World System History
- Robert A. DenemarkRobert A. DenemarkDepartment of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware
World system history is a perspective on the global sociopolitical and economic system with a structural, long-term and transdisciplinary nature. The intellectual origins of the study of world system history can be characterized by three general trajectories, beginning with the work of global historians who have worked to write a “history of the world.” Attempts were also made by scholars such as Arnold Toynbee to write global history in terms of “civilizations”. A second pillar of world system history emerged from anthropology, when many historians of the ancient world, anthropologists, and archaeologists denied the importance of long-distance relations, especially those of trade. A third pillar emerged from the social sciences, including political science and sociology. One of the central ideas put forward was that sociopolitical and economic phenomena exhibited wave-like behavior. These various intellectual strands became self-consciously intertwined in the later 1980s and 1990s, when scholars from all of these traditions began to cross disciplinary boundaries and organize their own efforts under the rubric of world system history. This period saw Gunder Frank and Barry K. Gills questioning the value of identifying a uniquely modern system based on a transition to capitalism that was said to have occurred in the West. Frank and Gills introduced the “continuity hypothesis,” which suggests that too much scholarly emphasis has been placed on the search for and elucidation of discontinuities and transitions. World system history faces two important challenges from determinism and indeterminacy, and future research should especially address the implications of the latter.