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date: 16 August 2017

Long Cycle and World-Systems Theoretical Research Programs

Summary and Keywords

Substantial overlaps are found between world-systems and long-cycle theoretical research programs in this study of the emergence and growth of sociocultural complexity and hierarchy. Although these two approaches have different theoretical ancestors and significantly different conceptual vocabularies, they mainly converge with regard to crucial elements such as units of analysis and changes in the distribution of power.

Keywords: empirical international relations theory, long cycles, world systems, theoretical research programs


The world-systems theoretical research program employs an anthropological framework of comparison to comprehend the evolution of geopolitics and economic institutions. The scale and complexity of the contemporary global system are the outcome of processes that structured the sociocultural evolution of human organizations.1

The world-systems perspective emerged in the context of the world revolution of 1968, with a focus on the structural nature of global stratification—called global north/south relations in the early 21st century. Because this perspective emerged mainly from sociology and radical economics, it was somewhat immune to the tectonic debates between the realists and the liberals in international relations. But there has been considerable overlap with some international relations schools, especially the long-cycle empirical theory developed by George Modelski and William R. Thompson (Modelski, 1987; Modelski & Thompson, 1988, 1996). These approaches, though having different conceptual terminologies, have had much in common, and both have exhibited interest in questions of long-term sociocultural evolution. One important difference between the two approaches lies in the attention paid to the semiperiphery and the periphery. Like most international relations theorists, Modelski and Thompson focused largely on the “great powers” in the interstate system—what world-systems scholars call the core (but see Thompson & Modelski, 1998; Reuveny & Thompson, 2007). World-systems scholars see the whole system, including the periphery and semiperiphery, as an interdependent and hierarchical whole in which power differences and economic differences are reproduced by the normal operations of the system. The core/periphery hierarchy is a fundamental theoretical construct for the world-systems theory.

International relations theory is about the logic of power that exists in networks of competing and allying polities. It has been developed mostly by observing and trying to explain what happened in the European state system since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, but a similar logic was probably operating in earlier interpolity systems (Wohlforth et al., 2007). The comparative world-systems theoretical research program has been developed to comprehend and explain sociocultural evolution as it has occurred in an anthropological comparative framework—by considering prehistoric small-scale human polities and interacting systems of those polities since the Stone Age. Human cooperation beyond the level of the family is based on ideology and institutional mechanisms that facilitate integrated action. It is the evolution of institutional mechanisms such as states and markets that have made it possible for large groups of humans to cooperate with one another. Competition for resources occurs simultaneously at several different levels—between individuals, families, organizations, and polities. Warfare among polities has been an important selection mechanism driving sociocultural and human biological evolution since the Stone Age.

Germane to the tasks set by the editor of this collection (Thompson, 2017) is our stance on theory: We follow the cumulative theory and testing approach embodied in Imre Lakatos’s (1978) schema of theoretical research programs. Theories should be explicitly and clearly formulated regarding the meanings of concepts and interrelated causal propositions. Formalization can be axiomatic, or simulation models can be used. We favor the simulation models (see Fletcher et al., 2011). Different formalized models can be compared with regard to their simulation outcomes, and parts of these can be empirically tested. Though our theoretical research program is still under construction, some of the results thus far obtained can be reported.

The Long-Cycle Theory

Many social scientists have correctly stressed the importance of warfare as a major selective mechanism producing social change in world history (Spencer, 1898, Mann, 1986, 2013; Turner, 1985, 2010; Cioffi-Revilla, 1996; Chase-Dunn & Hall, 1997; Turchin, 2003, 2007; Morris, 2014). The long-cycle theory asserts and demonstrates important interactions between economic and military power. As already stated, there is a considerable overlap of both analytical framework and theoretical assumptions between the world-systems perspective and some formulations of international relations theory. The approach within international relations theory that is closest is the long-cycle approach developed by George Modelski and William R. Thompson (1996). This perspective has many grounding schemes in common with the world-systems perspective, despite its use of a different conceptual terminology.

Modelski and Thompson (1996) contend that the current global political economy began to take shape around 1500 bce. This position is like Immanuel Wallerstein’s depiction of the rise of the modern world system in the long 16th century (Wallerstein, 2011a). Modelski and Thompson argue that major processes operating now were already recognizable in the 16th century (Thompson, 2000). Modelski (1990), following the functionalism of Talcott Parsons (1966, 1971), sees globalization as a general process of evolutionary learning by the human species. The history of this process is one in which the human species transformed and built new institutions over a millennium, and the successive steps revealed the “development of a planetary constitutional design” (Modelski, 2006, p. 14).

According to Modelski, sociocultural evolution is a multilevel and self-organizing process. Using a Kantian and Parsonsian learning model of social evolution, the long-cycle approach contends that the generative principle of world politics is based on an evolutionary learning process (Modelski, 1990). A major assumption is that the world needs to have an order and that world powers rise to fulfill this need. It is presumed that the long cycle in which great powers rise and fall results in a progressive evolution of world politics that emerges from the functional needs of the system (Modelski & Thompson, 1996).

In the long run of sociocultural evolution, both the long-cycle approach and the world-systems perspective see the rise and fall of powerful polities as an important dynamic. The long-cycle model depicts a process of coevolution of economic and political power sequences, whereas the world-systems approach examines the hegemonic sequence (see Wallerstein, 1984; Chase-Dunn, 1998, Chapter 9). The long-cycle theory focuses on both economic and military power. Economic power is seen as an important and driving basis of global military power. The theory emphasizes the leading power’s development of new cutting-edge technologies of production in which the leading power holds a comparative advantage (Modelski & Thompson, 1996). Military power is seen to be of two different kinds: land-based forces, which allow powerful states to influence their contiguous neighbors, and sea power, which is the key to global leadership (see also Rasler & Thompson, 1994).2 Modelski and Thompson (1988, 1996) measured the concentration and deconcentration of naval power in the European interstate system, revealing the world power sequences of Portugal in the 15th century, the Dutch in the 17th century, Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries (two long cycles), and the United States in the 20th century. The rise of new lead industries is the basis of competitive political and economic advantages that have been the main causes of the rise and fall of great powers. Modelski and Thompson also show the ways in which the Kondratieff Wave (K-waves of 40- to 60-year business cycles) are associated with the rise and decline sequence of system leaders. K-waves and long cycles are intertwined such that there are two K-waves within each approximately 100-year-long cycle. Modelski (2005) also sees a long-term trend across hegemonies in which economic power becomes more important and political/military power becomes more democratic.

Global powers rise as a result of their comparative economic advantages in innovative and transformative technological sectors in world commerce and industry—so-called new lead industries. The economic resources from new lead industries allow it to win wars and to exercise both military and political influence in the system. War and diplomacy are the mechanisms that produce global integration and the concentration of global power, but success in war is mainly a consequence of success in the development of new lead industries. Modelski (2005) also employed the idea of imperial overreach that was formulated in Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987). During the decline phase of a long cycle, the system leader sometimes overplays the military card after economic comparative advantage has been lost. The U.K. prosecution of the Boer Wars and the U.S. unilateral military policy during the George W. Bush administration are given as examples.

Periods of hegemony are associated with peace, and periods of hegemonic decline are associated with war. Long cycles are seen to be composed of four phases: the winner of a global war emerges from the struggle for global leadership and maintains its position through naval power. The logistical and ideological costs associated with global leadership contribute to the world power’s decline, giving way to two new stages: delegitimation (decline in relative power) and deconcentration (challenges from emerging rivals). Deconcentration proceeds until new contenders for world leadership attempt to push the declining leader out of its hegemonic position. Modelski and Thompson also note that hegemonic success often passes to a challenger that has been allied with the previous hegemon.

There have been five long cycles since the 16th century (see Table 1), with Britain having completed two of them as hegemon. Britain’s example led Joachim Rennstich (2001) to argue that the United States might be able to serve as hegemon in another power cycle (but see Chase-Dunn et al., 2011).

Table 1: Long cycles in the modern system

Long Cycle and World-Systems Theoretical Research Programs

The long-cycle perspective claims to be based on structural-functionalist theoretical assumptions about social learning and progress. Indeed, despite all the attention given to the importance of economic power, Modelski and Thompson never mention the word “capitalism.”3 Others have pointed out that assertions about progress are troublesome and unnecessary aspects of some theories of sociocultural evolution (Sanderson, 1990). Patterns and their causes may be described and explained without the baggage that is involved in normative statements about whether what has happened is good or evil. The explanations in the long-cycle theory can be evaluated separately from its functionalist claims about learning and progress.

George Modelski (2003) produced a monumental contribution to our knowledge of the population sizes of large cities since the Bronze Age by updating the important compendium produced by Tertius Chandler. Modelski saw the emergence of large cities as a central component of sociocultural evolution, a perspective shared by some world-systems scholars (e.g., Inoue et al., 2015) and some historians (Braudel, 1984; Morris, 2010, 2013).

World-Systems Theory

The world-systems approach is less functionalist and more critical of power. Perhaps this is partly because of its origins during the world revolution of 1968 and the anti-Vietnam War movement, but it may also stem from greater attention to those who live at the bottom of the system (the noncore). And rather than talking only of economic development and economic comparative advantage, the world-systems theorists describe and analyze the rise to predominance of capitalism. They employ ideas from both Karl Marx and Max Weber to produce a critical prehension of world historical social change. The world-systems theorists have mainly been sociologists, while the long-cycle theorists are political scientists. In the 1960s, sociologists were busy overthrowing their intellectual parents, especially Talcott Parsons, while political scientists had different ancestors and were more easily able to see the good things in Parsons’s evolutionary synthesis. The main constructors of the world-systems approach in the 1970s were Immanuel Wallerstein, Terence Hopkins, Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank, and Giovanni Arrighi. While there are interesting and important differences among them, Wallerstein, Hopkins, and Arrighi are more central to this discussion because their approaches are the most germane for comparison with the long-cycle theory.

Terence Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein (1979) described the cyclical rhythms and secular trends of the capitalist world economy as a stable systemic logic that expands and deepens from its start to its end but that does not change much over time. Giovanni Arrighi (1994) saw overlapping systemic cycles of accumulation in which rising and falling hegemons expand and deepen the commodification of the whole system. His modern world system alternates back and forth between corporatist and market-organized forms of political structure, while the extent of commodification deepens in each round (Arrighi, 2006). He builds on Wallerstein’s focus on hegemony as based on comparative advantages in profitable types of production (Wallerstein, 1984, 2006). In addition, Arrighi utilizes Wallerstein’s idea that each hegemon goes through stages in which the comparative advantage is based first on the production of consumer goods, then on capital goods, and last on finance capital (see also Arrighi & Silver, 1999; Arrighi, 2008). Arrighi was also inspired by the work of Fernand Braudel to focus special attention on the changes in the relationships between finance capital and state power that occurred as the modern world system evolved. For both Wallerstein and Arrighi, the hegemon is the top end of a global hierarchy that constitutes the modern core/periphery division of labor. Hegemonies are unstable and tend to devolve into hegemonic rivalry as comparative advantages diffuse and the hegemon cannot stay ahead of the curve. Arrighi’s formulation allows for greater evolutionary changes as the modern system expanded and deepened, while the Wallerstein/Hopkins formulation depicts a single continuous underlying logic that does not change much except at the beginning and end of the historical system.

As already mentioned, world-systems scholars study the dialectical and dynamic interaction between the core, the semiperiphery, and the periphery and examine how these interactions are important for the reproduction of the core/periphery hierarchy and how they affect the outcomes of struggles within the core for hegemony (Boswell & Chase-Dunn, 2000). The hegemon and the other great powers are at the top end of a global stratification system in which resources are competitively extracted from the noncore and resistance from the noncore plays an important role in the evolution of the system. This approach focuses on both institutions and social movements that challenge the powers that be. It is noted that rebellions, labor unrest, and anticolonial and anti-imperial movements tend to cluster together in certain periods. Often in the past, the rebels were unaware of each other’s efforts, but those in charge of keeping global order knew when rebellions broke out on several continents within the same years or decades. These decades-long periods in which collective unrest events cluster in time are called world revolutions by the world-systems scholars (Arrighi, Hopkins, & Wallerstein, 1989). These semisynchronized waves of resistance can be labeled by pointing to the symbolic years that connote the general or average nature of the movements—1789 (the American, French, Bolivarian, and Haitian revolutions); 1848 (the “Springtime of Nations” plus the Taiping Rebellion in China; 1917 (the Mexican, Chinese, and Russian revolutions); 1955 (the anticolonial revolts and the nonaligned movement at the Bandung Conference); 1968 (the student rebellions); 1989 (the demise of and reformation of communist regimes); and the current period of global unrest that seemed to have peaked in 2011 (Chase-Dunn & Niemeyer, 2009). These complex “events” had important consequences for both reproducing and restructuring the modern world system. Arrighi, Hopkins, and Wallerstein (1989) notice a pattern in which enlightened conservatives try to coopt powerful challenges from below by granting some of the demands of earlier world revolutions. This has been an important driving force toward democracy and equality over the past several centuries.

The modern system is multicultural in the sense that important political and economic interaction networks connect people with very different languages and religions. Most earlier world systems have also been multicultural. There is, however, an emerging global culture that is produced by the interaction of all the subcultures. It is a contentious mix that tends to be dominated by the national and civilizational cultures of the core states, but it is also an outcome of global communications and contentious resistance (Meyer, 2009). Immanuel Wallerstein (2011b) uses the term “geoculture” to describe the predominant political ideology of centrist liberalism.

The Comparative World Systems Theoretical Research Program (TRP)

Both the long-cycle approach and the world-systems perspective have adopted a very long-term framework that seeks to explain sociocultural evolution over very long periods of time. George Modelski’s (1964) article on Khautyla compares the institutional nature of the historically known South Asian interstate system with the institutions that emerged in the European system with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The comparative and evolutionary world-systems TRP explicitly employs an anthropological framework of comparison to examine polities, settlements, and interpolity systems since the Stone Age. World systems are defined in this approach as systemic interaction networks in which regularized exchanges occur among formally autonomous, but interdependent, polities.

World systems are understood to be networks of interacting polities. Systemness means that these polities are interacting with one another in important ways—interactions are two-way, necessary, structured, regularized, and reproductive. Systemic interconnectedness exists when interactions importantly influence the lives of people within the connected polities and are consequential for social continuity or social change.

Earlier regional world systems did not cover the entire surface of the planet. The word “world” refers to the importantly connected interaction networks in which people live, whether these are spatially small or large. Only the modern world system has become a global (Earthwide) system composed of a network of national states. It is a single economy composed of international trade and capital flows, transnational corporations that produce products on several continents, as well as all the economic transactions that occur within countries and at local levels. The whole world system is more than just international relations. It is the whole system of human interactions. The contemporary world economy is made up of all the economic interactions of all the people on Earth, not just international trade and investment.

In any discussion and comparison of different kinds of worldsystems, it is important to use concepts that are applicable to all of them. Polity is a general term that means any organization that claims sovereign control over a territory or a group of people. Polities include bands, tribes, and chiefdoms as well as states and empires. All world systems are politically composed of multiple interacting polities. Thus, it is possible to fruitfully compare the modern interstate system with earlier systems in which there were tribes or chiefdoms but not states.

The modern world system is structured politically as an interstate system—a system of competing and allying states. Political scientists commonly call this “the international system,” and it is the main focus of the field of international relations. Some of these states are much more powerful than others, but the main organizational feature of the world political system is that it is multicentric. There is no world state; rather, there is a system of states. This is a fundamentally important feature of the modern system and of many earlier regional world systems as well.

The comparative world-systems approach developed by Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997; see also Chase-Dunn & Jorgenson, 2003) notes that different kinds of important interactions have different spatial scales. For all systems there is a relatively small network of the exchange of basic foods and raw materials. This network is often smaller than the network of polities that are making war and alliances with one another. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) call it the political/military network (PMN). This network is the general equivalent of the modern international system except that the polities may be tribes or chiefdoms rather than states. The PMN is often smaller than the network of exchange of prestige goods, valuables that move long distances and that may or may not be important in the reproduction or change of local social structures.

The comparative evolutionary world-systems theoretical research program uses David Wilkinson’s (1987) spatiotemporal bounding of PMNs, which Wilkinson calls “civilizations.” This approach delineates the spatial and temporal boundaries of networks of cities and states that are making war and alliances with one another, beginning with the Mesopotamian and Egyptian PMNs in the early Bronze Age. Wilkinson’s chronograph shows that these two separate state systems merged with one another in the decades around 1500 bce, forming a larger network that eventually expanded to include all the other networks and constituting the modern global system.

So the modern world system is now a global economy with a global political system (the interstate system). It also includes all the cultural aspects and interaction networks of the whole human population of the Earth. Culturally, the modern system is composed of:

  • several civilizational traditions, (e.g., Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, Secular Humanism)

  • nationally defined cultural entities—nations (and these are composed of class and functional subcultures, e.g., lawyers, technocrats, bureaucrats), and

  • the cultures of indigenous and minority ethnic groups within states.

While a global culture is being formed, it is important to note that the modern world system is not primarily integrated by normative consensus. The strongest forces producing social order are states and markets (Chase-Dunn, 1998, Chapter 5) and these are important precisely because they do not require high levels of consensus about what exists and what is good.

Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) allowed for the possibility that some world systems did not have core/periphery hierarchies. They also point to a general pattern that occurred once world systems became hierarchical—a cycle of the rise and fall of more powerful polities similar in some respects to the long cycle in the modern system (Anderson, 1994). Chase-Dunn and Hall also noted some emergent characteristics that qualitatively altered the ways in which military and economic power operated as these systems became larger and more complex.

Certain processes operate in all human world systems large and small, at least to date. Demographic cycles occur within polities and in whole world systems, and these both drive and are driven by changes in technology, political organization, and economic networks. Chase-Dunn and Lerro (2014, Chapter 2) present a recent version of the “iteration model” first proposed by Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997, Chapter 6). This model proposes a positive feedback loop in which population growth causes population pressure, which in turn causes migration until the land is filled up with humans (circumscription [Carneiro, 1970]), which then causes within-polity and between-polity conflict to rise, reducing population pressure by killing off people. Some systems escape this demographic regulator by forming larger polities and by increasing trade and production. But this solution then allows for more population growth, so the process goes around again.

Institutions such as states, cities, empires, markets, and international organizations emerge that alter the ways in which cooperation, competition, and conflict shape the emergence of larger and more complex systems. In both the long-cycle and world-systems approaches, governance is understood to refer to those institutions that structure the order of an interpolity system. So global governance in the modern system is provided primarily by the process of the rise and fall of system leaders—or hegemons. The nature of the polities and the nature of interpolity relations are important, as are whatever suprapolity institutions and structures may exist. In this sense, “global governance” can be understood as having evolved in interpolity systems since the Stone Age.

The comparative world-systems TRP studies how core/periphery hierarchies emerged and evolved. Chase-Dunn and Mann (1998) showed that regional inequalities were mild in a small-scale world system that existed in northern California before the arrival of the Europeans. Although territoriality existed, there was little in the way of exploitation or domination by powerful polities of weaker adjacent polities. But as polities became internally more hierarchical, core/periphery exploitation emerged. Indigenous paramount chiefdoms on the Chesapeake Bay extracted tribute from neighboring polities (Rountree, 1993). Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) note an important aspect of sociocultural evolution that cannot be well studied by focusing on the great powers alone. They describe the phenomenon of semiperipheral development in which polities located in semiperipheral positions within core/periphery structures often play important roles in transforming the scale and institutional nature of world systems. They designate and study several different kinds of semiperipheral development: semiperipheral marcher chiefdoms; semiperipheral marcher states; semiperipheral capitalist city-states; the semiperipheral position of Europe and the Afro-Eurasian world system prior to the rise of the West; the semiperipheral position of the modern hegemons prior to their rise to hegemony (the Dutch in the 17th century; the British in the 19th century; and the United States in the 20th century) (see also Chase-Dunn & Lerro, 2014). It is semiperipheral development that best explains the spatial movement of the cutting edge of complexity and hierarchy that occurred as world systems got larger.

Empirical Studies of Upsweeps in World Systems

Our research on the upsweeps4 in the territorial sizes of largest polities5 and the population sizes of largest cities6 since the Bronze Age is germane to testing competing hypotheses about the causes of long-run trends in the formation of complexity and hierarchy (Chase-Dunn et al., 2006).7 We have conducted a series of quantitative studies that have identified those instances in which the scale of polities and cities significantly changed (upsweeps and downsweeps; Inoue et al., 2012, 2015), and we have begun testing the hypothesis that these scale changes were caused by semiperipheral marcher states (Inoue et al., 2016). Polities in the semiperiphery, being in fertile locations for implementation of organizational and technological innovations, have transformed the scale and sometimes the logic of worldsystems (Inoue et al., 2016). Semiperipheral polities enjoy geopolitical advantages (the marcher state advantage of not having to defend the rear) and “advantages of backwardness,” such as less sunk investment in older organizational forms; less subjection to core power relative to peripheral polities; and greater incentives to take risks on innovations and new institutional development.

Upsweeps in the territorial size of the largest polity in an interpolity system can occur when one of the states conquers the others to form a larger polity. It is important to determine whether or not the conquering state had previously been in a semiperipheral or peripheral location within the regional interpolity system.8

Our studies of upsweeps and noncore marcher states examined four regional world systems (Mesopotamia, Egypt, East Asia, and South Asia) as well as the expanding central political/military network, as designated by David Wilkinson’s (1987) temporal and spatial bounding of state systems since the Bronze Age. This produced a list of 21 territorial upsweeps.

The results of the study showed that out of 21 cases of territorial upsweeps, 10 cases were produced by semiperipheral marcher states and 3 by peripheral marcher states (Inoue et al., 2016). So about half of the examined cases of territorial upsweeps were caused by conquests by noncore marcher states and the other half were not. This means that the hypothesis of noncore development does not explain everything about the events in which polity sizes significantly increased in geographical scale, but also that the phenomenon of noncore development cannot be ignored in any explanation of the long-term trend in the rise of polity sizes. We characterized the events not caused by noncore marcher states as follows:

  1. 1. Mirror-empires—a core state that was under pressure from a noncore polity carried out a territorial expansion.

  2. 2. An internal revolt—a new regime formed by an internal ethnic or class rebellion. 3. internal dynastic change—a coup carried out by a rising faction within the ruling class of a state leading to territorial expansion (Inoue et al., 2016). In some instances, processes internal to existing core states were important causes of territorial expansion. In addition, 9 of the 18 urban upsweeps were produced by noncore marcher state conquests; 8 directly followed and were caused by upsweeps in the territorial sizes of polities (Inoue et al., 2015). Whereas about half of the upsweep events were caused by one or another form of noncore development, the causes in a significant number of upsweep events seemed to be substantially internal (Inoue et al., 2016). Thus, what is needed is a multilevel model in which processes that occur within polities are linked with processes occurring between polities. Such a model would have important implications for debates in international relations theory as well as for interdisciplinary approaches to explaining sociocultural evolution.

A Multilevel Model of World-Systems Evolution

The world-system perspective tends to focus on the network and relational dynamics that are external to single polities, despite occasional holistic claims (above) that the contemporary system is composed of all the individuals on Earth and is more than international relations. The findings of our studies of upsweeps suggest the need to examine both within-polity and between-polity as well as whole-system variables simultaneously in a multilevel model. In searching for models of processes occurring within polities, one’s inclination is to turn to the structural demographic approach developed by Jack Goldstone (1991) and elaborated and tested by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefadov (2009). Encouraged by Jack Goldstone’s (2014) studies of social movements and revolutions, these were included in our multilevel model of sociocultural evolution. Additionally, our overall scheme for integrating both within-polity, between-polity, and system-level dynamics was inspired by the ecological models of the multilevel panarchy theory (Green et al., 2015; Gotts, 2007; Gunderson & Holling, 2002; Holling, 1973). Peter Turchin’s (2003) modified model of Ibn Khaldun’s (1332–1406) explanation of dynastic cycles and the long-cycle approach of Modelski and Thompson (1996) also inspired our new (revised) model. We will also incorporate insights from Victor Lieberman’s (2003, 2009) studies of state formation in Southeast Asia and his comparisons with similar processes in other regions.

Structural Demographic Theory

Jack Goldstone (1991) formulated the first version of what has become known as the structural-demographic theory of state collapse. Demographic growth causes population pressure on resources, and this pressure results in fiscal problems for the state, which leads to increasingly violent competition among elites and popular rebellion (see also Turchin, 2016b). The theory has been respecified as a “secular cycle” by Turchin and Nefedov (2009) and empirically verified by historical comparative studies (Turchin & Nefedov, 2009; Korotayev et al., 2011, 2015). Goldstone’s original model and the succeeding models that evolved from it have shown that the internal dynamics of state breakdown and regime change involves revolutions, civil wars, dynastic conflicts, and other outbreaks of social and political instability caused by within-polity population growth.

Along with the internal dynamics specified by structural-demographic theory, Peter Turchin and Sergey Gavrilets’s (2009) model includes an external mechanism that causes the emergence of large-scale empires. This model describes how variations in within-polity solidarity were caused by interpolity competition. The model uses Ibn Khaldun’s ethnic frontier theory to contend that large-scale empires emerge on meta-ethnic frontiers because intense competition between ethnically different groups produced higher levels of solidarity that unified groups. The model also includes the evolutionary adaptation theory proposed by Richerson and Boyd (2005) and argues that the intense competition produced by interpolity warfare operated as a selection mechanism that promoted the emergence of groups that had adaptive advantages based on higher levels of solidarity and within-group cooperation. Groups with greater solidarity and cooperation develop complex and large polities.9 As in the long-cycle approach of Modelski and Thompson (1988, 1996), war is a selection mechanism that promotes the formation of more powerful, more complex, and more hierarchical polities.10


The panarchy approach has become a well-known conceptual framework that seeks to bridge ecological and social science explanations since the 1970s (Simon, 1962; Holling, 1973). The framework has often been used to produce analogies from ecology to explain complex social systems in social science. Research inspired by the panarchy model is similar in many respects to the world-systems approach. It employs a nested multilevel analytical framework with cyclical processes to study the emergence and transformation of complex systems (Gotts, 2007; Gunderson & Holling, 2002; Odom Green et al., 2015). The panarchy model employs a holistic structure that integrates ecological, social, and economic processes of stability and change.

The panarchists assert that a whole system is more than the sum of its parts and that whole systems are often complex, hierarchical, and dynamic. Herbert Simon’s (1962) classical formulation of adaptive hierarchical multilevel organizations laid the foundation for development of the panarchy tradition. Panarchy involves partially autonomous and distinct nested levels that are formed from the interactions among sets of variables operating at each level. Unlike the hierarchical structure of a top-down authoritative control structure, Simon asserted that each level has its own speed of change—smaller local levels change faster; larger and global levels change more slowly; and transformations can occur at each level without affecting the integrity of the whole system. Such adaptive hierarchical systems with partial autonomy of subsystems are claimed to evolve faster than systems that have a single vertical hierarchical structure (Simon, 1962).

In the panarchy model, the smaller levels have an impact on the larger level in the form of “revolts” in which local events overwhelm larger-level dynamics. Larger-level dynamics set conditions for the smaller-level events by means of “remember” in which the accumulated structure at the larger level impacts the reorganization of lower-level events (Gunderson & Holling, 2002). Resilience, or the capacity of a system to tolerate disturbances, allows the system to avoid collapse (Gunderson & Holling, 2002). When the system goes beyond its resilience point, its capacity to absorb change is exceeded. Then the system is likely to cross a threshold and to reorganize into a regime with a new set of processes, feedbacks, and structures (Green et al., 2015).11

Noncore Development, Long Cycles, the Secular Cycle, and World Revolutions

Insights from the structural demographic (secular cycle) and panarchy approaches can be combined with the world-system iteration model and the noncore development hypothesis to produce a new synthetic multilevel model of sociocultural evolution. The within-polity dynamics of the structural-demographic model should help account for those upsweep instances that do not involve conquests by noncore marcher states by taking account of within-polity population pressures, fiscal crises, intra-elite competition, social movements, and political instability that have led to state collapse and recoveries that in turn have led to upsweeps. Some of these variables are likely to operate both within and between polities. Social movements, rebellions, and incursions from the noncore may cluster in time. World revolutions have been conceptualized and studied only with respect to the modern Europe-centered system (Chase-Dunn & Khutkyy, 2016). But other studies indicate that earlier regional world systems also experienced periods in which collective behavior events clustered during the same time periods, with consequences for the whole system (Thompson & Modelski, 1998b). We are optimistic that a new synthetic theory of sociocultural evolution that combines the insights and research results from these approaches is nigh.


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(1.) Ian Morris (2013) provides an excellent review of the tumultuous intellectual history of the idea of sociocultural evolution in the introduction to his operationalization of societal development since the Stone Age. Michael Mann (2016) examines whether major social changes since the Stone Age constituted instances of evolution or of accidental conjunctures.

(2.) Rasler and Thompson (1994) contend that the system of a global-scale sea power operates with regional land-power systems nested within it. In world-system terms, this implies that different power logics (capitalist vs. tributary) are operating simultaneously at different levels of the system.

(3.) The substantial overlap between sea power and the economic importance of transportation and communications costs may account for in important part of the substantial overlap between the Modelski and Thompson long-cycle approach and the world-systems approach that focuses on leadership in successful capitalism.

(4.) We distinguish between an upswing, which is any upturn in a growth/decline sequence, and an upsweep, which goes to a level that is more than one-third higher than the average of three prior peaks (Inoue et al., 2012).

(5.) Most of our estimates of the territorial sizes of large polities come from the work of Rein Taagepera (1978a, 1978b, 1979, 1997).

(6.) Most of our estimates of the population sizes of largest cities come from Modelski (2003).

(7.) This research has been carried out by the Settlements and Polities Research Working Group (SetPol) at the Institute for Research on World-Systems at the University of California-Riverside. The project website is at

(8.) When a conquering polity is peripheral within a regional system, we designate this instance as a peripheral marcher state. The term we use to combine peripheral and semiperipheral states is “noncore.”

(9.) Peter Turchin (2016, pp. 81–90) provides a lucid explanation of the Price Equation that delineates interactions among levels in the multilevel selection that occurs in biological evolution.

(10.) Turner and Machalek (2017, Chapter 10) distinguish Darwinian biological selection from five different types of sociocultural selections that operate within and between polities.

(11.) Because of its complex holistic features and relatively abstract concepts, the panarchy model has been difficult to test (Green et al., 2015).