Recent developments in world sociology
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After studying this section you should be able to:

  • identify and outline recent developments in theories of world sociology
  • outline and assess the impact of globalisation

World systems theory
Wallerstein was heavily influenced by Frank but goes much further. His approach insists that individual countries are not an adequate unit of sociological analysis. He argues that we must look at the totality, the overall social system that transcends (and has done for centuries) national boundaries. He calls this the ‘Modern World System’ (MWS) and suggests that it is characterised by one world economy (i.e. capitalism) although it has no common political structure.

Wallerstein uses Frank’s concepts of core and periphery states, but adds that in the MWS there is also a semi-periphery. A core country like Britain can become a semi-periphery just as a periphery can become a semi-periphery, e.g. the Asian Tigers. The periphery countries are those whose economy still revolves around the export of cash crops, e.g. much of Africa. Wallerstein argues that it is impossible for authentically socialist states to operate within the MWS, e.g. China is engaged in capitalist practices in its trade with the West.

Wallerstein’s analysis is therefore more flexible than Frank’s. It looks at the global system as a whole but is also able to explain the changes in fortune of individual nations as part of the MWS.

New international division of labour theory
This theory suggests that multinational companies have evolved into transnational companies (TNCs). TNCs have three important characteristics that distinguish them from multinationals.

  • They do not have a clearly identifiable home base and consequently tend to have major holdings across both the developed and undeveloped worlds.
  • Their interests tend to be diversified across several economic areas.
  • These companies are not over-reliant on one country in the production of their goods. Since the 1970s they have set up international production systems in which different parts of the finished products are made in different countries, e.g. the more technical parts may be made in the West whilst the assembly of the product may be done in a low-wage LDC. A great deal of world trade between countries is actually between different parts of the same TNC scattered across the world.

There has been a massive movement of industrial capital from the core to the LDCs in the last thirty years as TNCs establish ‘world market factories’ because high labour costs in the West were seen to be eating into profits. TNCs were attracted by the large supplies of cheap labour available in the LDCs. Developments in manufacturing (especially in electronics) were such that the work process could be divided up into hundreds of tiny unskilled or semi-skilled tasks that could be done with minimal training. Hinchliffe notes that this transfer of industrial capital has resulted in the decline of manufacturing in the West and high unemployment, ‘as Kuala Lumpur rises, so Liverpool and Birmingham will continue to fall’. TNCs therefore exploit Western capitalist economies, too, because the only way countries like Britain can attract TNC investment is by keeping labour costs low.

There is no one single theory of globalisation but most contemporary theories of world sociology take into account globalising tendencies. Foster-Carter argues that technology and modern communications mean that we no longer live in societies that are self-contained or insular. Our standard of living is increasingly being affected by events across the world and by the increased interdependence of countries in terms of economics, culture and social problems. He suggests that one world is not just a slogan but increasingly a social fact.

Giddens notes that we now live in a global world economy in which TNC production and marketing exert considerable economic and cultural influence over our daily lives. According to post-modernists, a global system based on consumption rather than on production has evolved and the most important element behind this move is the global mass media. Continuing advances being made in communications technology such as satellite TV, the Internet and e-mail mean that the world has become a smaller place and consequently symbols of consumption such as Coca-Cola, Levi’s, McDonalds and Disney have become globally very powerful.

Foster-Carter notes that social problems, too, increasingly have a global dimension. AIDS, drugs, refugees, migration, debt, environmental pollution and destruction, global warming, genetically modified crops and terrorism, etc. are common concerns and problems that have a bearing on all our futures.

Therefore, Foster-Carter notes that no country or region of the world can be looked at in isolation from the whole world system, although cultural and religious differences are not transformed so easily. Many sociologists are now interested in the emergence of nationalist and fundamentalist movements that may have developed as a means of resisting globalisation.


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