Part I – Concepts, Tools, and Frameworks

In the first two weeks we will get an overview of the three main texts (Polanyi, Bobbitt, and Putnam) and consider a sketch of world systems analysis (Wallerstein, 1974, 2004) as an explanation for the forces at work in international development.


In our experiment with inverting the class, my notes will all be online.  Some weeks I will be catching up, because this is the first time the course is offered in this form – so check on Sunday each week for the Monday class. I will tell you if I go back and add material to previous weeks after our classes.

World Systems Analysis in brief

Immanuel Wallerstein  postulates three structures of the “World Capitalist System”.  Capitalism is not a pejorative but a technical description, implying production for profit and movement of goods and services across boundaries.  He identifies three structures separating the developed North from underdeveloped South:

  • capital accumulation – where does the money and capital end up?
  • core-periphery division of labour – who gets low wages?
  • state system – which states have instruments of power?

These three structures of the world system shape interactions both within and between states.  For example: state power regulates markets; markets determine how capital accumulates (who gets rich); and capital ownership determines that some own factories and others work for wages, dividing labour between those who benefit from capital accumulation and those who do not, thus reinforcing capital accumulation and shaping state power.  In this scheme, economic revolutions like the industrial revolution, political revolutions like the French and Russian revolutions, and social revolutions like emancipation and civil rights are clearly linked as elements of the same system.


At the time that Wallerstein articulated these ideas in the 1970s, centrally planned economies under the leadership of the Soviet Union stood apart as clear economic block that purported to operate according to worker ownership of capital and planning to meet human needs. The event that we refer to as the end of the Cold War also marked an economic revolution described by the economists of the Chicago School as “shock therapy” intended to bring the socialist economies quickly into the developed capitalist world. The first Chinese chief economist of the World Bank, Yifu Lin, described this as “all shock, no therapy” – stagnation and unemployment accompanied massive concentration of private wealth as oligarchs made off with the national assets.


States ascend in the world system through successive and overlapping self-sufficiency and surplus in agriculture, industry, commerce, finance, and then lose self-sufficiency and dominance in the same sequence.

For a more extensive summary of key ideas, and an economic history that you can compare to the history you read in Polanyi, see Summary of Wallerstein on World System Theory (don’t be deterred by the note about source unknown – it’s a good summary, probably prepared by a nameless graduate student in indentured service!)

Key terms and concepts




Academic disciplines



Systems thinking

State system

Core-periphery division of labour

Capital accumulation

Wicked problems


Abbott, A. (2001). Chaos of disciplines. University of Chicago Press.

Clark, G. (2008). A farewell to alms: a brief economic history of the world. Princeton University Press.

Meadows, D. H., Goldsmith, E. I., & Meadow, P. (1972). The limits to growth (Vol. 381). London: Earth Island Limited.

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Ritchey, T. (2011). Wicked problems–social messes: Decision support modelling with morphological analysis (Vol. 17). Springer.

Wallerstein, I. (1974). The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system: concepts for comparative analysis. Comparative studies in society and history16(04), 387-415.

Wallerstein, I. M. (2004). World-systems analysis: An introduction. Duke University Press.

David Last, updated September 2014, lastdav@gmail.com