World Systems Theory

Sasha Blakeley, Melissa Hurst, Lesley Chapel
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Melissa Hurst

    Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

  • 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.

Learn about Wallerstein's World Systems Theory, including its definition and development. See real-world examples and read about its strengths and weaknesses. Updated: 03/10/2021

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World Systems Theory Definition

World systems theory is a sociological and economic theory proposed in 1974 by sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein in a paper called The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis. World systems theory is a way of categorizing the countries in our world based on their economic power. Countries are categorized as either core, peripheral, semi-peripheral, or external.

Before world systems theory took off, one of the major theories of economic development was called modernization theory. This concept postulated that all countries go through roughly the same path from a poorer and more ''primitive'' economic state to a state in which they can thrive. While modernization theory was popular, it failed to account for the economic relationships between rich and poor countries. In response to modernization theory, sociologists posited something called dependency theory in which poor countries are exploited by rich ones, maintaining a status quo of wealth throughout the world. World systems theory ultimately grew out of and expanded upon dependency theory.

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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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Wallerstein's World Systems Theory Characteristics

Dependency theory suggests that core countries, which are rich, take resources from peripheral countries, which are poor. The rich continue to increase their wealth through this relationship, while the poor remain impoverished. World systems theory took the idea of core and peripheral countries and expanded it as follows:

  • Core countries are wealthy, militarily strong, and hold significant social power and colonial power.
  • Peripheral countries are poor, have exploitable resources, and do not possess great social stability or government.
  • Semi-peripheral countries have some of the characteristics of core and peripheral countries.
  • External areas are countries or regions that fall outside of the scope of world systems theory.

One possible world systems theory map

This is one example of a map of how countries relate to one another in world systems theory. However, different sociologists rank countries differently; no map is going to be a perfect representation of such complex economic systems.

It is also important to remember that countries' status in world systems theory are always changing. These changes are due to factors like military actions, geographic expansion, and changes in industrial production levels in a given country.

Core Countries

Core countries, according to world systems theory, hold a disproportionate amount of power on the world economic and social stage. They are capitalist countries that exploit peripheral countries for cheap labor and raw materials. Within core countries, the interests of a relatively small class of economically powerful people are the most important thing. Wallerstein argued that the first economic core was Western Europe, followed by the Britain, and finally by the United States today. Included among the many countries that are considered core countries today are:

  • Australia
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Japan
  • United States

The majority of core countries are found in Europe, North America, and Oceania. Generally speaking, core countries import a lot more than they produce, and many have a colonial history of controlling other, poorer nations.

Peripheral Countries

Peripheral countries are on the opposite end of the economic scale to core countries. They are generally poor and must export their resources and labor to survive economically. They hold far less power on a global scale than their core counterparts. Rather than having an equitable relationship with core countries, peripheral countries and their people are largely exploited by core countries and do not substantially accrue wealth as a result of their economic relationships. Peripheral countries include, among many others:

  • Afghanistan
  • Argentina
  • Bangladesh
  • Cambodia
  • Central African Republic
  • Cuba
  • Greece
  • Philippines
  • Zimbabwe

There are far more peripheral countries than there are core countries. Much of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America are composed of peripheral countries. Many peripheral countries are or were previously colonized by core countries, further destabilizing them.

Semi-Peripheral Countries

Semi-peripheral countries are nations that hold some characteristics of core countries and some characteristics of peripheral countries. This means that while these countries often sell cheap labor and resources to core countries, they generally also have some economic control over other peripheral countries and may have growing power on the world stage. A key tenet of world systems theory is that power shifts over time: just because one country is at the core today does not mean that it always will be. There is a lot of debate about exactly which countries are semi-peripheral because of the ambiguity of this category, but some countries that are often considered semi-peripheral include:

  • Brazil
  • China
  • India
  • South Africa
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan

The status of semi-peripheral countries may be less stable than those in other categories and might change more rapidly as the world economy shifts.

External Areas

External areas are countries that do not participate in the capitalist dynamics that underpin world systems theory. Usually, this is because they are largely self-sufficient countries that produce their own food, use their own labor, and do not meaningfully exploit or defer to other countries. Russia is often cited as an external area, though not all sources agree on its status. It produces the majority of its own food and many of its own goods.

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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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