than Frank's that it did not have the same level of "systemicity" as did the "sub-systems."  As for the origins and existence of the encompassing trade network or the individual sub-systems, she is the least clear because she does not detail when they began, and whether or not it was always as large as the Eurasian landmass.  She focuses on its climax and argues that as it fell apart, Europe stepped in to recreate a new world-system which it dominated.  In her meta-narrative, she suggests a cycle of unity and dissolution in the making of successive world-systems in which the "sub systems" are united into a single Eurasian world-system, the links between which then break down again into so many separate world-systems that are then reunited.

The Substantive Issues: The Paradigm Implodes?

        There is really just one substantive issue in this debate, and it is about significant mutual causality in demarcating a unit of analysis.  I will start with a brief elaboration of what I think is the essence of unit of analysis issue.   The purpose of explicating one's unit of analysis is to establish the boundaries of "significant mutual causality," which refers to the measurable degree or level of interaction among people that is considered systemic and thus makes them part of a social system (society).  To qualify as significant, their interaction must be sustained (systemic) and significant to the extent that these relationships decisively, consistently, and mutually shape peoples lives.  The criterion by which people may have systemic interaction that is indicative of significant mutual causality is a matter of empirical investigation.  World-systems may be presumed to exist, but must be demonstrated empirically.  As noted, Wallerstein's criterion for measuring the boundaries of significant mutual causality is an axial division of labor.  But there may be other measures of interdependence, including, as Chase-Dunn and Hall note, besides bulk-goods networks, other types of networks may qualify as bounding criteria, including prestige-goods networks, political/military networks, and information networks (Chase-Dunn and Hall 54).  (However, whether or not these particular criteria qualify or not is uncertain because Chase-Dunn and Hall do not provide sufficient historical evidence.)
        Thus, in general terms, what we can say theoretically is that to qualify as binding and boundary criteria, the actions of people must have a sustained and mutual causal effect on each other to some significant degree that permits one to contend that their relationships are systemic.  Regarding the spatial dimensions of the unit of analysis, interrelationships that constitute significant mutual causality must always occur in some geographic area that necessarily has boundaries.  As one moves from the center of this area to the perimeters, a point will be reached beyond which people have no significant and sustained interconnections with those behind.  These perimeters constitute the boundary of the society, of mutual social-historical causality.  Those beyond that point are not interconnected to those within the boundary and therefore are not members of that society. 
        Ascertaining the boundaries of society is a matter of empirical research.  This is not merely theory or assumption.  We know, for example, that peasants in the northern and southern parts of the Ming Empire were socially interconnected through a tributary and redistributive political-cultural system established by the state.  We also know that the rise and demise of the Ming Empire had little to do with, for example, the rise and demise of other societies such as the Inca or Aztec empires. This high degree of mutual effect is what conceptually distinguishes a relationship from an interrelationship, a connection from an interconnection, arbitrary events, developments, and processes that are "external" from those that are systemic and "internal."   People may have irregular contact that is very significant, as perhaps with the diffusion of technology and cultural ideas or temporary invasions, crusades, diseases, occasional wars, etc.  Or people may have systematic connections that do not qualify as systemic mutual causality or which do not significantly impact the trajectory of a system's development, as might be the case with long-distance trade in luxury items.
        In the debate with Frank, Wallerstein waffles on this issue, opting to stress his definition of a world-system rather than address the genuine issue of whether or not the trade networks and processes described by Frank and Abu-Lughod constituted significant and sustained causality or "systemicity."  Wallerstein acknowledges that Frank's (1990) "account is a fairly acceptable initial and partial outline of what had been happening in the world between 8000 BC (or so) up to 1500 AD" (1996: 293).  And after agreeing that there existed world-economies between the world-empires that were also part of an encompassing "trading network of the oikumene.I even agree that, as a consequence, there may have been some common economic rhythms between them" (1996: 294).  That the Eurasian exchange network is not a fiction and that there may have been encompassing "rhythms" may be facts that pose a serious challenge to Wallerstein's claim that world-systems as he defines them develop independently. 
        Although, on the one hand, much more research remains to be done before Wallerstein or Frank's meta-narratives on various world-systems can be accepted or rejected with any confidence, in my view the existing evidence favors Wallerstein's position.  It appears that Frank prematurely claims that the trade network constituted a division of labor, an idea that Wallerstein flatly refutes.  To make their case, Frank and others need to provide strong evidence and detail which demonstrate that the regions of the Central World System were truly interdependent upon each other and not just connected, the latter fact being one that everyone already agrees upon.  It is not enough to show that long-distance trade in luxuries was sustained or that the transmission of ideas and knowledge from one region to another had profound effects on the development of a region, as with for example, the importation of gunpowder, the compass, and paper from China to Europe.  They have yet to demonstrate significant mutual causality, as Wallerstein did in his analysis of the modern world-system.
        On the other hand, the theoretical matters regarding causality do need serious rethinking.  If the Eurasian trade and tributary networks that Frank, Abu-Lughod, McNeill (2000) and others describe did not constitute world-systems by the criteria of significant mutual causality and systemicity, they nevertheless did constitute trade "systems" because the networks were sustained and structured.  The people within the cities and towns that arose as a result of the networks' formation were mutually interdependent.  And though they may not have constituted a division of labor among themselves, the earnings of merchants in different empires or world-economies did affect the local division of labor of which they were part.  In short, careful analysis is required because it may be that these various networks had a causal impact on the development of world-systems as Wallerstein defines them or on the "sub-systems" as Abu-Lughod refers to them.
        The problem in the debate is that Frank's exaggerated claims that the long-distance trade networks of his Central World System constituted a division of labor and thus a "world system" make it fairly easy for Wallerstein to dismiss his argument and thus evade the issue of whether or not the trade networks constituted a systemic process and conditioned the "governing logic" of one or more world-systems (ala Wallerstein).  Wallerstein easily avoids this issue by refuting Frank en toto on the basis of Wallerstein's own definition of world-systems rather than on the basis of whether or not Frank's evidence, as opposed to his claims, supports the idea of systemicity.  While Frank claims to use the same criteria - a division of labor - Wallerstein points out that the trade networks to which Frank refers are composed of long-distance trade, and thus do not constitute a division of labor by his definition.  For Wallerstein a division of labor is based on exchanges of bulk goods or necessities. Therefore, because the Eurasian trade networks were based on trade in long-distance "luxury" goods (low-bulk and high-profit goods), Frank's networks by definition do not form a division of labor and thus do not constitute a world-system.
        Wallerstein therefore slips around the issue of causality by raising his own particular criteria for it.  He does not dwell on the idea that there may be other criteria by which to define his world-systems or other world-systems.  The only explicit reference by Wallerstein that I have found in which he addresses systemicity with reference to Frank's work, and implies that criteria other than a division of labor might suffice, is to deny any: "the systemic meaningfulness of [Frank and Gills'] ecumene has yet to be established, in my view" (1999: 180 italics added).      The second way Wallerstein slips around the issue of systemicity is by attacking the weakest logic in Frank's argument:

Everything that can be denoted as a system can be shown to be "open" at some points of its perimeter.  One can always take this opening and insist that the presumed system is really part of some larger system.  It will not take long to arrive at the largest of all possible systems, the universe from the beginning of its existence to now.Frank says the story does not start in AD 1500, but rather in 3000 BC (or so).  Perhaps, but by what logic do we stop at 3000 BC?  Why not 10,000 BC?  Why not go back to Australopithecus, or to prehominids? (Wallerstein 1995b: 224)

        On the one hand, Wallerstein's critique seems reasonable, for there is no good reason for Frank to stop at 3000 BC.  On the other hand, if everything that can be denoted as a system can be shown to be "open" at some points of its perimeter, then the question really is a matter of how big those openings are and how many might exist. 
        Abu-Lughod, Frank, and others have raised sufficient evidence to suggest that the Eurasian networks they describe may have significantly impacted the development of Wallerstein's world-systems.  In view of Wallerstein's admission that there "may have been some common economic rhythms between" world-empires and world-economies, one must entertain the possibility that the larger "external" networks may have indeed significantly affected the "governing logics" of world-systems or the course of their development. 
        It is at this point in the analysis that the world-systems perspective seems to begin imploding.  If interaction between a system and another system or between a system and a network-system is sufficiently substantial such that the development of either cannot be adequately explained without taking into consideration those "external" processes, then those processes must constitute significant causality and may therefore not be external after all.  I suspect that detailed work will uncover much "gray" area, or many openings in various perimeters, and that the hard line concepts of "external" and "internal" that are key to the concept of world-systems will become difficult to make without greatly oversimplifying.  But this idea might be wrong because it is possible, as Abu-Lughod's argument suggests, that a world-system may have an internal governing logic (ala Wallerstein) even though it is simultaneously a "sub-system," that is, part of a larger network-system that affects its course of development but not significantly.  I suspect Wallerstein holds this view, but he does not make it explicit.

A Path Out the Impasse?  (Don't Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water)

        Above I have emphasized uncertainty in attempting to specify the binding and boundary criteria that qualifies as constituting systemicity.  This is because all the conjecture in the world will not replace concrete analysis of the concrete.  There is probably a wide variety of criteria that may qualify as significant mutual causality, and no doubt this will vary from system to system, network to network, and according to their interrelationships.  But if some processes do not constitute significant mutual causality, they may nonetheless be a necessary part of the historical explanation of the development of a social system in question.  What matters then is historical analysis and arguments that establish, explain, and make convincing arguments about specific social processes of specific historical social systems.
        World-systems analysts have, moreover, tended to focus not just on a historical social system, but the analyses of a system (or comparisons of systems) have tended to focus on the development overarching structures, patterns, trends, and cycles, and have underplayed contingent developments, events, and differences over time and space within a system.  The world-systems perspective has effectively become synonymous with analyses of social systems at the structural level of abstraction.  Wallerstein made it clear from the outset that he "was looking to describe the world-system at a certain level of abstraction, that of the evolution of the structures of the whole system" (1974: 8) because at this level the "'governing' logics which 'determine' the largest part of sequential reality" can be found.   And perhaps it is only at this level of generalization that the very conception and existence of world-systems can be made. But in conflating the "world-system level" of analysis (Hall 2000: 239) with the analysis of world-systems, practitioners of the perspective have come to argue that there is no "truly meaningful social change" within the life-history of a system.  As Wallerstein puts it, "This implies then that the task is singular.  There is neither historian nor social scientist, but only a historical social scientist who analyzes the general laws of particular social systems and particular sequences through which these systems have gone" (Wallerstein 1991: 244). 
        In other words, for world-systems analysts, there are no meaningful distinctions among social phenomena beyond the systemic-structural generalizations, categories, or "fields of inquiry."  Chase-Dunn and Halls' comparative approach is symptomatic of this problem per Wallerstein's critique (1995b) on grounds of both methodology and political pragmatism.  However, the problem is just as evident in Wallerstein's analysis of the modern world-system and in his typologies of social systems, which is the crux of the methodological debate.  World-historical scholars who are sympathetic to the world-systems paradigm (McMichael 1990, 1991, 2000; Mintz 1977, 1978, 1985, 1991; Roseberry 1989, 1991; Tomich 1990, 1991, 1997; Wolf 1982, 2001) have nonetheless expressed much dissatisfaction with the world-systemic level of generalization that has come to characterize the world-systems perspective.  While there is common agreement that modern capitalism is a historically specific "system," these critics find world-systems analyses that begin and end at the grandest level of generalization possible of a system (or systems) to be problematic and constraining from several angles.
        In major world-systems works, the point of detailed analysis of local conditions, if that is done, is to find analytical commonalities among diverse phenomena by which the structural categories can be constructed.  By this method of analyzing world-systems, the variety of historically specific and chanting circumstances and forms can be categorized as essentially the same and explained by their function within the structure of the system, such as in describing East Europe and New Spain in the long sixteenth century as "periphery."  There is legitimacy to this level of generalization because it establishes systemicity.  However, for the above mentioned critics, the problem begins when analysis ends at that level of generalization.  As with Frank's super-materialist super-generalizations, the structural level analyses of world-systems is only as accurate as it is general.  It is useful and insightful when it establishes systemicity and helps clarify the major trends, cycles, patterns of the historical social system.  However, that level of generality cannot on its own explain the historical development of a social system.  The largest part of sequential reality is not explained, but presumed, and diverse social phenomena are simplified and reduced to functional essences.  World-systems analysis is not alone in this regard.  Tomich argues that both the world-systems perspective and the "mode of production" approach (as represented by Laclau and Brenner) begin with,

.a priori models through which the respective historical narratives are reconstructed.  Each reconstruction creates a privileged realm of systemic necessity that is at once the source and arena of the 'laws of motion' of the system, while relations and processes [differences and distinctions] outside this realm are treated as contingent and secondary.  Thus, theory and the history of capitalist development and class formation are collapsed into each other. The privileged concept becomes identical with the 'real history' of the system.  The complexities of capitalist development are thereby reduced to a single dimension, which comes to define its essences as a historical system. (Tomich 1997: 295).

        The conclusion that I draw from this astute critique of world-systems analysis is that perhaps it is time to reconstruct world historical processes in more open-ended and historically concrete ways, ways that do not apriori exclude the possibility of connections nor assumes connections with the idea of systemic boundaries but which embrace historical contingency and complex causality networks.  This is a perspective, in McMichael's words, that that favors a "building up" rather than a "filling in," of categories and totalities. 
        The path out of the impasse may be the rejection of the terms of the debate regarding whether the systems are too big or too small, especially when claims are made on the basis of incomplete information or models.  Instead, efforts should be placed on the reconstruction of each historical social system in detail, including the various larger networks or larger processes within which it may be embedded, and its relationship to other systems and networks, but also the details.  The details and particulars will not only vary from system and context, but from time to time within any given system, network, or region.  And to acknowledge this is to observe that simple models or meta-narratives are tantamount to a "nomothetic" method of analysis of a social system.  There is always the requirement to write the real history of a social system and its world-historical context at multiple levels of generalization.  As someone once wrote, the "concrete is concrete because it is the synthesis of many relations, thus a unity of the diverse."  The purpose, after all, is to understand social change in order to make intelligent political choices in the present and not just to have interesting theories of social change.

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