World-System Theory of Gender Development

Here you will learn about the World-System Theory of Gender Development and its other relevant things.

World-System Theory

The modem world-system originated around 1500. In parts of Western Europe, a long-term crisis of feudalism gave way to technological innovation and the rise of market institutions. Advances in production and incentives for long-distance trade stimulated Europeans to reach other parts of the globe. Superior military strength and means of transportation enabled them to establish economic ties with other regions that favored the accumulation of wealth in the European core.

States also played a crucial role in maintaining the hierarchical structure, since they helped to direct profits to monopoly producers in the core and protected the overall capitalist economy.

The world systems theory, developed by sociologist Immanuel Wallenstein, is an approach to world history and social change that suggests there is a world economic system in which some countries benefit while others are exploited.

Just like we cannot understand an individual’s behavior without reference to their surroundings, experiences, and culture, a nation’s economic system cannot be understood without reference to the world system of which they are a part.

The main characteristics of this theory are:

  • The world systems theory is established on a three-level hierarchy consisting of core. Periphery, and semi-periphery areas.
  • The core countries dominate and exploit the peripheral countries for labour and raw materials.
  • The peripheral countries are dependent on core countries for capital.
  • The semi-peripheral countries share characteristics of both core and peripheral countries.
  • This theory emphasizes the social structure of global inequality.

Core Countries

According to the world systems theory, the world is divided into three types of countries or areas: core, periphery, and semi-periphery. Core countries are dominant capitalist countries that exploit peripheral countries for labour and raw materials.

They are strong in military power and not dependent on any one state or country. They serve the interests of the economically powerful. They are focused on higher skill and capital-intensive production. Core countries are powerful, and this power allows them to pay lower prices for raw goods and exploit cheap labour, which constantly reinforces the unequal status between core and peripheral countries.

The first core region was located in northwestern Europe and made up of England, France, and Holland. Today, the United States is an example of a core country. The U.S. has large amounts of capital, and its labour forces are relatively well paid. These countries are:

  • The most economically diversified, wealthy, and powerful (economically and militarily) Have strong central governments, controlling extensive bureaucracies and powerful militaries
  • Have more complex and stronger state institutions that help manage economic affairs internally and externally
  • Haye a sufficient tax base so these state institutions can provide infrastructure for a strong economy.
  • Highly industrialized; produce manufactured goods rather than raw materials for export
  • Increasingly tend to specialize in information, finance and service industries
  • More often in the forefront of new technologies and new industries. Examples today include high-technology electronic and biotechnology industries. Another example would be assembly-line auto production in the early 20th century.
  • Has strong bourgeois and working classes
  • Have significant means of influence over noncore nations
  • Relatively independent of outside control

According to Immanuel Wallenstein, a core nation is dominant over all the others when it has a lead in three forms of economic dominance over a period of time:

Periphery Countries

Periphery countries fall on the other end of the economic scale. These countries lack a strong central government and may be controlled by other states.

These countries export raw materials to the core countries, and they are dependent on core countries for capital and have underdeveloped industry. These countries also have low-skill, labor-intensive production, or, in other words, cheap labor. Periphery countries are commonly also referred to as third-world countries.

Eastern Europe and Latin American were the first peripheral zones. An example from today is Cape Verde, a chain of islands off the west coast of Africa, Pakistan Nepal, Saudi Arabia etc. Foreign investors promote the extraction of raw materials and the production of cash crops, which are all exported to core countries.

These countries are:

  • Least economically diversified
  • Have relatively weak governments
  • Have relatively weak institutions with tax bases too small to support infrastructure development
  • Tend to depend on one type of economic activity, often on extracting and exporting raw materials to core nations
  • Tend to be least industrialized
  • Are often targets for investments from multinational (or transnational) corporations from core nations that come into the country to exploit cheap unskilled labour for export back to core nations
  • Have small bourgeois and large peasant classes
  • Tend to have populations with high percentages of the poor and uneducated
  • Tend to have very high social inequality because of small upper classes that own most of the land and have profitable ties to multinational corporations Tend to be extensively influenced by core nations and their multinational corporations.
  • Many times they are forced to follow economic policies that favor core nations and harm the long-term economic prospects of peripheral nations.

According to Wallenstein, the unique qualities of the modern world-system include its capitalistic nature, it’s truly global nature, and that it is a world-economy that has not become politically unified into a world-empire.

Semi-Peripheral Countries

Semi peripheral countries are those that are midway between the core and periphery. Because of this, they have to keep themselves from falling to the category of peripheral nations and at the same time strive to join the category of core nations.

Therefore, they tend to apply protectionist policies most aggressively among the three categories of nations. They tend to be countries moving towards industrialization and more diversified economies.

Those regions often have relatively developed and diversified economies, but are not dominant in international trade. They tend to export more to peripheral nations and import more from core nations in trade.

According to some scholars, such as Chirot, they are not as subject to outside manipulation as peripheral societies; but according to others they have “peripheral-like” relations to the core.

While in the sphere of influence of some cores, semi-peripheries also tend to exert their own control over some peripheries. Further, semi peripheries act as buffers between cores and peripheries, thus “partially deflect the political pressures which groups primarily located in peripheral areas might otherwise direct against core-states” and stabilize the world-system.

Semi-peripheries can come into existence both from developing peripheries, and from declining cores.

Historically, two examples of semi-peripheral countries would be Spain and Portugal, who fell from their early core positions but still managed to retain influence in Latin America.

Those countries imported silver and gold from their American colonies, but then had to use it to pay for manufactured goods from core countries such as England and France. In the 20th century, nations like the “settler colonies” of Australia, Canada and New Zealand had a semi-peripheral status.

In the 21st century, nations like Brazil, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, China, South Korea and South Africa (BRICS) are usually considered semi-peripheral.

Criticism on World-System Theory

World-systems theory has attracted criticisms from its rivals; notably for being too focused on economy and not enough on culture, and for being too core-centric and state-centric.

According to Wallenstein himself, critique of the world-systems approach comes from four directions: from the positivists, the orthodox Marxists, the state autonomists, and the culturalists.

The positivists criticize the approach as too prone to generalization, lacking quantitative data and failing to put forth a falsifiable proposition. Orthodox Marxists find the world-systems approach deviating too far from orthodox Marxist principles, such as not giving enough weight to the concept of social class.

The state autonomists criticize the theory for blurring the boundaries between state and businesses. Further, the positivists, the orthodox Marxists and the state autonomists argue that state should be the central unit of analysis.

Finally, the culturists argue that world-systems theory puts too much importance on the economy and not enough on the culture. In Wallenstein’s own words:

“In short, most of the criticisms of world-systems analysis criticize it for what it explicitly proclaims as its perspective. World-systems analysis views these other modes of analysis as defective and/or limiting in scope and calls for unthinking them.”

The following is a theoretical critique concerned with the basic claims of world system theory:

“There are today no socialist systems in the world-economy any more than there are feudal systems because there is only one world system. It is a world-economy and it is by definition capitalist in form.”

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