World Systems Theory: Core vs. Peripheral Societies

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  • 1:12 Core Countries
  • 2:12 Periphery Countires
  • 3:01 Semi-Periphery Countries
  • 3:35 External Areas
  • 4:10 Shifting World System
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Melissa Hurst
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

World systems theory was proposed by sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein. This lesson discusses the three-level hierarchy approach to economics, which consists of core, periphery, and semi-periphery countries, in the context of global inequality.

World Systems Theory

The world systems theory, developed by sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, 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, which will be discussed in more detail throughout the lesson, 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 labor 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 labor 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 labor, 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 labor forces are relatively well paid.

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 America were the first peripheral zones. An example from today is Cape Verde, a chain of islands off the west coast of Africa. Foreign investors promote the extraction of raw materials and the production of cash crops, which are all exported to core countries.

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Additional Activities

Writing Prompts About World Systems Theory

Poster Prompt 1:

Make a poster or other type of graphic organizer that defines the world systems theory and lists the main characteristics of it.

Example: After stating the definition, the graphic organizer then depicts the three-level hierarchy consisting of the core countries, periphery countries, semi-periphery countries, and external areas, with definitions presented for all areas.

Map Prompt 1:

Design a map that depicts the core countries, peripheral countries, semi-peripheral countries, and the external areas. Be sure to list the characteristics of each country to delineate what makes it a peripheral area, etc. You can use the countries provided in the lesson, or come up with other countries as examples (the latter encourages greater critical thinking). Tip: It helps to color code your map.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay that answers the following question: What might prompt a change in a country's status (i.e., from semi-peripheral to peripheral, from core to peripheral, etc.) according to the world systems theory?

Example: Begin with an introduction paragraph that defines the world systems theory and presents a thesis statement. Then, construct the essay using the characteristics of the world systems theory hierarchy to explain what makes certain countries periphery, core, etc., and then explain how those characteristics can change, and how that can cause shifts in status. For the conclusion paragraph, you could explain what present-day country you think might be undergoing or ready to undergo a shift.

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