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The Historical Evolution of World-Systems

Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas D. Hall

Iterations and Transformations

In this essay we formulate a theoretical explanation of the historical evolution of world-systems out of cultural materialist, Marxist, and Weberian elements. We abstract from scale – the increasing size of world-systems – to explain the rise of more hierarchical and larger polities and the development of more and more energy-utilizing production. Our explanation is constructed as a basic model that goes through iterations in which systems get larger and qualitative transformations of modes of accumulation occur. The emergence of new modes of accumulation does not alter the general form of the basic model, but it does change the ways in which the basic variables affect one another. The transformation of modes of accumulation occurs through world-system processes of uneven development in which semiperipheral actors constructed transformational innovations. The scope of our theory spans the ten thousand years since the mesolithic establishment of sedentary societies. We relate chiefdom-formation, state-formation, empire-formation and the rise and fall of hegemonic core powers in the modern world-system to our model of iterations and transformations.

This theory presumes the broad comparative approach to defining and spatially bounding world-systems developed by Chase-Dunn and Hall (1993). World-systems are defined as interaction networks in which the larger interaction structures are important for reproducing or transforming local social structures. Spatially bounding these interaction networks requires the recognition that different kinds of important interactions in many instances have different spatial characteristics. Thus exchange networks of everyday foods and raw materials have a restricted spatial scale because of transportation costs. Interactions involving the threats and alliances that are part of political/military relations generally have a somewhat larger spatial extent. And networks of prestige goods exchange and information flows generally have an even larger spatial scale. Thus most world-systems before the modern global one were nested networks of interaction.

Our theory combines the idea of iterations of a basic model with transformations in modes of accumulation. We use „mode of accumulation“ in the sense of the deep structural logic of production, distribution, exchange, and accumulation in order to focus on the institutional mechanisms by which labor is mobilized and social reproduction is accomplished. This allows us to account for both the similarities and the systemic differences across different kinds of world-system.

The contextual substrata of human social change are those demographic and ecological facts that are built into the natural universe. Nature is not a uniform plain upon which humans erect their condos. The climatic, topographical, and geological features of the earth vary from place to place, as does the composition of the biosphere. Human beings are part of the biosphere and human culture is built upon the bumpy surface of biological, topographic, geological and climatic variation. Variations in these media impose constraints on what can be erected and on the sustainability of the constructions.

The species-specific biological constraints on human behavior are less limiting than for all other animals because of the unusually large proportion of the human brain that is composed of unpreprogrammed (non-instinctive) cortex. This chunk of unprogrammed mentality makes it possible for individuals to take up the latest cultural software and, for the species, it makes rapid and flexible cultural adaptation possible. This is what made it possible for cultural evolution to take precedence over biological evolution. But there are still constraints embedded in both our brains and our bowels. Our bodies need food, clean water and shelter. Our brains need these things too. There are also constraints in our minds. Most of these are socially constructed, and can thus be reconstructed, but some constraints are more fundamental. We may define ourselves as the most intelligent beings in the universe but are we intelligent enough to scientifically explain our own evolution?

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