Saskia Sassen on austerity and social exclusion

Soup 2 greece
The previous post summarized some of Kathleen Thelen’s thinking about the prospects for a more egalitarian capitalism in our future. Saskia Sassen offers a more negative view of the direction of the development of European capitalism in her most recent book, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy.

Here is a post in Open Democracy in which Sassen summarizes her current thinking. Her view is that there is something new in the political economy of liberalization and austerity — the systematic exclusion and expulsion of a significant portion of the population from the economy altogether. She writes:

Low growth, unemployment, inequality, and poverty are no longer reliable markers for capturing the ‘economic cleansing’ afflicting European institutions and societies throughout Europe. This ‘works’ on the backs of all those who have simply been expelled.

This seems pretty descriptive in the urban environment in which I live in Detroit metro. The factors Sassen highlights — high unemployment, even higher rates of discouraged workers, and high rates of foreclosure and abandonment fit the Detroit experience very well. The most recent development — water shutoff notices to tens of thousands of Detroit residents — only reinforces the point of exclusion.

Thanks, Saskia, for providing the link!

The global city — Saskia Sassen

London financial district

Saskia Sassen is the leading urban theorist of the global world. (Here are several prior posts that intersect with her work.) Her The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (1991) has shaped the concepts and methods that other theorists have used to analyze the role of cities and their networks in the contemporary world. The core ideas in her theory of the global city are presented in a 2005 article, “The Global City: Introducing a Concept” (link). This article is a convenient place to gain an understanding of her basic approach to the subject.

Key to Sassen’s concept of the global city is an emphasis on the flow of information and capital. Cities are major nodes in the interconnected systems of information and money, and the wealth that they capture is intimately related to the specialized businesses that facilitate those flows — financial institutions, consulting firms, accounting firms, law firms, and media organizations. Sassen points out that these flows are no longer tightly bound to national boundaries and systems of regulation; so the dynamics of the global city are dramatically different than those of the great cities of the nineteenth century.

Sassen emphasizes the importance of creating new conceptual resources for making sense of urban systems and their global networks — a new conceptual architecture, as she calls it (28). She argues for seven fundamental hypotheses about the modern global city:

  1. The geographic dispersal of economic activities that marks globalization, along with the simultaneous integration of such geographically dispersed activities, is a key factor feeding the growth and importance of central corporate functions.
  2. These central functions become so complex that increasingly the headquarters of large global firms outsource them: they buy a share of their central functions from highly specialized service firms.
  3. Those specialized service firms engaged in the most complex and globalized markets are subject to agglomeration economies.
  4. The more headquarters outsource their most complex, unstandardized functions, particularly those subject to uncertain and changing markets, the freer they are to opt for any location.
  5. These specialized service firms need to provide a global service which has meant a global network of affiliates … and a strengthening of cross border city-to-city transactions and networks.
  6. The economic fortunes of these cities become increasingly disconnected from their broader hinterlands or even their national economies.
  7. One result of the dynamics described in hypothesis six, is the growing informalization of a range of economic activities which find their effective demand in these cities, yet have profit rates that do not allow them to compete for various resources with the high-profit making firms at the top of the system. (28-30)

Three key tendencies seem to follow from these structural facts about global cities.  One is a concentration of wealth in the hands of owners, partners, and professionals associated with the high-end firms in this system. Second is a growing disconnection between the city and its region. And third is the growth of a large marginalized population that has a very hard time earning a living in the marketplace defined by these high-end activities. Rather than constituting an economic engine that gradually elevates the income and welfare of the whole population, the modern global city funnels global surpluses into the hands of a global elite dispersed over a few dozen global cities.

These tendencies seem to line up well with several observable features of modern urban life throughout much of the world: a widening separation in quality of life between a relatively small elite and a much larger marginalized population; a growth of high-security gated communities and shopping areas; and dramatically different graphs of median income for different socioeconomic groups. New York, London, and Hong Kong/Shanghai represent a huge concentration of financial and business networks, and the concentration of wealth that these produce is manifest:

Inside countries, the leading financial centers today concentrate a greater share of national financial activity than even ten years ago, and internationally, cities in the global North concentrate well over half of the global capital market. (33)

This mode of global business creates a tight network of supporting specialist firms that are likewise positioned to capture a significant level of wealth and income:

By central functions I do not only mean top level headquarters; I am referring to all the top level financial, legal, accounting, managerial, executive, planning functions necessary to run a corporate organization operating in more than one country. (34)

These features of the global city economic system imply a widening set of inequalities between elite professionals and specialists and the larger urban population of service and industrial workers. They also imply a widening set of inequalities between North and South. Sassen believes that communications and Internet technologies have the effect of accelerating these widening inequalities:

Besides their impact on the spatial correlates of centrality, the new communication technologies can also be expected to have an impact on inequality between cities and inside cities. (37)

Sassen’s conceptual architecture maintains a place for location and space: global cities are not disembodied, and the functioning of their global firms depends on a network of activities and lesser firms within the spatial scope of the city and its environs. So Sassen believes there is space for political contest between parties over the division of the global surplus.

If we consider that global cities concentrate both the leading sectors of global capital and a growing share of disadvantaged populations (immigrants, many of the disadvantaged women, people of color generally, and, in the megacities of developing countries, masses of shanty dwellers) then we can see that cities have become a strategic terrain for a whole series of conflicts and contradictions. (39)

But this strategic contest seems badly tilted against the disadvantaged populations she mentions. So the outcomes of these contests over power and wealth are likely to lead, it would seem, to even deeper marginalization, along the lines of what Loic Wacquant describes in Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (link).

This is a hugely important subject for everyone who wants to understand the dynamics and future directions of the globe’s mega-cities and their interconnections. What seems pressingly important for urbanists and economists alike, is to envision economic mechanisms that can be established that do a better job of sharing the fruits of economic progress with the whole of society, not just the elite and professional end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Global cities — Saskia Sassen

I have mentioned Saskia Sassen in previous postings, as one of the world’s leading theorists of the global city. Here is an interesting lecture that she presented at the UrbanAge India conference in Mumbai in 2007. The lecture is very interesting, and it is also “self-illustrating,” in that its availability on YouTube illustrates the remarkable globalization of ideas and discourse that has been created by internet communications tools available everywhere in the world. She talks about cities as centers of “urban knowledge capital”, and refers to the mechanisms of communication through which these centers are linked, including especially the channels of internet-based communication and interaction. And the availability of the real-time thinking of leading scholars such as Sassen through YouTube, Google, and other tools — presented in Mumbai, equally and almost immediately available in Mexico City, Lagos, and London — is a dramatic illustration of the potential for diffusion and infusion of knowledge that the internet presents to the global world.

Urban Age India: Saskia Sassen Cities in Global Context Pt 1

Urban Age India: Saskia Sassen Cities in Global Context Pt 2

Levels of the social


We can examine social life at many levels of granularity — from ordinary individual social behavior to small groups to cities and regions to the global system of communication and extraction. Is there any basis for thinking one level is better than another for the social sciences?

There are two kinds of considerations that might be used as grounds for answering this question. One is about scientific feasibility and the other is about explanatory scope.

The feasibility line goes this way. It might be that higher level social phenomena are substantially less orderly than lower level phenomena. This means that we might be able to arrive at more confident and comprehensible analysis at the lower level than the higher level. Features of indeterminacy, contingency, and complexity might mean that we can’t expect to have strong and empirically well supported analyses of ensembles like cities or trading systems. And we might find that studies of individual-level social behavior are more tractable and empirically defensible.

The explanatory scope consideration cuts in the opposite direction. We would like to be able to explain processes like urbanization, ethnic conflict, and the social role of religion. These processes are very interesting, and they are consequential as well. So we would like to have some reliable hypotheses about some of the causal dynamics that animate them. And studies that focus on individual-level processes may not shed much light on these higher-level processes.

So tractability perhaps pushes us towards the lower level, while an appetite for explanatory scope pushes us towards theorizing and investigating higher levels.

There is something appealing about a definition of the social sciences that tries to answer the actor-level kind of question: what are the drivers of real social behavior, in a variety of settings? What are the springs of individual action? How do environment and experience influence people’s actions? This approach would fall within the sociological theory of the actor; it would largely overlap with social and developmental psychology, with a scoop of ethnomethodology on the side.

And this approach wouldn’t be wholly limited to the individual. Some of the learning we do about cooperation, aggression, and social cognition might well provide a basis for explanation of high-level social phenomena such as ethnic conflict or the spread of agricultural practices.

But it also seems credible that we can learn some important things about the higher-level processes and structures as well. Political scientists have some robust ideas about how institutions work. Economists have succeeded in identifying some of the dynamics of trading systems and technology change. Urban sociologists are able to discern some of the processes of neighborhood transformation. So it is clear that there are higher level social processes, structures, and systems that are amenable to empirical and theoretical study.

A nice conjunction of research projects that illustrate this point can be found in the study of modern cities. Al Young (The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances) and Loic Wacquant (Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality) provide ground-level studies of the actors who make up the inner city. Robert Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect offers a meso-level account of how neighborhoods work, and some of the causal relations that can be discerned at the level of the neighborhood. Thomas Hughes’ Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 demonstrates how a major technology like electric power is both structured and structuring within the urban systems in which it is introduced. And Saskia Sassen’s The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo provides an account of systematic interrelations among cities in a global network. Each of these studies sheds light on how cities work; they do so at different levels of granularity; and each study brings with it an admirable degree of empirical and theoretical rigor.  Each of them tells us something novel and non-trivial about how cities function. (There are prior postings on each of these authors: Young, Wacquant, Hughes, Sassen.)

This suggests something pretty moderate and pluralistic: that there is valid and important social research to be done at many levels of social organization. We won’t find a unifying science of everything. But we can do social science research at many levels in ways that respect the heterogeneity of the social world while also shedding light on the workings of some important social and causal processes. There is no privileged level of research to which we should limit our social-science gaze.

Super-high-density Shanghai

Shanghai is a city approaching 20 million people, and it is arguably the most economically dynamic city in Asia.  This concentration of population and economic activity surely has important long-term consequences.  There was an interesting piece in the Shanghai Daily recently by Nate Stein, called “Sky’s the limit for well planned city of Shanghai.”  Stein makes a really intriguing point about the Shanghai metropolitan region that seems very important.  He argues that the “invisible boundary” of a city is a margin that is roughly 45 minutes from the city center; and that this boundary is moving out fast in the lower Yangtze River Delta.  Improvements in transportation have brought a handful of mid-sized cities into the 45-minute zone, with the result that Shanghai is fast becoming the most populous high-density metropolitan area in the world.

Here is the heart of Stein’s view:

After building a subway in 1995 that has quickly grown to the world’s longest and most traversed, Shanghai’s invisible border moved outward significantly and drastically increased its growth potential. Instead of surrounding dense urban development with sprawling suburban homes, Shanghai’s residents live in apartment buildings that do not restrict the growth of a city like stand-alone homes do.

Being built upon a backbone of compact flats and public transit, rather than homes on large lots and personal automobiles, means that the population has no upper boundary or, in a very literal sense, the sky is the limit, depending on how many people can fit in one building.

People are stacked on top of and below others as growth extends up, and not out. Concentrations of people make mass transit feasible and waste less fuel and energy. Efficiency greatly increases in compact cities and provide for the feasibility of small businesses staying in demand among residents without cars who need the convenience of small neighborhood shops.

The almost entirely urban design of Shanghai provides for impressively sustainable growth potential. The problem of overcrowding is on the horizon, but Shanghai has been effectively advancing its transit infrastructure. There is a two-level road tunnel under the Bund, the main portion of downtown, to prevent congestion and high-speed rail lines coming into existence that will further extend the reach of its invisible 45-minute boundary.

So Shanghai is a city with almost limitless density, in the sense that it can add population vertically rather than laterally and it can serve that population with a high-capacity rapid transit system.

Here is the Yangtze River Delta mega-region by night:

The transportation improvements that continue to transform the Shanghai urban landscape include both the subway system and the high-speed rail system connecting China’s cities.  Here is what the Shanghai Metro system looks like today:


And here is the plan for 2020:

The system currently consists of twelve lines, with new track being added rapidly.  It handles something like five million passengers a day.

The other major improvement in transportation is the extension of the high-speed inter-city rail network.  High-speed trains now connect Shanghai to Hangzhou and Suzhou, bringing those cities comfortably within the 45-minute radius of Shanghai.  The high-speed train from Shanghai to Hangzhou takes only 25 minutes today.  In practical terms, this means that there can be a tight integration among firms, knowledge workers, and universities throughout this region with a total population approaching 90 million people in the Yangtze River Delta Region.  Professionals can live in Hangzhou or Souzhou and do their work in Shanghai.

Here is the intriguing question: does this development of a high-density, high-population metropolitan Shanghai have important implications for social and economic development?  Is this mega-city going to represent a qualitative change in the world’s urban history?  Will Shanghai become a unique new kind of mega-urban place, with significantly higher growth potential than other world cities?

One reason for thinking that this may be true is the case that people like Richard Florida and Saskia Sassen have made for the synergies created by a densely interconnected urban area.  Florida talks about the concentration of talent afforded by a high-density city, and Sassen focuses on the economic and informational networks that are stimulated by high-density cities.  In each case there is the idea of non-linear interaction effects and positive feedback loops.  Sassen’s concept of a global city captures her core idea; a global city is one that has a large volume of connections to other cities around the globe, in terms of trade, services, telephone calls, internet traffic, and financial transactions (The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.).

Shanghai is not the only large metropolitan area in the world, of course; but it appears to have features of urban system interconnectedness that take it out of the category of “sprawl” cities like Mexico City or Johannesburg.

Sassen puts some of her thinking into an interesting paper titled “Megaregions: Benefits Beyond Sharing Trains and Parking Lots?” (link). Here is how she frames her problem in the paper:

I have been asked to examine whether there are particular advantages to economic interactions at the megaregional scale and whether such interactions might play a role in enhancing the advantages of megaregions in today’s global economy. Familiar advantages of scales larger than that of the city, such as metropolitan and regional scales, are the benefits of sharing transport infrastructures for people and goods, enabling robust housing markets, and, possibly, supporting the development of office, science, and technology parks. Critical policy options identified by RPA in this regard would aim at strengthening the megaregional scale of economic interactions by investing in intercity and high speed regional rail, enhanced goods movement systems, and land use planning decisions.  More complex and elusive is whether the benefits of megaregional economic interaction can go beyond these familiar scale economies and, further, whether this would strengthen the position of such megaregions in the global economy.

And here is part of her answer:

One central argument I develop in this paper is that the specific advantages of the megaregional scale consist of and arise from the co-existence within one regional space of multiple types of agglomeration economies. These types of agglomeration economies today are distributed accross diverse economic spaces and geographic scales: central business districts, office parks, science parks, the transportation and housing efficiencies derived from large (but not too large) commuter belts, low-cost manufacturing districts (today often offshore), tourism destinations, specialized branches of agriculture, such as horticulture or organically grown food, and the complex kinds evident in global cities. Each of these spaces evinces distinct agglomeration economies and empirically at least, is found in diverse types of geographic settings –from urban to rural, from local to global.  The thesis is that a megaregion is sufficiently large and diverse so as to accommodate a far broader range of types of agglomeration economies and geographic settings than it typically does today. This would take the advantages of megaregional location beyond the notion of urbanization economies. A megaregion can then be seen as a scale that can benefit from the fact that our complex economies need diverse types of agglomeration economies and geographic settings, from extremely high agglomeration economies evinced by the specialized advanced corporate services to the fairly modest economies evinced by suburban office parks and regional labor-intensive low-wage manufacturing. It can incorporate this diversity into a single economic megazone. Indeed, in principle, it could create conditions for the return of particular (not all) activities now outsourced to other regions or to foreign locations.

It would appear from a non-specialist’s perspective, that Shanghai promises to have many of these multiple “agglomeration economy” dimensions, and from this we might expect that its economic growth will be accelerated with further densification.

Here is another interesting application of the idea of a global city to the case of Shanghai — a conference paper by Professor Lin Ye, “Is Shanghai Really a ‘Global City’?” (link).  Ye’s test involves examining three factors:

  1. Central place in the national economy
  2. Concentration nodes for global capital
  3. Agglomeration sites to provide professional services (5)

Does Shanghai rate highly enough in these three areas to qualify as a global city?

Ye concludes that the data support a “yes” in each area.  The Shanghai region represents a very significant percentage of the total Chinese GDP, and was increasing from 1992 to 2001 (7).  It represented 5.16% of total GDP in 2001, with only roughly 1.5% of population.  Second, Shanghai represented a significant concentration of China’s foreign direct investment and exports during these years.  Shipping and air traffic were concentrated in the metropolitan region as well.  So Ye concludes that “Shanghai has become a strategic concentration node for global capital” (12).  Finally, Sassen’s most important criterion has to do with being a key node in the global network of professional services.  He finds that here too, Shanghai measures up.  So-called “tertiary” industries amount to 45.8% of employment — dramatically greater than China’s overall 27.7% rate (14).  And the volume of financial services, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) business activity is very high as well.  “Shanghai is leading the way to transform to an information-based professional service concentration place” (15).  One important measure is the Globalization and World Cities Study Group assessment (link).  GaWC singles out a list of 46 global firms (accounting, financial services, architecture, …), and then ranks cities according to how many offices they possess of these firms.  Ye notes that GaWC identified 55 global cities based on the concentration of global advanced producer service firms in each city, and Shanghai is on this list, with 27 offices out of the 46 global firms (compared to 105 offices in New York).  Ye concludes that Shanghai has “quickly adjusted from a traditional manufacturing center to a place that provides advanced professional services to the whole world” (17).  It isn’t yet in the top rank; but it is increasing its global interconnectedness rapidly.

These transitions from primary sector to tertiary sector businesses that Ye documents indicate that Shanghai is already well on its way to being a knowledge-centered global city.  And the processes of densification described above should only amplify this process.

Methodological nationalism

Are there logical divisions within the global whole of social interactions and systems that permit us to focus on a limited, bounded social reality?  Is there a stable level of social aggregation that might provide an answer to the “units of analysis” question in the social sciences?  This is a question that has recurred several times in prior postings — on regions (link), on levels of analysis (link), and on world systems (link). Here I’ll focus on the nation-state as one such system of demarcation.

We can start with a very compelling recent critique of current definitions of the social sciences.  Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller offer an intriguing analysis of social science conceptual schemes in “Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences” (link). (Wimmer’s Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict: Shadows of Modernity is also of great interest.) The core idea is the notion that the social sciences have tended to conceptualize social phenomena around the boundaries of the nation-state.  And, these authors contend, this assumption creates a set of blinders for the social sciences that makes it difficult to capture some crucially important forms of social interaction and structure.

Wimmer and Schiller characterize the idea of methodological nationalism in three forms:

The epistemic structures and programmes of mainstream social sciences have been closely attached to, and shaped by, the experience of modern nation-state formation….  The social sciences were captured by the apparent naturalness and givenness of a world divided into societies along the lines of nation-states….  Because they were structured according to nation-state principles, these became so routinely assumed and ‘banal’, that they vanished from sight altogether. (303-4)

A second variant, typical of more empirically oriented social science practices, is taking national discourses, agendas, loyalties and histories for granted, without problematizing themor making them an object of an analysis in its own right.  Instead, nationally bounded societies are taken to be the naturally given entities to study. (304)

Let us  now address a third and last variant of methodological nationalism: the territorialization of social science imaginary and the reduction of the analytical focus to the boundaries of the nation-state. (307)

The three variants of methodological nationalism … are thus ignorance, naturalization, and territorial limitation. (308)

Their view is a complex one. They think that the social sciences have been trapped behind a kind of conceptual blindness, according to which the concepts of nation and state structure our perception of social reality but disappear as objects of critical inquiry. Second, they argue that there were real processes of nation and state building that created this blindness — from nineteenth century nation building to twentieth century colonialism. And third, they suggest that the framework of MN itself contributed to the concrete shaping of the history of nation and state building. So it is a three-way relationship between knowledge and the social world.

“Nationalism” has several different connotations.  First, it implies that peoples fall into “nations,” and that “nations” are somewhat inevitable and compact social realities.  France is a nation.  But closer examination reveals that France is a social-historical construct, not a uniform or natural social whole. (Here is a discussion of Emmanuel Todd’s version of this argument; link).  Alsatians, Bretons, and Basques are part of the French nation; and yet they are communities with distinct identities, histories, and affinities.  So forging France as a nation was a political effort, and it is an unfinished project.

Second, nationalism refers to movements based on mobilization of political identities.  Hindu nationalists have sought power in India through the BJP on the basis of a constructed, mobilized (and in various ways fictional) Hindu identity.  The struggle over the Babri Mosque, and the political use to which this symbol was put in BJP mobilization, illustrates this point.  But “nationalist politics” also possess a social reality; it is all too evident that even fictive “national identities” can be powerful sources of political motivation.  So nationalist politics in the twentieth century were a key part of many historical processes.  (Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing illustrates this point.)  And, of course, there may be multiple national identities within a given region; so the “nation” consists of multiple “nationalist” groups.  Ben Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism provides an extensive development of the political and constructed nature of ethnic and national identities.

What about the other pole of the “nation-state” conjunction — the state?  Here the idea is that the state is the seat of sovereign authority; the origin and enforcement of legal institutions; and the holder of a monopoly of coercive power in a region.  A state does not inevitably correspond to a nation; so when we hyphenate the conjunction we make a further substantive assumption — that nations grow into states, and that states cultivate national identities.

The fundamental criticism that Wimmer and Schiller express — the fundamental defect of methodological nationalism — is that it limits the ability of social scientists and historians to perceive processes that are above or below the level of the nation-state.  Trans-national processes (they offer migration as an example) and sub-national processes (we might refer to the kinds of violent mobilization studied by Mann in the Dark Side of Democracy) are either invisible or unimportant, from the point of view of methodological nationalism.  So the methodology occludes social phenomena that are actually of great importance to understanding the contemporary world.  Here is how they suggest going beyond methodological nationalism in the field of migration studies:

Going beyond methodological nationalism in the study of current migration thus may require more than a focus on transnational communities instead of the nation and its immigrants.  In order to escape the magnetism of established methodologies, ways of defining the object of analysis and algorithms for generating questions, we may have to develop (or rediscover?) analytical tools and concepts not coloured by the self-evidence of a world ordered into nation-states.  This is what we perceive, together with many other current observers of the social sciences, as the major task lying ahead of us.  We are certainly not able to offer such a set of analytical tools here. (323-24)

Wimmer and Schiller seem to point in a direction that we find in Saskia Sassen’s work as well: the idea that it is necessary for the social sciences to invent a new vocabulary that does a better job of capturing the idea of the interconnectedness of social activity and social systems (for example, in A Sociology of Globalization; link).  The old metaphors of “levels” of social life organized on an ascending spatial basis doesn’t seem to work well today when we try to deal with topics like global cities, diasporic communities, or transnational protest movements. And each of these critiques makes a convincing case that these non-national phenomena are influential all the way down into the “national” orders singled out by traditional classification schemes.

International social science

Last month the International Social Science Council (ISSC) launched a major review of the status of the social sciences worldwide (link).  The report was commissioned and partially funded by UNESCO.  The full report is available as a PDF file, and it is an important piece of work.  It includes review essays by leading social scientists and chiefs of social science research organizations in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean, and it makes an effort to provide a fairly comprehensive snapshot of the current state of affairs in the institutions, funding, and patterns of collaboration that currently drive social science research programmes in almost all regions of the world.  (It is interesting to observe that there is not a single mention of social science research in Israel.)

The primary focus of the report is on the institutional settings within which social science research takes place globally: for example, funding systems, universities and institutes, peer review systems, and publication systems.  To what extent are these institutions, in various regions of the world, succeeding in supporting and encouraging the kinds of social science research that will further the policy and informational needs of the publics they serve?  And to what extent are there substantial differences across regions of the world with respect to the depth and effectiveness of these institutional supports for the social sciences?

Here are three high-level changes in the social sciences that are noted in the report:

Three changes in the environment of social science production are particularly likely to affect their content, role and function. These are first, globalization, leading to the parallel internationalization of some public concerns and of social science research itself; second, changes in the institutional and social organization of social sciences; and third, the increased role of new information technology (IT) in the production and dissemination of social sciences. (1)

A more pervasive finding that structures many chapters in the report is the idea of “divides” within and across the world’s communities of social scientists.  Most fundamental is the gap in resources and institutional capacity that exists between North and South with respect to social science research:

For any observer of social sciences worldwide, the most striking divide is between countries and regions. There is not much in common between a social science department in a well-endowed university of the global North and a social science research institute in a Southern country suffering from economic and political instability. (3)

(Here is a map indicating widely different levels of spending on tertiary education across the globe:)

But the report also highlights divides across the practices of the social sciences that reflect real differences in intellectual commitments:

From an epistemological point of view, social sciences have been diverse and are characterized by a multiplicity of methods, approaches, disciplines, paradigms, national traditions and underlying political and social philosophies. (3)

Before undertaking such a survey, it is necessary to have a working conception of the definition and role of the social sciences.  The report takes a pragmatic approach; the social sciences are “the disciplines whose professional association is part of ISSC” (3).  But here is the closest the report comes to framing the intellectual task of the social sciences:

The social sciences are concerned with providing the main classificatory, descriptive and analytical tools and narratives that allow us to see, name and explain the developments that confront human societies. They allow us to decode underlying conceptions, assumptions and mental maps in the debates surrounding these developments. They may assist decision-making processes by attempting to surmount them. And they provide the instruments to gauge policies and initiatives, ‘and to determine what works and what does not’. (9)

Another organizing thread in the work of this large team of collaborators is the idea that the social sciences are most valuable when they make a contribution to the solution of important social and political problems.  They specifically refer to a set of common challenges that are of concern to virtually all the regional research communities surveyed here:

Challenges such as environmental change, poverty, financial crisis and inequality, as well as trends affecting human societies such as ageing, marginalization and the rise of cities as strategic economic spaces in the global economy are occurring everywhere but take on different forms according to local contexts. The authors discuss a wide array of challenges and trends, but other challenges such as gender issues, public health concerns, security, food crisis, migrations, diversity and integration, and burning issues and trends could also have found a place in this section. (9-10)

The greatest value and interest of this report is the degree of detail it is possible to glean from the summary reports provided by the regional associations of the social sciences.  This gives a cumulatively detailed impression of the ways in which the social sciences are framed in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, as well as North America and Europe.  Here is a nice example from Huang Ping’s survey of the status of the social sciences in China, where Ping provides historical context for Chinese social science:

In terms of what we see today, the status of the social sciences in China can be traced back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the first generation of Chinese students and scholars returned from Western countries, mostly the UK and the USA, after completing their degrees or their research.

After the Second World War and since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, social sciences in China have developed along three traditions: Chinese scholarly academia, especially Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism; focusing on economics in line with Soviet influences and Marxist studies; and later, Western approaches.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), social sciences almost disappeared and were hardly taught. After the opening-up process initiated in 1978, social sciences, along with science and research in general, were resumed and given a mandate to support the reform process. The Soviet influence gradually disappeared, and Western, especially US, social science approaches became the most influential. Sociology, for example, had been banned since 1952 and was reintroduced in 1979. During the past decade, traditional Chinese academic traditions have been reintroduced in universities and have caught the interest of an increasing number of students. (73)

The report does not explicitly attempt to map the range and diversity of research priorities in different regions of the world; but it is possible to begin to do so by paying close attention to the surveys offered by the regional associations for social science research. Topics vary across regions. What is more difficult to assess is the degree to which epistemologies, theories, and intellectual frameworks vary as well — though Sandra Harding’s contribution points in this direction. (See an earlier posting discussing work by Gabriel Abend on “Styles of Epistemology” (link).)

Particularly interesting for me are short pieces by Saskia Sassen (“Cities in today’s global age”), Craig Calhoun (“Social sciences in North America”), Akhil Gupta (“Construction of the global poor”), David Harvey (“A financial Katrina?”), Jon Elster (“One social science or many?”), and Sandra Harding (“Standpoint methodologies and epistemologies: A logic of scientific inquiry for people”).

In short, this is a genuinely interesting and detailed review of the status of the social sciences in the world today, and anyone with an interest in the “sociology of the social sciences” and the globalization of social knowledge will want to read it carefully.

Spatial patterns in the US

Here are four interesting graphics representing different kinds of activity in the United States.  The top panel represents population concentrations across the United State.  The second image is air traffic across the country, and the third image is internet traffic across the country.  The final image is a photograph of the United States from space at night, showing the concentration of lights across the country.  Basically the images correspond to where people live; where they travel; and where they exchange data.  Unsurprisingly, the maps line up very well.

The most interesting question to consider is not the structure of the networks represented by air travel and internet activity.  The nodes of both air travel and internet traffic line up exactly with the cities and metropolitan areas represented in the population map, and they align well with the concentration of lighted areas in the bottom frame as well.  The patterns of both air travel and internet traffic take the form of a swath extending from the dense eastern corridor of the US (Boston to Washington) to California (San Francisco to San Diego), with Chicago standing out as a significant node in the middle of the country.  This is entirely obvious and predictable; travel and communication follow population density.

Rather, the more interesting question is this: to what extent is there evidence of internet and air traffic at a node that is disproportionately greater than would be expected given the population of that node?  This is the kind of question that drives Saskia Sassen’s classification of cities as local, regional, national,  and global (The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo and Global Networks, Linked Cities).  (Here is an earlier post on Sassen’s work.)

Fundamentally, a city that originates 10 times the volume of internet traffic compared to other cities of similar size is worth looking at in detail.  Its activity level suggest an exceptional concentration of organizations and people that are unusually integrated into global networks of communication and data exchange.  It is a location for knowledge-intensive activity: high-end services, banking, universities; and it is a place with intensive relations to other nodes.  Likewise, a city that originates 5 times as many air-travel passengers as comparably sized cities elsewhere is likely to be a specialized location for business and high-end service activity (or else a population of very dedicated tourists).  In other words, the most interesting feature that these data sets might show us about the economic roles of US cities is not visible in the graphics presented here.

So it would be very interesting to be able to “divide” the activity levels represented by the middle two graphs by the populations represented by the top graph, so we could see which cities in the US are “super data exchangers” and “super travel generators”.  And this would give us an indication of the degree of high-end, knowledge-intensive activity that is concentrated in the place — thereby providing a measure of its importance in the national and global economy.  It is possible, for example, that Ann Arbor or Madison would show up as spikes of internet activity relative to their relatively small populations; and Raleigh-Durham might show up as a spike of air travel relative to population, reflecting an unusual concentration of high-end service businesses in this region.  The above-average data and air-traffic nodes are perhaps the dynamic centers of 21st-century economic activity.

Likewise, it would be interesting to identify the cities that have lower-than-expected levels of travel or internet activity; this would suggest local economies that are somewhat more self-contained and less integrated into the national economy than other locations.  And it would be interesting to see if there are significant pairings among locations for either kind of transaction; for example, is the volume of data exchange between Los Angeles and New York significantly greater than that between New York and Chicago or Boston?  And would this serve as an indicator of the degree of economic and business integration between these specific locations?

These views of the United States are interesting because they allow us to see the country as an inter-connected system of places and activities. They serve as something like a dynamic CT scan of the brain: certain connections between places “light up”, providing an indication of systemic activities that warrant further investigation.

(The middle panel was published in the Harvard Alumni Magazine (link).  The population map comes from Urbanomnibus (link).)

A modern world-system?

Immanuel Wallerstein created a huge stir in the 1970s with the publication of The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (1974).  The book is an intellectual masterpiece, synthesizing a vast range of fundamental literature on the economic history of Europe and the world.  You could look at the book as the first serious and extended effort to theorize globalization — a term that barely existed at the time of publication. Or you could look at it as a general theory of colonialism — an account of the pathways and influences through which the metropole dominated and exploited the periphery. It is worth looking back at this work today to tease out some of the guiding assumptions about history, sociology, and globalization it reflected.

The concept of “world system” is itself a key component of our current understanding of globalization, in that it captures the idea of causal interconnectedness across the globe among major organizations, firms, populations, and states.  Wallerstein observes that earlier social scientists had usually centered their analysis at the level of the political unit — the nation-state; whereas his own approach is different:

This book makes a radically different assumption.  It assumes that the unit of analysis is an economic entity, the one that is measured by the existence of an effective division of labor, and that the relationship of such economic boundaries to political and cultural boundaries is variable, and therefore must be determined by empirical research for each historical case.  Once we assume that the unit of analysis is such a “world-system” and not the “state” or the “nation” or the “people”, then much changes in the outcome of the analysis. (xi)

But what, more exactly, did he mean by a system?  Did he imagine something analogous to a mechanical system in which the relations among the parts were governed by a few simple laws?  He seems to suggest this possibility when he asks the question, “What do astronomers do?  As I understand it, the logic of their arguments involves two separate operations.  They use the laws derived from the study of smaller physical entities, the laws of physics, and argue that … these laws hold by analogy for the system as a whole.  Second, they argue a posteriori.  If the whole system is to have a given state at time y, it most porrobably had a certain state at time x” (7).  Here he seems to suggest that social systems are tied together by the working of governing laws — a particularly unconvincing starting point.

But Wallerstein’s practice as a sociologist is far more defensible than this language would suggest.  He was in fact sensitive to causal heterogeneity, contingency, and variation in the systemic relations he meant to capture — particularity as well as universality.  So he doesn’t actually treat the modern world system as if it were analogous to a set of gravitational objects governed by fixed laws of nature.

I think the clue to an answer to his working definition of a system is found in his definition of scope in terms of an “effective division of labor”: a set of regions constitute a system in his framework if there is significant exchange and dependence among various of the regions for products, people, knowledge, skills, and resources from other regions.  If Europe, Asia, or the Americas had been “autarkic” in 1700 — that is, if one or more of these continental regions had been a closed economy and society making no substantial use of products, knowledge, resources, or people from other regions — then there would not have been one “world system” but rather several independent macro-regional systems.  And Wallerstein explicitly affirms this point late in the book:

By saying that in the sixteenth century there was a European world-economy, we indicate that the boundaries are less than the earth as a whole.  But how much less?  We cannot simply include in it any part of the world with which “Europe” traded.  In 1600 Portugal traded with the central African kingdom of Monomotapa as well as with Japan.  Yet it would be prima facie hard to argue that either Monomotapa or Japan were part of the European world-economy at that time.  And yet we argue that Brazil (or at least areas of the coast of Brazil) and the Azores were part of the European world-economy. (199)

So in postulating the concept of world system as a framework for analysis of the modern period (let’s say 1700), Wallerstein is laying a few important cards on the table; he is indicating his judgment that there was significant and necessary exchange among virtually all accessible places on the planet.  There were economically meaningful movements of resources, people (emigrants and slaves), crops (cotton, sugar), finished products, and ideas throughout the system of places defining the system of transport and trade.  This in turn implies that we cannot properly understand the workings of the regional economy without taking into account its exchange relations with other regions — or in other words, we need to place the regional economy into the system of international division of labor in which it is located.  And in fact, historians like Ken Pomeranz make a substantial case for the empirical accuracy of that judgment (see for example The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy and The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, And the World Economy, 1400 to the Present).

If we begin with this assumption — the idea of the substantial interdependence of continental regions in the early modern period — then we are naturally drawn to the question, what were the terms of trade?  Was exchange among regions mutually beneficial, as trade theory would have it?  Or was it extractive and exploitative, as the theory of colonialism would have it?  This is where Wallerstein makes substantial use of the core-periphery framework in his analysis.

The periphery of a world-economy is that geographical sector of it wherein production is primarily of lower-ranking goods … but which is an integral part of the overall system of the division of labor, because the commodies involved are essential for daily use.  The external arena of a world-economy consists of those other world-systems with which a given world-economy has some kind of trade relationship … what was sometimes called the “rich trades.” (199-200) 

Wallerstein was particularly interested in interconnections between places that were the expression of power and commerce.  Core and periphery are linked by relations of subordination — military and economic domination, leading to the persistent disadvantage of the latter in favor of the former.  These features define the “general attributes of a colonial situation” (5).

This analysis lays a theoretical and historical foundation for a theory of globalization.  Wallerstein writes late in the book:

One of the persisting themes of the history of the modern world is the seesaw between “nationalism” and “internationalism.” I do not refer to the ideological seesaw … but to the organizational one.  At some points in time the major economic and political institutions are geared to operating in the international arena and feel that local interests are tied in some immediate way to developments elsewhere in the world.  At other points of time, the social actors tend to engage their efforts locally, tend to see the reinforcement of state boundaries as primary, and move toward a relative indifference about events beyond them. (147)

Where has the effort to theorize globalization gone in the thirty-five years since Wallerstein’s book appeared? A particularly important contemporary voice on this subject is that of Saskia Sassen.  Her recent A Sociology of Globalization (2007) represents a current cutting-edge effort to provide a vocabulary and set of theoretical premises in terms of which to understand the global interconnectedness that characterizes the contemporary world. And she wants to provide a sociology of these processes — that is, she wants to provide a theoretical vocabulary and a set of hypotheses about the causal mechanisms that are involved that are adequate to the problem of describing and explaining the workings of this system. One thing this means is providing a framework within which the empirical details and structures of global networks can be investigated.  Another key point in her approach is her attention to differentiation across institutions and mechanisms.

A deeply important part of her analysis is her effort to overturn the assumption of “linearity” and hierarchy among levels of analysis — the line of thought that assumes that neighborhoods are encompassed by cities, which fall within regions, which fall within states, which fall within international relations.  She argues repeatedly and effectively that this linear scheme doesn’t work for today’s global relationships.  The local neighborhood may be implicated in extra-national relations of immigration, crime, and trade that make it a global place.  More importantly, what she calls “global cities” have crucial relationships at many levels in these supposed hierarchies — local, national, and supra-national.  So the question of scale cannot be defined within a simple hierarchy of relationships of locality, nationality, and globality.  (Significantly, Wallerstein opens his treatment of the modern world system by wrestling with this issue — a discussion that he frames in terms of the idea of the appropriate unit of analysis in considering colonialism.)

Sassen is particularly interested in the networks of communication, finance, and service organizations that constitute the fabric joining what she calls “global cities” (link; see also an earlier posting on regional interdependence). But in this book Sassen broadens considerably the angle of view in order to consider social networks at many levels of scale, including sub-national as well as supra-national.

Sassen makes an important point about international economic power that has a Wallerstein-like feel to it but that would probably not have been true in 1700 or 1970.  This is her view that there has been an important process of “de-nationalization” that has removed traditional powers of the state and placed them in the scope of international economic and finance institutions that are significantly controlled by large economic actors and firms. We sometimes refer to this process as one of “liberalization”; Sassen makes the point that the construction of the new supra-national regulatory regimes is an extended historical process that can be studied in detail.  She refers to the result of this process as the global corporate economy.  One of Wallerstein’s key arguments is that nations in the periphery were dominated and controlled by an economic system run by European nations. Sassen argues for the reality of a world system of regulatory arrangements that subordinates the sovereignty of even previously hegemonic nations to a non-democratic set of institutions and rules that implicitly favor one set of economic actors over others.  But Sassen’s inference from this fact about international economic power is less about north-south exploitation and more about the rising likelihood of global exploitation of all ordinary citizens by powerful extra-national economic forces that are beyond the reach of democratic processes (what she refers to as the “democratic deficit”).

Sassen’s book warrants a close reading.  It proposes a significantly different way of conceptualizing the meaning of globalization, and one that will suggest many new research agendas.

(The Minard trade map above is borrowed from the fascinating blog Cartographia.  The blog has many great discussions of some very interesting maps.)

Sociologie de Paris?

What might be involved in creating a new sociology of Paris? Paris is a particularly good subject for a new urban sociology. It is a gritty, diverse, and dynamic city, and a city displaying unceasing chaotic surges and currents of social life. It is a global city, both in Saskia Sassen’s sense (strong networked interconnection with other global cities) and in the sense of being a magnet for immigrants from every part of the world. It is an intellectual city, a conflictual city, a city with continuous poverty and deprivation, as well as conspicuous wealth, and a city with high unemployment and aggressive policing. And it is a city with ubiquitous transit (dozens of lines serving hundreds of stations), implying thorough urban mobility; but also invisible boundaries marking the edges of the social circuits of various social and ethnic groups.

If we were beginning anew, we might start with the racial and ethnic diversity the city contains and the circuits of social life that these many groups traverse. Ride the RER from Chatelet to Charles de Gaulle and you may get an impression of a great salad spinner of humanity — everyone all mixed up on one long subway carriage. But this impression is probably mistaken — Didier Lapeyronnie’s analysis of the French ghetto puts stop to that thought (post) and highlights the very sharp separations that exist between immigrant neighborhoods and the rest of French cities. So a sociology of Paris needs to uncover the distinct social worlds it encompasses.

And we would want to map the terrain of poverty and deprivation in Paris. Who are the poor? How is poverty caused and reproduced in Paris? What groups are most likely to be homeless and hungry (SDF — sans domicile fixe)? And how large a factor does immigration play in this question? Recall the deadly fires several years ago in Paris — these were temporary housing facilities for homeless immigrants (story). A recent collaboration among sociologists and journalists picks up this thread in La France invisible. The creators of the project have undertaken to give voice to the many categories of poor and disempowered people in France: accidentés au travail, banlieusards, délocalisés, discriminés, disparus, dissimulés, drogués, … These short pieces provide thumbnail descriptions of the circumstances of life of the people involved in these categories, often incorporating an interview or two. The hope here is to give a visceral glimpse to the reader of the life difficulties involved in these (alphabetically organized) categories.

A related subject for a new descriptive sociology of Paris has to do with the patterns of public health that the city embodies. What sorts of health disparities exist across different social groups? How are these differentials patterned socially across the city itself? Here is a very brief discussion of the issue of health disparities in France, presented at the “Congrès national des Observatoires régionaux de la santé 2008 – Les inégalités de santé” in Marseille, 16-17 octobre 2008. But this report is very brief and is not city- or region-specific. By contrast, a central focus of public health research in the U.S. is on the patterns of health disparities that can be found in cities such as Detroit, Chicago, or New York, often accompanied by detailed social mapping of the results.

And what about employment and education? What are the mechanisms through which education, social position, age, race, and ethnicity play out across social groups to create the specific patterns of employment opportunity that Paris presents? Jobs and education are highly volatile issues everywhere in France today — witness the current waves of strikes and demonstrations about unemployment and education reform. What are the social mechanisms underlying these systems? (Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron addressed the social class aspects of the French educational system in Les héritiers (1964).) To what extent do the concrete institutions of training, education, and job recruitment work to reproduce significant inequalities across social groups?

Social mapping analysis would help in each of these areas. GIS maps of the city demonstrating the spatial distribution of poverty, crime, bad schools, police brutality, and 2-1-1 calls would tell us a lot about the social geography of the city. It would be enormously interesting to be able to have access to an interactive map of the city, combining many social variables of interest. In fact, that social map would help make sense of the long RER ride mentioned above. As you pass through neighborhoods ranging from affluent to graffiti-inscribed banlieue, you would be able to make the connection to some of the social realities that underlie these glimpses. Surprisingly, though, these sorts of spatial analyses and maps don’t seem to exist yet for Paris or other French cities — or at least, they are not easily located on the web. Is this a specific feature of the French sociological discourse — with French researchers perhaps more attuned to discursive theory and less to spatial analysis and empirical study?

One might paraphrase the point here as saying that Paris deserves what Chicago received in the 1920s through 1940s in the form of the “Chicago School of Sociology” — a focused, empirically rigorous, analytically astute series of efforts to come to grips with the complex social realities of the city, and to provide a better diagnosis of the social problems of the city in a way that supports more effective social policy. It’s possible that this type of approach already exists within some of the social science research institutes of French universities. If so, I hope that readers will point us in the right direction.

(Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot have a recent book on the sociology of Paris. Here is an interview with Michel Pinçon in LeJournalduNet on the subject of the wealthy class in France and an interview on the “bourgeoisification” of Paris. And Céline Béraud and Baptiste Coulmont offer a very good account of the recent development of French sociology in Les courants contemporains de la sociologie. Baptiste Coulmont maintains an interesting academic website and blog here.)

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