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Fw: Armchair theorizing and scholarship on wsn
by Daniel Pinéu
13 March 2002 15:28 UTC
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Fellow listers,
this was supposed to have been sent last night to the list, as well as to Adam Starr. I'm forwarding it now.
From: Daniel Pinéu
Sent: Wednesday, March 13, 2002 2:44 AM
Subject: Re: Armchair theorizing and scholarship on wsn

> I'm glad to see that you some of you are passionate to
> defend your position in acadedmia. I knew as i sat
> down at my computer today, i was about to be blasted.
> The debate is refreshing, although I think some you
> took my comments a little too personally and have
> apparently been insulted by my suggestion that
> academia is out of touch with the world. May I say
> that your comments are a credit to World Systems
> Theory. Perhaps you should also realize that your
> responses may actually alter the debate of this forum
> providing more focuss to the question at hand, "What
> is World Systems Theory?"

Finally, some discussion of substance on WS theory. I am most thankful to Adam for his comments, both privately and on the list, and the opportunity that they give us all for a constructive dialogue on these topics. First of all, I'd like to state that I currently hold no academic position. I am no more than a lowly graduate - hopefully on his way to be accepted at Aberystwyth for a Masters though. So, I must say I didn't take any of the comments personally (and why should I, or for that matter any of the listers, since there was no ad hominem). But I do have a problem with the assumption that "academia [generally] is out of touch with the world". Some of it is, and irretrieveably so, but on this case, like in most others, the world is not black & white, but rather a complex grayscale.
> 1.) We have all come to this forum because we believe
> that  to some degree there is a World System of
> society that may be studied through out history.
> Sociology, history, political science, economics and
> geography may be placed under one umbrella if  our
> assumptions of this system are correct.
I would tend to agree with the first assumption, and show some more skepticism on the second. Wallerstein, on his clever and provocative "Unthinking Social Science", does indeed advance the idea that the social sciences are 19th centuries artificially created intellectual "categories", according to the bourgeois' needs of representation of the wolrd, and of knowledge about it. In that work and elsewhere, he has been arguing for some sort of more unified macro-sociologico-historical discipline. Personally, I am not such a big fan of the idea. While I do advocate - and have always sought - a theoretically rich and multi-disciplinary approach to any given social phenomenum, some degree of functional separation and specialization seems necessary, no matter how artificial it is. Obviously, the lines are blurry when it comes to clear-cut frontier lines between the different social sciences, precisely because such faultlines are only the product of the human mind. Yes, but so is everything else. We should not fall into a fragmentary epistemological abyss that focuses ous more and more on the trees (and the branches, and the leaves) but less on the forest, but I would also advise caution regarding the opposite danger, some sort of pan-wholism. At the risk of social science becoming an incommensurable blur.
> 2.) As Gunder Frank has pointed out (in numerous
> books), that neo-liberalism has contributed to the
> "development of underdevelopment" through out the
> poorest nations of the world. The capitalist system
> that we engage in today has its origins of some five
> thousand years ago.
That remains a fundamental rift within World(-)Systems Theory (aaah, the simplifying beauty of using just WS to outskirt this discussion!). While AG Frank's position on the "development of underdevelopment" remains largely a consensual topic, his definition of a World (no hyffen) System dating back at least 5000 years frontally clashes with Wallerstein's original and prior hypothesis (more Braudelian, perhaps?) of World-Systems. I must admit I find the discussion quite engaging intellectually - even if, as Elson Boles posited recently, it might well be the seed for the unraveling of WS Theory (then again, it may not... my own field, International Relations, has no shortage of "incommensurable paradigms", and it still manages to survive) - although I think that Frank & Gill's work largely moves discussion onto a whole new board, by their different (and broader) definition of "capital" and of accumulation of the same as a central feature. So, again yes and no, Adam.
> 3.) The current international capitalist mode of
> production is non-sustainable. There is undisputable
> evidence of this provided by environmental agencies
> and research centres through out the world. Even the
> evironmental report created by NAFTA state this.
Hmmm... While I would easily agree with you on this, there is this nagging question at the back of my mind that somehow slipped down to my fingers and made its way to this email. The zillion dollar question: and the "current international capitalist mode of production" is ...? Is current what Marx defined as the "current capitalist mode of production" (19th cent.)? Is it really international, or global (and no, I don't think this is purely semantics)? Anybody, humour me on this one?
> 4.) Wallerstein himself acknowledges that there are
> critics of World Systems Theory as it may be too broad
> and extensive. How can one theory explain the history
> of the world?
BINGO! Maybe we should send this to some of the guys doing super-string theory... THEY are claiming to have "the big answer". On the lighter side of this, I can never forget that chapter on the Hitchhyker's Guide to the Galaxy, where two beings plug a question into the super-dupper computer. In the end, the amswer to everything, to all the mysteries of the Universe was... 42 [doing this from memory, so it could be any other 2-digit number]. The more general and sweeping a theory is is, the more it purports to explain, the more it will have to generalize, to simplify. You _can_ explain the entire Industrial Revolution in one book... But chances are you have left too much behind for it to be more than simply a grain of sand on a large intellectual beach. WS Theory is great at maro-historical and macro-social trends... But it only goes SO FAR, it's not an infallible matrix, and treating it like such would not make justice to the intellect of its creators (or to the wonderful complexity of this world we live in). Good point there Adam.
> Based on the above, may I suggest opening the door
> between 'theory'  and 'world'. (...)
> I say, what is the point to all this theory if we
> can't at least attempt to apply what we know. We have
> the facts, we have the ideology, and I know we have
> the brains. I say let us consider practical options
> and policies such as a Marshall Plan for Africa
> suggested several weeks ago or "Integral Ecology" as
> coined by Ken Wilbur. Lets get off the armchair and
> challenge our selves.
The door between "theory" and the world has never been closed, and it never could be. Theory, ultimately, either reflects a vision of the surrounding world (either trying to understand it, or to explain it), or it seeks to change to world into that vision. Or both. What may happen is that different theories (and theorists) may overlap differently with the world around them. I'm all for deriving creative, policy-sound outcomes from theoretical, scholarly production. But Adam, we DON'T have the facts... At least not all of them. (As for the brains, I hope the rest of the world is better endowed than me, as you can derive from my ramblings on this list). Practical options are good, indeed essential. But i still feel that scholars shouldn't be the ones to formulate them, they should rather inform the policy-makers through their intellectual production. Let's NOT get off the armchair and challenge OTHERS: through education, let's challenge tomorrow's scholars, tomorrows policy-makers, tomorrow's policy-receivers; through publications and public engagement, let's challenge today's decision-makers. Heck, let's get off the armcahir alright and take long walks together. Maybe it works better than have everybody crowding everybody else's turf.
> I joined this discussion group because I specifically
> wanted to read the insights Gunder Frank and
> Wallerstein. Do you not think these men have a
> creative vision of the world; where they would like to
> see humanity ascend to? If my comments continue to
> upset some of you, then I guess I'm in the wrong
> forum. Does anyone know where I should go? Perhaps Dr.
> David Smith or Daniel Pineu might have a suggestion.
Well, if you came for Wallerstein or Frank's insights, you will have some trouble finding them here. Which is something that somehow keeps bothering me, and making me wonder about the sate of affairs on the list, as I have said earlier. (Same goes for Chase-Dunn, Arrighi, et alia). As for humanity "ascending"... I am not not sure we are "ascending" or "descending" anywhere, and I'm not sure we are supposed to. The Enlightenment notion that history (as Hegel understood it) progresses or goes somewhere has always bothered me. History is a collection of facts. We get faint traces of (some of) those fact. And WE "identify" (construct?) the trends. It's called... tah dah... social science. But that is a whole different story, and I'm afraid I have bothered the listers too much at this point. Not to mention I need at least a cople of hours' sleep. Sorry for the fragmentary and probably cryptic nature of my comments. Adam, speaking for myself, your comments are more than welcome, especially if they are always as interesting as these. As for being in the wrong forum... hmm... I once had that feeling. I have no suggestions on where to go but OUT (although I wouldn't advise it), but I have found out that generous usage of the DEL button is quite effective in most lists.
Hope to hear more on this from the rest.
Cheers from a rainy Lisbon,
Daniel Pinéu
BA Hons. Political Science & International Relations
Universidade Nova de Lisboa
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