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Re: Frank as a world-systemist?
by Elson Boles
18 March 2002 23:41 UTC
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> -----Original Message-----
> From: Boris Stremlin [mailto:bstremli@binghamton.edu]
> Sent: Monday, March 18, 2002 3:25 AM
> To: Elson Boles
> Subject: Re: Frank as a world-systemist?


> Then you see what I mean.  If I say I'm writing history as it REALLY
> happened, I am saying my perspective is epistemologically privileged.
> Historical time, as most world-systemists (at any rate) realize, is not
> objectively given (nor simply imposed by the ego), but "socially
> constructed".  Hence, TimeSpace is socially constructed as well,
> and herein lies the crux of its historicity (although
> this constructive aspect does not make it any less real).  There is a
> tendency to forget the constructive nature of these TimeSpaces, and to
> assert that they exist objectively, with respect to any reference point,
> and hence they are always relevant, regardless of what question you are
> trying to ask.  In this sense, they exist outside of history.

Agreed, and well put.

> > The oddity in the Frank-Wallerstein debate is that Frank and
> Gills have no
> > reason to use the unhyphenated "world system" term, except to
> distinguish
> > their world-system as being bigger in TimeSpace than Wallerstein's.  In
> > fact, Frank and Gills' use the term "world-systems" at least once,
> > acknowledging that other world-systems existed in the past and elsewhere
> > (Frank and Gills, _The World System, five hundred years or five
> thousand?_,
> > 1996: 3).  Moreover, they claim to use all the same criteria to
> define their
> > world-system as Wallerstein does: a division of labor, cycles, hegemony,
> > etc.  And in the end they agree with Chase-Dunn that they ought to call
> > their big system, Central World System, thus being a world-system among
> > others.  (I'd personally prefer, "the Big System" or BS for short.)
> It is identical except for the one (key) thing - the Weltanschauung of the
> "endless accumulation of capital".  For Frank, this represents a mere
> ideological byproduct of the system's functioning.  For Wallerstein (as
> Frank astutely points out), it represents the crucial element of the
> social construction which allows the system to function.  That amounts to
> a huge difference, and one which is impossible to get at simply by
> applying an "empirical" measurement of "significance", because the
> significance is itself socially constructed.

I agree with the assessment, but not the conclusion.  If the spread of an
ideology (e.g. national developmentalism) is part and parcel of a common
socially constructed context (e.g. an interstate system) then it is
empirical, because it is observed, and it is significant because it explains
common behaviors and processes.  As to what I mean by "significant," see my
response to your comments below.

> To put
> it in other words, the crux of the issue is the "naturalization" of our
> units of analysis - the assumption that the TimeSpace created is identical
> in every instance with a physico-geographic TimeSpace.  This is the
> assumption Frank makes with respect to the 5,000 year system, and, as you
> note in your paper, Wallerstein in effect makes with his 500-year one.
> Not everything "within" the system in the physico-geographic sense is
> explicable in terms of the proposed unit of analysis.

I think I agree, but more clarity is in order.  What is the difference
between a naturalized TimeSpace and a physicio-geographic TimeSpace?  Are
not both social constructs?  And if so, how do you tell them apart?  What
makes one more "valid" (convincing) than the other?

> The problem I continue to have with your formulation is that "significant
> connectedness" is unqualified as to when, where, how, and for whom.  To
> say Frank's system is not significant "enough" is to naturalize those
> criteria which you feel are enough.

First, I've said that it *seems* like Frank's system does not constitute
significant mutual causality.  But perhaps my sarcasm reveals my gut
feelings.  But I have no other criteria in mind so I can't possibly be
"naturalizing" "those criteria I feel are enough."  I think you don't get my
point on this.  Judging by his own criteria, I don't think (but I'm open to
further consideration) that the evidence supports the claims that the
processes within, or attributes of, any of the "cultural areas" (e.g.
China's said dominance in the system) are reasonably explained as the
outcome of that areas connections to other areas of the system, and

>  The linkages of long-distance trade
> were significant and meaningful to the people who were implicated in and
> effected by it, in some places and some of the time.

Of course, but that doesn't mean that the linkages constituted a
Eurasian-wide system as Frank defines it.

> Moreover, its
> significance is also underlined in the amount of fruitful research it has
> generated over the last decade on interlinkage and interdependence of
> (Afro-)Eurasia.  If it had been deemed insignificant from the start, it
> would have never been done, and we would not have the benefit of even
> arguing about it.

I never used the term "insignificant" which has different connotations.
Also, you're equivocating on the meaning of "significance" i.e. as important
(for whatever personal reason) vs. as decisive in explanation of change and
open to debate

> This is not the same as saying that it was decisive in
> determining the character of relationships in every instance.  It seems to
> me that you are asserting that a given logic is the most significant in
> every instance over a particular contiguous extent of a given Timespace.

I'm not putting it that strong, e.g. not "every instance" but over
significantly ("decisively" is a term that works just as well) more
instances than any other "logic."

> Not only do I not agree with this, but it seems to me your own paper
> militates against such a judgment as well.  If every system is open, then
> every system also breaks down somewhere, in some socially constructed
> TimeSpace.  Where what are usually referred to as antisystemic movements
> succeed in articulating some sort of alternative, the system has broken
> down, perhaps not for ever (usually not, in fact), but at least for a
> time.

I think you're conflating systemic chaos with my conception that
developments are significantly related within the same overarching or
inclusive process(es).

> > Regarding Frank's unit, he of course says yes, the developments are
> > interconnected, while Wallerstein says no they're not.
> Actually, Wallerstein says that he accepts Frank's explanation as "a
> fairly initial and partial outline of what had been happening in the world
> between 8000 BC (or so) up to 1500 AD" and he even tentatively accepts the
> existence of common economic rhythms within the entity which Frank calls a
> system (pp.293-4 in _The World System: 500 years or 5000?_, ed. Frank and
> Gills, 1993, Routledge).  If you say something has common rhythms, it
> certainly sounds like you accept the fact that it's interconnected.  He
> does not call it a system because he, like you, naturalizes the criteria
> of systematicity, and accepts their validity as given for all Timespaces.

First, you misread/misinterpret me.  Second, in my reading, Wallerstein is
saying is that some (not all) world-economies may have had common rhythms if
because they were linked to each other or commonly affected by a
world-empire(s).  That reading is open to question, and so we might ask
Wallerstein himself, if it's an issue worth bothering him with.

> >  Does Frank show the
> > same degree of integration of his system that Wallerstein's
> shows in his?
> > Frank says yes, Wallerstein says no.  Does the evidence of other writers
> > tend to support Frank's view or Wallerstein's?  The upshot is
> that whether
> > one finds Frank or Wallerstein's arguments more convincing hinges on the
> > evidence and arguments that each and others bring to bear with regard to
> > significant mutual causality -- systemicity -- among the people within
> > demonstrated or justified unit of analysis.  I don't think ReOreint is
> > comparable to M W-S in this respect.
> What are the criteria of systematicity you use to make this judgment?  Do
> they apply to all systems?

It is not a criteria but a judgment.  Criteria, as I use it, refers to
binding and bounding processes.  The judgment is whether one can demonstrate
that developments here and there are caused by their mutual interaction.
Example, in "Three Paths of National Development in 16th Century Europe"
Wallerstein summarizes some of his findings in M W-S, and tersely explains
how developments defined, and were the outcome of the integration of,
Southern, Western, and Eastern Europe.  I think he demonstrates significant
mutual causality.  The criteria he uses to make that demonstration is his
analysis of a division of labor.  I strongly suspect that this criteria will
not be applicable to all historical social systems, though I of course
cannot demonstrate this presumption.  However, I would agree that certainly
not everything in Europe can be explained by the process of their mutual
interaction.  There are no doubt developments in and outside the "external
arena" that explain *some* developments in Europe.  By definition, such
processes do not explain most of what happens within the system most of the
time.  There may be decisive, momentary, "one-way" impacts from "outside."
But these are not systemic.  If they were, then they should be considered as
part of the system.  In this way, we realize the limits of the systemic
processes in fully explaining the development (and contingencies) of a
systems transformation, and leave the historical door open to such

> To me, once interconnectedness has been established (and I think in
> ReOrient and in the book I cite above it has been),

I disagree.

> the issue DOES in fact
> become empirical - and that involves the demonstration of the concrete
> relationships between open, hence overlapping systems.

I agree.

> Some systems are
> in fact better interconnected than others - at certain points in time and
> space - although the proponents of governing systems (which is what
> Wallerstein wants to investigate) always argue that their dominance is
> a product of some innate, ahistorical virtue.

I agree.  In this sense, I think that the regularity of the trade networks
did constitute a "system of trade" -- a network.  I don't think it
constituted a WORLD-system.  It did not make all the areas of the Eurasian
land mass into a single historical system with an overarching logic(s) of
transformation by any criteria.

> > system's development and transformation.  It is necessary to
> show the local
> > "dimensions" of world-historical developments and vice-versa to build a
> > concrete understanding of a system's development.
> But can't "local" dimensions also be shown to be systemic?

My point was that "local" is necessarily systemic, or rather a formative
dimension of systemic.

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