Skip to content

World-system theory and hegemony in the analysis of global science

Last year, Scholarly Communication Research Group held a seminar with Simon Marginson and Xin Xu on their working paper discussing the validity of world-system theory and the concept of hegemony in analysing global science and higher education. I post my response highlighting omissions resulting from approaching the problem of centre-peripheries from a non-Marxist perspective and encourage going deeper into the issue.

Video of the seminar

A response

Marginson and Xu undertook an ambitious and multi-faceted task. They proposed a reinterpretation of the present state of global science and emphasised the importance of the global emergence of China and its science system. They subjected the “Eurocentric” model of the “world-system” developed in the 1970s and 1980s by Immanuel Wallerstein to severe criticism and scrutinised its application in the research of science and scientometrics. Moreover, they proposed an alternative – not only to the conceptual model itself, its use in thinking about science, but also an alternative to material organisations of relations in global science. All of this is in a single paper. Due to the limited time, I will focus on a few threads requiring discussion. First, I will put Marginson and Xu’s proposal in the context, point to its internal tensions, and discuss proposed solutions to the global problems.

The debate that was not

The difficulty of the task undertaken by the authors becomes apparent when we take a closer look at the context in which it is embedded. Discussions about the centres and the peripheries in social sciences and humanities have been going on for decades. For the period between 1990-2021, the Scopus database contains 18,492 articles with references to the works of Immanuel Wallerstein. At the same time, these discussions seem to omit both the field of scientometrics and higher education. A quick analysis of the leading journals in this field shows a practical lack of interest in the subject. For the top journals in bibliometrics, like Scientometrics, Journal of Informetrics, Research Evaluation, Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, we can trace 13 articles that refer to Wallerstein works (usually superficially), with 10 of them in Scientometrics only. The situation is not better when we move to higher education research. Core journals like Higher Education, Studies in Higher Education, Teaching in Higher Education and Higher Education Policy contain 26 articles referring to Wallerstein, with nearly half published in Higher Education. American top journals like Research in Higher Education and Journal of Higher Education contain no such references.

The reasons for such omission might be multiple, while the most convincing one is just a severe undertheoretization and practical orientation of both of the fields. The few existing studies that referred to world-system analysis engage in the literature rather superficially and occasionally. While in scientometrics, the focus is more on the collaboration patterns, the higher education research focuses on the flows of students and academics between the world regions. Yet the historical account of the relation between the economic structure of any given nation or region, its relationships with the global economy and the role of the science and higher education system it develops still awaits its authors. 

This situation produced a severe challenge for Marginson and Xu. While they rightly complain about the reductive use of the centre-peripheries model in the study of science (with the example of Olechnicka, Ploszaj and Celińska-Janowicz book), they engaged in the critique of the reductive form of the argument and Wallerstein proposal, that was itself criticised, nuanced and expanded from all the possible angles from 1979 onwards when Fernand Braudel devoted it the opening chapter of the third volume of Civilisation and capitalism.

Whose interest, whose hegemony in global science?

The concept of hegemony produces tension in Marginson and Xu proposal. The authors wrote: “hegemony offers a more comprehensive, flexible and supple explanation of power and inequality in science than does centre-periphery”. Yet, they avoid answering a fundamental question: the hegemony of whom or what and over whom and for what? Whose interest does hegemony in global science supports? Who is exercising it and gaining from it? 

For the authors from “world-system analysis”, Braudel to Wallerstein, Arrighi to Frank, hegemony is a natural reference point – not an alternative conceptual take, as the authors seem to argue. It is “the power of a state to exercise functions of leadership and governance over a system of sovereign states” (Arrighi 1996: 28). It was exercised by Venice, Low Countries, Britain and US. The Chinese peaceful ascent in East Asia opened a debate on China’s historical differences in exercising hegemony (Frank 1998; Arrighi 2008). While the end of the US hegemony in the “world-system” was discussed from the onset of the war in Iraq, there is a lot of unclarity in whether the rising South East Asian region will step into global hegemonic shoes or contribute to the formation of bilateral world-arrangement. Changes in the structure of global science and the recent ongoing autonomization of China from Anglosaxon or Western influences may tell us something about the process. From the “world-system analysis” point of view, the so-called “rise of China” – both in economic and scientific terms – is nothing but a return to its historical role and position in the global order.

Marginson and Xu, with a quick reference to Hardt and Negri’s Empire, would like to move us beyond the question of an easily indicated, single world hegemon. But even for Hardt and Negri – both, 20 years ago in Empire and recently in Commonwealth and Assembly – the global form of diffused network-like sovereignty serves the interest of capital directly – against the common (or multitude), against the democratic and horizontal forces. Their thesis on the emergence of the Empire served to argue that contemporarily there is no outside to the rule of capital. In that way, they located themselves not so far away from the “world-system” theorists who traced the historical emergence of the capitalist order in the West. But, once again, this is precisely something that Marginson and Xu would like to refute. Yet, this leaves the fundamental question open – if global science is an autonomous order, as they claim, and we can better understand the violent power games that traverse it through the prism of a diffused concept of hegemony, then what and whose interest does it protects? In other words, it coerces whom by whom and produces consent to what?


We can understand some further tensions that lack the answer to the above question produced by looking at one of the authors’ proposals to the ills of homogeneous global science – multilinguality protected by the translation of science outputs into the set of dominant languages. On the one side, Marginson and Xu rightly indicate that in the situation of Anglophone dominance in the global science, not just the language is imposed on the global users, but also specific cultural forms of written outputs, methodologies, and other cultural underpinnings. In other words, even as lingua franca English is far from being a value-neutral medium for science. On the other side, the authors propose it to remain a dominant medium, from which translations will be provided by the capitalist publishers (dominantly Western) out of the profits they make from global knowledge circulation. Unintentionally, this proposal highlights the vital problem of the global science that need to find a solution: a culturally specific form of knowledge circulation and a valuation that is now shaped predominantly by the actors external to the field of global science – oligopoly of capitalist academic publishers – must be overcome if science is about to gain its autonomy. Recently, China has made a crucial step beyond their rule – expressing the will to refrain from heavy reliance on impact-factor publications in its academic evaluation. However, we need to understand what economic and geopolitical conditions allowed it to make such a step. 


Marginson and Xu emphasised that science has bigger potential than just reproduction of the global inequalities. And I cannot agree more with them. They would like to restore the conditions for “unity-in-diversity” to provide the global knowledge production systems with the conditions for democratic prosperity and polyvocality. I share their values and goals. In 1998, Andre Gunder Frank opened his ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age with the following words: “there is unity in diversity. However, we can neither understand nor appreciate the world’s diversity without perceiving how unity itself generates and continually changes diversity”. Marginson and Xu leave us without a concrete idea on how we can make sense of the deep material factors that underpin both the global science and national sciences and diverse cultures of the world. For this reason, I think that the authors dropped “the world-system” theories and the fifty years of debates and contributions way too early.

Published inSeminar interventions