Assessing the debate between Abu-Lughod and Wallerstein over the thirteenth-century origins of the modern world-system

Authored by: Elson E. Boles

Routledge Handbook of World-Systems Analysis

Print publication date:  May  2012
Online publication date:  May  2012

Print ISBN: 9780415563642
eBook ISBN: 9780203863428
Adobe ISBN: 9781135179151


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Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony, The World System A. D. 1250–1350 (1989) caught the attention of world-systems scholars and instigated debates concerning the origins of the modern world-system. Most of her book details the vast trading circuits among “subsystems” or “world-economies and world-empires” spanning the Eurasian continent. Abu-Lughod’s two main theses are firstly, that this network was a “world-system” (or “world system”—she uses the hyphenated and unhyphenated terms without distinction) and secondly, that its rise and demise explains the formation of the West and the modern world-system in the sixteenth century. She argues, “… the Eurocentered ‘modern’ world system … was built on the ruins of the thirteenth-century world system” and that the “pathways and routes developed by the thirteenth century were later ‘conquered’ and adapted by a succession of European powers. Europe did not need to invent the system, since the basic groundwork was already in place …” (1989: 361, 369). The decline of the East, in particular China’s withdrawal, opened a “vacuum of power” in Asia that enabled Europeans to take over established routes (Abu-Lughod 1989: 361). Abu-Lughod thus criticizes Eurocentric explanations of the West’s rise to global dominance for overlooking the existence and role of the thirteenth-century “world-system” (Abu-Lughod 1993: 22). She “rejects the facile answer that Europe had unique qualities that allowed her to. Europe pulled ahead because the ‘Orient’ was temporarily in disarray” (1989: 18). In this regard, she sees her study as a corrective “to Immanuel Wallerstein’s work on the sixteenth century et seq. world-system” (Abu-Lughod 1996: 278) because his explanation begins too late: “The failure to begin the story early enough has resulted, therefore, in a truncated and distorted causal explanation for the rise of the west” (1989: 20; 1996: 278). Causality is indeed central to the debate. It is key to the 500-year gap in historical timing in Abu-Lughod’s argument between, on the one hand, starting “early enough” to take into account the apogee of the network in the thirteenth century and its decline in the fourteenth, and on the other hand, the fact that Europeans conquered the Americas in the sixteenth century and only several centuries later came to dominate Asian societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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