What  is  WORLD SYSTEM HISTORY:   Scope  and Objectives




Humanity’s attempts to formulate accounts of its universal experience go back far into the past, appearing as recurring features in the writings of literate civilizations.   World System History takes up on this tendency by reviewing current knowledge about the historical evolution of the social organization of the human species, and asking about the processes whose understanding might help to sharpen our capacity for dealing with the future.


World system history is the social science of long-term change, as suggested by the title of a recent work, World System History: The Social Science of Long-term Change, edited by R. Denemark, J. Friedman, B.K. Gills, and G. Modelski  (Routledge 2000).   It stands for an analysis of global transformations in the spirit, and with the methods, of the social sciences.


As its name implies, World System History is comprised of the following three elements:


WORLD    signifying that the unit of analysis is humanity  that is the experience of (all) humans on earth.  It departs from nation- or region- centered perspectives in favor of a planetary approach and singles out for attention two problems:  that of connectivity, namely the networks and other patterns of interdependece that link humans, and that of social organization, that is ways of dealing with the problems that arise out of connectivity and interdependencies, up to and including global institutions.  In short, a Big Picture (or Big Thinking) approach.


SYSTEM   suggests an emphasis on a social science type of analysis with clearly defined (even if sometimes contested) concepts, theories and propositions, to be tested against empirical data and systematic evidence.  It takes seriously the concept of ‘world system”, that implies continuity in world organization, and examines its ramifications.   It avoids purely theoretical observations for which little support can be found in the literature or in the historical record, even while bearing in mind that all conclusions must be tentative and the data capable of alternative interpretations.


HISTORY   indicates the choice of a diachronic approach that directs attention less to structures than to persistent (world system) processes , and to change that has animated the world system for the past several millennia, and that continues to do so.  It does not preclude an even more expansive approach, and it also means an interest in stories, not his-tories or her stories, but perhaps ‘world-stories’.   The guiding thought is that an understanding of long-term processes is essential to monitoring global trends, and coping with global problems.   This is the Long View, one that gives us a purchase on the future. 


The aims of World System History may therefore be formulated as follows:


1.   To contribute concepts and data to the description and explanation of the whole of the experience of humans on earth.   Just as 19th century writing of national histories created the intellectual context for the rise of nation-states, so does world system history add greater depth and analytical rigor to world history and to the discussion of problems of social organization at the global level.


2.   While national and civilizational studies bring out the differences that characterize humans and the resulting conflicts and discontinuities, World System History (without ignoring the differences) is intended to emphasize commonalities and networks of interdependencies.   It is about ‘human connectivity’ but may ask about evidence for past ‘clashes of civilizations”.

It is not a substitute for World History but rather a complement to it


3.  The best we can, to enhance our ability to cope with the future, hence contribute to reducing the uncertainties, and the stress they bring, that humans commonly experience.


4.   Its greatest challenge, and theoretical puzzle, might be to stake out the boundaries between deterministic and stochastic processes, to point out to large-scale continuities in world system organization that suggest self-organization and facilitate prediction but also recognize the importance of decision-making and self-determination that govern probabilistic structures.