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Immanuel Wallerstein’s contributions to research in the social sciences

Two weeks ago today marked the passing of the great Immanual Wallerstein. His work has had resounding influence across fields: from literature, to legal theory, education, development studies, and international relations. Among his foremost contributions is the four volume Modern World System series, which recount the transformation of feudalism into global capitalism through progressive incorporation of new regions into the European capitalist core. Complementing this history was world-systems theory, an analytical approach which challenged the tendency of social science research to identify simplified and direct causal relationships.

Wallerstein argued that purely economic, historical, or political analyses of society exclude more factors than they incorporate, casting doubt on both their internal and external validity. From the introduction to World Systems Analysis:

The phenomena dealt with in these separate boxes are so closely intermeshed that each presumes the other, each affects the other, each is incomprehensible without taking into account the other boxes. The separate boxes of analysis are an obstacle, not an aid, to understanding the world. Structurally, the social reality within which we live has not been the multiple national states of which we are citizens but something larger, which we call a world-system. This world-system has had many institutions—states and the interstate system, productive firms, households, classes, identity groups of all sorts—which form a matrix which permits the system to operate but at the same time stimulates both the conflicts and the contradictions which permeate it.

The world-system is a social creation, with a history, whose origins need to be explained, whose ongoing mechanisms need to be delineated, and whose inevitable terminal crisis needs to be discerned. For this reason, it is important to look anew not only at how the world in which we live works but also at how we have come to think about this world.

Link to the book’s first pages.

  • “My intellectual development led me to historicize social movements, not only to better understand how they came to do the things they did, but also in order to better formulate the political options that were truly available in the present.” On his website, Wallerstein reflects on the questions and contradictions that informed his life’s work. Link.
  • The Modern World-System is a theoretically ambitious work that deserves to be critically analyzed as such.” Theda Skocpol’s sympathetic scrutiny of the weaknesses in Wallerstein’s major work, from the 1977 Review of American Sociology. Link.
  • Wallerstein’s account of feudal breakdown, which stressed external factors like increased trade, countered that of historians like Robert Brenner, who focused instead on internal factors like peasant revolts. Robert A. Denemark and Kenneth P. Thomas give an overview of the debate. Link.


The complexities of political alignment on Brazil’s supreme court

In a 2017 paper, ALEXANDER HUDSON—currently a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Difference—examines the ideological breakdown of Brazil’s Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF).

From the paper:

Beyond uncovering a more complete picture of the complexity of voting behavior of the justices of the STF, we hope to make a theoretical contribution in terms of the difference between the vast bulk of cases that the STF decides, and the few critical judgements it makes each year. Our theory holds that in cases that are in some way vital to the interests of the central government, justices are inclined to deviate from their broader voting record, and vote to uphold the government’s policy agenda. In the case of Brazil’s STF, this is particularly interesting, since the court decides such a high number of cases each year. There is evidence individual justices use their prerogatives in non-orthodox ways to ‘bury’ politically important decisions among the thousands of cases each year. Furthermore, we expect that in cases of high salience, the ideological structure of the court will show fewer dimensions—highlighting clearer divisions within the court.

Link to the paper, link to Hudson’s website.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way:


  • New on the Phenomenal World: Owen Davis on the commodity, chartalist and credit theories of money. Link.
  • “The increased reliance on quantitative evidence does not relieve us from taking sides in distributional conflicts.” JFI fellow Max Kasy on the importance of value-judgements in policymaking, for Econfip. Link.
  • In the Boston Review, Marshall Steinbaum defends Binyamin Appelbaum’s new book, The Economists’ Hour, which “condemns the role the economics profession has played in breeding inequality, and holds economists to account for the resulting backlash.” Link.
  • Neave O’Clery, Eoin Flaherty and Stephen Kinsella use a “multi-scale community detection algorithm” to analyze the “network of inter-industry worker flows in the Irish economy.” Link.
  • To effectively combat climate change, we need to “shift the focus from the super-poor to the super-rich,” according to Ilona M. Otto, Kyoung Mi Kim, Nika Dubrovsky, and Wolfgang Lucht. Link.
  • “Policy requires arithmetic, but it is never reducible to arithmetic.” On their respective blogs, Matt Bruenig and Max Sawicky debate the financial feasibility of a UBI. Link to Sawicky’s original post, link to Bruenig’s response, and link to the former’s final reply.
  • On the VoxEU podcast, Mark Harrison, Alan Bollard, Walter Scheidel, and Cormac Ó Gráda discuss the economic history of World War II. Link.
  • Michael Weiss on the impact of informational campaigns and “last dollar” tuition assistance in 10 Ohio community colleges: “Many more students will take advantage of the summer session and earn credits toward a degree if thoughtfully encouraged to do so.” Link.
  • “When measuring the labor input on the basis of the rate of unemployment, we conclude that the US economy is currently performing very well. When the current situation is judged from the point of view of hours worked, instead, the extent of the current use of the labor input is considerably less impressive, and a sizeable gap appears with respect to other historical peaks of activity.” Claudia Fontanari, Antonella Palumbo, and Chiara Salvatori expound on the overlooked weaknesses of the US’s full employment economy. Link.
  • Growing evidence suggests that student faculty evaluations are heavily biased against women and people of color. Link to the ASA’s recent statement, which argues that “student feedback should not be used alone as a measure of teaching quality.”
  • From 2014: Laura Panza and Jeffrey G. Williamson assess the state-led industrialization strategy undertaken by Muhammad Ali, who ruled over Egypt under the Ottoman Empire from 1805-1849. Link.
  • On “The Early Origins of the UK’s Finance-led Growth Model,” by Tami Oren and Mark Blyth. Link.
  • “We analyze the centralization of political parties and elite networks that underlay the birth of the Renaissance state in Florence. Class revolt and fiscal crisis were the ultimate causes of elite consolidation, but Medicean political control was produced by means of network disjunctures within the elite, which the Medici alone spanned. Cosimo de’ Medici’s multivocal identity as sphinx harnessed the power available in these network holes and resolved the contradiction between judge and boss inherent in all organizations. Methodologically, we argue that to understand state formation one must penetrate beneath the veneer of formal institutions, groups, and goals down to the relational substrata of peoples’ actual lives. Ambiguity and heterogeneity, not planning and self-interest, are the raw materials of which powerful states and persons are constructed.” A classic 1993 paper by John F. Padgett and Christopher K. Ansell. Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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