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Re: Frank as a world-systemist?
by Boris Stremlin
20 March 2002 05:32 UTC
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On Mon, 18 Mar 2002, Elson Boles wrote:

> > 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.

Of course it's empirical.  All I'm saying is that the empirical work of
locating, measuring, comparing, etc. is impossible without/always goes
along with theoretical work of specifying the criteria which we use in
our judgments, and any significance is always such in light
of theoretical construction.

> > 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?

It's not a difference in kind.  What I called a "naturalized" TimeSpace is
not another timespace like a physico-geographic one (e.g.); it is simply
any TimeSpace which is assumed to exist objectively, without theoretical


> > 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

I don't think so.  If some kinds of connections are said not to be
decisive, why bother studying them?  And unless you study them, they will
never become decisive.

> > 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).

No, I'm just trying to not to naturalize the system and it's functioning
with respect to TimeSpaces where it seems (empirically) to not be
significant enough.

> > > 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.


> >
> > 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.

That sounds tautological to me.  Any attempt to come up with a system
which explains everything (even qualified as "as much as possible over
the long term" or "the decisively important things") generally succeeds only in
foreclosing debate, ruling things out a priori, and in eventually having
to settle for reincorporating contingency.  I have no problem in accepting
world-systems as governing systems, decisive in determining a great many
(more than any other system, perhaps) important or crucial factors over
the period of its existence, but with the proviso that like any form of
rule, a governing logic is not absolute.  It is not decisive in all
respects, because if it were, any sort of counter-systemic (or whatever
you want to call it) effort whould be futile from the beginning.
World-systems may be decisive in ensuring the reproduction of the
core-periphery hierarchy, but they are not decisive in determining who
ends up where, and why one peripheral state is so different from another
one.  I have a hard time accepting these issues as non-decisive for the
purposes of ALL questions, because this would mean the naturalization of
the world-system (and the absolutization of its own inside-outside
calculus).  Arrighi's overlapping S-curves, Abu-Lughod's intersecting
systems - all these serve as testament to the conditionality of systemic

> 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
> explanations.

This sounds to me like the abandonment of the whole project of historical
social science - when systematicity is insufficient, we resort to good old
idiographic explanations - wie sie eigentlich gewesen.  It seems to me
that if something is worthwhile narrating, it is worthwhile/significant
enough to systematize.  Ultimately, it was for the sake of the
construction of a historical social science that the study of
world-systems was initiated to begin with.


> > 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.

The Eurasian extent of the network is an open question (and it depends on
what time period you are dealing with).  As to whether it constituted a
WORLD-system or not - again, depends, but this eventuality should not be
rejected out of hand.  My reading of world-system is as a governing
system; governance comes in many flavors, and is never absolute (despite any
claims made on its behalf).  That is why I'm not in favor of
distinguishing world-systems and e.g. trade-systems as types.


Boris Stremlin

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