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In Memoriam Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein (1930-2019) Apostolos G. Papadopoulos

In Memoriam Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein (1930-2019)

Issue 44: Opening Up Sociology Wed 5 Feb 2020

Apostolos G. Papadopoulos, Harokopio University, Athens, Greece

Immanuel Wallerstein at ISA World Congress of Sociology, Yokohama, Japan, 2014 (picture courtesy ISA)
Immanuel Wallerstein at ISA World Congress of Sociology, Yokohama, Japan, 2014 (picture courtesy ISA)

Prominent Sociologist and Global Intellectual
The news of Immanuel Wallerstein’s passing on 31 August 2019 was immediately circulated around the world and everyone keenly felt the loss of an engaged public intellectual and unmatched social thinker and scientist. Born in New York to an emigrant family, he embarked on his intellectual and political quests when still at high school during World War II. He entered Columbia University in 1947 and began his long career of engaging and wrestling with political dilemmas and intellectual questions about systemic conditions and anti-systemic movements around the world. Following the major events in the turbulent years of the early post-war period, he decided to focus his ‘intellectual concerns and solidarity efforts’ on the non-European world. His doctoral dissertation in 1961 was on the independence movements in Ghana and Ivory Coast, signaling his growing interest in Africa. His many books and articles on African colonisation and development initiated and enlarged the concern with North-South or core-periphery relations – concerns that have remained essential for social scientists. In the introductory section of his book The Essential Wallerstein (2000), which brings together various papers on specific themes published during his academic career, he makes the following tribute to Africa:

Africa is no longer the empirical locus of my work, but I credit my African studies with opening my eyes both to the burning political issues of the contemporary world and to the scholarly questions of how to analyze the history of the modern world-system. It was Africa that was responsible for challenging the more stultifying parts of my education. [1]

By studying Africa and the rest of the Global South, Wallerstein questioned the very tools of analysis of his contemporary world and developed a new perspective, which he called “world-systems analysis”. This involved two fundamental innovations: first, making the unit of analysis a “world-system” or “historical social system” and, second, adopting an analysis that was simultaneously historic and systemic. [2]

In 1974, he published the first of four landmark volumes under the title The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. In her review in the New York Times, Gertrud Lenzer praised the work for its virtues and acknowledged that “the book aims to achieve nothing less than a coherent understanding of the making of the modern world and the unique development within it of modern capitalism.” This book, together with an article entitled “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis” [3] published the same year, were, as Wallerstein confirms, received favourably by the people.

I remember being fascinated when I read Wallerstein’s article for the first time as a postgraduate student in the late 1980s; it seemed to me then that his “world-systems analysis” had a great deal to contribute towards an overall theorisation of modern capitalism, both in the developed and less developed world. Since then, his worldwide division of labour, in particular, which he developed into three distinct yet closely related zones – the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery, each with its corresponding mode of labour control as a distinctive characteristic – has had a significant impact on comparative analyses across the globe.

An important aspect of Wallerstein’s work is that he embarked on a long-term project: studying the historical sociology of the entire world, starting in the sixteenth century. This vast project required the collaboration of colleagues, graduate students and willing people originating from different parts of the world. Wallerstein himself acknowledges the great help he received from his collaborator Terence K. Hopkins, who invited him to Binghamton, where he was destined to later serve as Director of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations, and to hold a prestigious Distinguished Professor post in the Department of Sociology. In the Preface to The Essential Wallerstein (2000), he states that:

Then, there are the colleagues, in the sense of age-peers who shared my intellectual quest and with whom (in addition to Hopkins) I have argued, debated, and discussed over the past thirty years. There are the three with whom I made up “The Gang of Four” – Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi and Gunder Frank. We wrote two books together, and have attended countless colloquia together. I used to say that I agreed with each of them 80% of the way. […] But they have all been intellectual and personal companions. […] I should list the following with whom I have collaborated extensively: the late Otto Kreye in Germany, Etienne Balibar in France, Pablo Gonzalez Casanova in Mexico, and Anouar Abdel-Malek in Egypt/ France. [4]

This quote underlines the fact that Wallerstein, as a great intellectual, was not a lonely academic; rather, he shared, discussed and exchanged a host of ideas and perspectives with other eminent intellectuals working in similar domains, creating an inspiring academic environment. Moreover, Wallerstein was conscious of the need to develop a new epistemology; in fact, his world-systems analysis “is not a theory but a protest against neglected issues and deceptive epistemologies”. [5] He believed that intellectual and political challenges should be seen in tandem.

Wallerstein worked tirelessly to unravel the logic of development of the world system. He published the following volumes in the span of a decade: The Capitalist World-Economy (1979), The Modern World-System, II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750 (1980), and The Modern World-System, III: The Second Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730-1840s (1989). These books, along with others on which he collaborated with his friends and colleagues, established him as a leading historical sociologist who often crossed the boundaries into neighbouring social sciences.

Admittedly, themes apart from world-systems analysis also attracted his attention. A number of books – among them: Unthinking Social Science (1991), After Liberalism (1995), Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences (1996), The End of the World as We Know It: Social Science for the 21st Century (1999), The Decline of American Power (2003), and The Uncertainties of Knowledge (2004) – led to him assuming the role of an engaged public intellectual promoting and enacting social science in the broad sense of the term.

Following his death, Wallerstein was described as a “Sociologist with Global View” by the New York Times, was assigned the role of “Global Intellectual” by Libération, and was considered “Anticapitalist until the End” by radicals on the Left. His commitment to sociology and social science is evident from the commentaries he wrote at a rate of two per month every month between 1998 and 2019. His last commentary (Number 500, dated 1 July 2019), concluded with the following statement:

I have indicated in the past that I thought the crucial struggle was a class struggle, using class in a very broadly defined sense. What those who will be alive in the future can do is to struggle with themselves so this change may be a real one. I still think that and therefore I think there is a 50-50 chance that we’ll make it to transformatory change, but only 50-50.

My last memory of Immanuel Wallerstein (President of the International Sociological Association, 1994-1998) was watching him receiving the ISA Award for Excellence in Research and Practice in Yokohama, in 2014, from the ISA President at the time, Michael Burawoy. As a genuine servant of sociology as a global discipline, he could not have failed to signify in his last commentary that “This is the end; this is the beginning”!

[1] I. Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein, New York, The New Press, p. xvii.
[2] See the interview (2013) with I. Wallerstein by Laleh Behbehanian on the ISA’s YouTube channel.
[3] In: Comparative Studies in Society and History 16, no. 4 (1974): 387–415.
[4] I. Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein, New York, The New Press, p. xii.
[5] I. Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein, New York, The New Press, p. xxii.

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