ISA Past Presidents

Immanuel Wallerstein

President 1994-98

1930 | 2019

Nationality USA

Personal website

ISA Presidential Letters 1994-1998

ISA Award for Excellence in Research and Practice
2014 Award Ceremony



  • 1951  BA, Columbia.
  • 1954  MA, Columbia, thesis topic ‘McCarthyism and the Conservative’.
  • 1959  PhD, Columbia, thesis topic, ‘The Emergence of Two West African Nations: Ghana  and the Ivory Coast’; supervisor, Hans Zetterberg.

Posts held

  • [1951-3  military service]
  • 1958-71  Instructor to Associate Professor of sociology, Columbia.
  • 1971-76  Professor of sociology, McGill (Canada).
  • 1976-99  Distinguished Professor of sociology, State University o f New York at Binghamton (Director, Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilization, Binghamton, until 2005.)
  • 2000 -  Senior Research Scholar, Yale department of sociology. 
  • 1975-6, 1980-81, 1983-95  Directeur d'études associé, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

ISA participation, main roles

  • He has a very long record of ISA participation. Before election to the presidency, he gave papers at every World Congress from Stresa (1959) to Durban except in 1982, as well as acting as a member of the Programme Committee for Uppsala (1978), and chairing sessions at Toronto (1974), New Delhi (1986), Madrid (1990) and Bielefeld (1994).
  • 1974-90, Vice-Chair, ISA RC on National Movements and Imperialism
  • 1978-86 Alternate member, ISA Council
  • 1994-98 ISA President

Participation in other settings

Intellectual and ISA career

Wallerstein is best known academically as a founder of ‘world- systems analysis’.[1] He has described his intellectual history in the essay ‘The development of an intellectual position’, which is available on his Yale web site and is reprinted as the introduction to Wallerstein 2000.[2]

He started as an Africanist, and so moved initially in rather specialist circles, but by 1973 volume one of his The Modern World-System (1974), in which he first presented the world-systems approach, was in press; his presidential address to the African Studies Association, ‘Africa in a capitalist world’, showed how this applied to Africa (Wallerstein 2000: 39-68), and after that his publications become broader in scope, raising methodological and philosophical issues as well as substantive ones. (He calls world-systems analysis really a perspective, rather than a theory (Wallerstein 2000: 129-148), because it rejects the tradition of nomothetic science rather than offering itself as a theory about the social world.) Goldfrank (2000: 160) has suggested that:

‘The world-systems perspective was ingeniously constructed by marrying to a sensibility informed by “Third World” radicalism three major traditions in Western social science, all of them enunciated in opposition to the dominant strain of Anglo-American liberalism and positivism. These traditions are German historical economy, the Annales school in French historiography, and Marxism.’

Wallerstein’s Fernand Braudel Center – ‘to engage in the analysis of large-scale social change over long periods of historical time’ - was founded in 1976, and its intellectual manifesto [] clearly gives his agenda, and shows an impressive range of local and associated international activity. As a matter of principle this is not specifically sociological, both because the style is predominantly historical, and because the traditional distinctions between disciplines are rejected as actively unhelpful in understanding social processes. The concepts of ‘development’ and ‘modernization’ are rejected[3] as implying untenable assumptions of ‘progress’ towards a situation like that of the capitalist West or North, and there is a powerful critique of the idea of the nation state as automatically the appropriate unit of analysis.[4]

Wallerstein describes his family of origin as politically conscious and discussing world affairs - aware of the fascist threat well before the US entered World War II, and of the global split of the left between the Second and Third Internationals - so it is not surprising that he grew up with strong political interests. He identifies as a radical intellectual and a man of the left, although his academic approach has quite often been controversial to other leftists. He saw the student movement of 1968 as ‘revitalis[ing] the left in America as a serious political force’ (Wallerstein 2000: 33), and has described what happened as a revolution (a term of praise), despite having some criticisms or reservations about it (Wallerstein 2000: ch. 23). In a more recent paper, he writes more specifically about its effects on sociology by ‘redefining what had seemed self-evident consensus as merely a particular viewpoint’ (2007: 437). His political stance and intellectual positions are too closely related to be meaningfully disentangled. However, since 1998 he has provided twice-monthly commentaries on current events (in English and in many different languages), available on the Fernand Braudel Center web site, ( ). They seek to address political issues in the news in the context of the longue durée.

Wallerstein’s preoccupations have been particularly suited to the ISA as a world organisation, and his long-term participation in its activities, wide range of international contacts and language skills all facilitated his role, despite the fact that his holistic, macro-historical approach is very different from that of many, possibly most, sociologists. His presidential address (1999) takes up the issues about the disciplinary structure of social science that he had raised for some time, but particularly addressed in the context of the Gulbenkian Commission report (Wallerstein et al. 1996), and deals with them at a macro level in a rich and complex way. He outlines what he sees as a shared culture of sociology providing a baseline for the study of social reality, drawing on the post-1945 Durkheim/ Marx/Weber canon. Then he sketches six major challenges to this, coming from Freud, Abdel-Malek and Braudel within social science, and Prigogine’s complexity studies, feminism, and Latour’s challenge to the existence of ‘modernity’, which are as much related to natural science. He concludes that, in response to these challenges, the goals and trend are the epistemological reunification of science and the humanities, the reunification of the social sciences, and a movement of the humanities and natural science in the direction of social science – but sees the egalitarian world of knowledge as one whose possibilities can only be fully realised in a more egalitarian world.

References, other sources of information, related work

  • Amin, Samir  (1993)  Itinéraire intellectuel: Regards sur le demi-siècle de 1945-90  [tr. 1994, M. Wolfers, asRe-reading the postwar period : an intellectual itinerary.]
  • Bergesen, Albert J. (2000) ‘The Columbia social essayists’, Journal of World-Systems Research 6.1: 198-213.
  • Connell, Raewyn (2007)  Southern Theory.
  • Frank, Andre Gunder (1996)  ‘The underdevelopment of development’, pp. 17-55 in Chew, Sing C. and Robert A. Denemark, The Underdevelopment of Development.
  • Frank, Andre Gunder (2000)  ‘Immanuel and me with-out hyphen’, Journal of World-Systems Research 6.1: 216-231.
  • Garst, Daniel (1985)  ‘Wallerstein and his critics’, Theory and Society 14: 469-495.
  • Goldfrank, Walter L. (2000)  ‘Paradigm regained?  The rules of Wallerstein’s world-system method’, Journal of World-Systems Research 6.2: 150-195.  [This contains useful material on Wallerstein’s biography and intellectual milieu as well as discussion of criticisms of his work.]
  • Reifer, Tom (2009)   ‘Histories of the present: Giovanni Arrighi, the longue dureé of geohistorical capitalism, and the current crisis’, Transnational Institute.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel (1974)  The Modern World-System.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel (1999)  ‘The heritage of sociology, the promise of social science’, Current Sociology 47: 1-37.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel (2000)  The Essential Wallerstein [A collection of his papers, with a general autobiographical introduction and a brief note on each paper about how it fits in.]
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel (2007)  ‘The Culture of Sociology in Disarray: The impact of 1968 on US sociologists’, pp. 427-437 in ed. Craig Calhoun, Sociology in America: A History.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel et al. (1996)  Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Social Sciences.

Presidential address

The heritage of sociology, the promise of social science, Current Sociology 47: 1-37, 1999 ("L’héritage de la sociologie, la promesse de la science sociale," Cahiers de recherche sociologique, No. 31, 1998, 9-52; El Legado de la sociología, la promesa de la ciencia social, Caracas: Ed. Nueva Sociedad, 1999)

[1]  The development of that has been closely implicated with related work by others, including the ‘dependentistas’ (dependency theorists) such as Cardoso. Frank (2000: 236) points out that ‘all early world-systematisers previously worked in and on the “Third World”, which led to our subsequent collaboration and friendship’. Wallerstein was one of the ‘Gang of Four’ that several of its participants have mentioned in their publications; the other members were Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, and Andre Gunder Frank. They authored two books together, met at the same conferences over many years, and, despite some disagreements, found that their different backgrounds had converged on important areas of agreement. Other close colleagues were Terence K, Hopkins (who moved from Columbia with Wallerstein) and Anouar Abdel-Malek. Arrighi, who first met Wallerstein inTanzania, joined the Fernand Braudel Center, while Amin and Abdel-Malek, both of Egyptian origin, became Paris-based contacts (Frank 2000, Goldfrank 2000, Reifer 2009). (Abdel-Malek was a Vice-President of ISA for 1974-8, and for the term before that an associate member of the EC.) For Frank’s intellectual and practical trajectory, see his festschrift essay (Frank 1996).

[2]  Bergesen (2000) writes about his early Columbia milieu, and argues that it was formative for Wallerstein’s later work. He concludes that‘it was... the triple hegemonic platform that was coming of age intellectually in Columbia in New York in America that provided Wallerstein with the sense of intellectual entitlement to conceptualize the world as a singular system, and to plead for its democratic and egalitarian transformation.’

[3]  See, particularly, ‘Modernization: requiescat in pace’, pp. 106-111 in Wallerstein 2000.

[4]  Connell (2007: x, 66-8) , while applauding aspects of Wallerstein’s aims, criticises his and his associates’ work for some of the same reasons that Wallerstein criticises others, seeing what he does as still ‘Northern theory’. Frank (2000: 221), from much closer, came to see his approach as Eurocentric, though obviously by many sociologists’ standards it is far from so.