As a graduate student who admires her work, for me it’s a great honor to introduce Professor Saskia Sassen, the Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, and Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. Professor Sassen is, and there is no exaggeration in it, one of the greatest sociologists of our time. She has addressed the key issues that are influencing our lives today, and she has done it with impressive mastery, fertilizing several disciplines across the social sciences.
Saskia Sassen is our keynote speaker today in a congress of Internet Researchers. And she is here in part because she is tracing the route that Sociology may follow in the study of information technologies as developments embedded in the culture and material space in which they operate.
But Professor Sassen could be the keynote speaker in a conference about urban sociology. Her famous book The Global City revealed us that the global economy is not such an immaterial reality, but a system rooted in a network of 40 cities that coordinate the flows of capital.
She could also be the principal lecturer in a congress of political science, international relations or economics. In her books Losing control: Sovereingty in an Age of Globalization and Globalization and their discontents, Saskia Sassen explained us how some components of the state sovereignty have been shifted to institutions and markets that go beyond the national.
Professor Sassen could be, as well, a keynote speaker in a congress about human rights and transnational migrations. In her book Guests and aliens she accomplished an ambitious history of migration in Europe over the last two hundred years. And, in doing so, she helped us understand the problem of present immigration. What we usually see as uncontrolled invasions of immigrants driven by poverty are nonetheless part of a highly structured flow that is better explained by the interactions between the rich and poor countries than by the internal conditions of the sending country.
Globalization, new technologies, the crisis of the nation-state, the problem of immigration… These are topics that affect our daily lives. One prove of the relevance of the work performed by Saskia Sassen is that everyday we can find news stories that relate to her books, and the good thing is that her books provide us with many answers to what we read on those stories. A few weeks ago, the Chicago Sun-Times run a series of stories about the extreme makeover of the Chicago downtown. This revitalization of the center of the city is in part due to the new demands of the class of global and high skilled professionals who, no matter how immaterial the information they manage is, they want to work and live in an environment designed by the trendiest architects. And we find this explanation in her book, the global city. Let’s put another example. In the past two weeks, two thousand African immigrants have stormed the borders between Morocco and Spain. The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, two small cities in the North of Africa, are seen as stepping stones to Europe by African migrants. The Spanish Government has asked for help to the European Union. In the meantime, it has deployed hundreds of police and soldiers, and has decided to build a third wall to try to keep immigrants out. This militarization of the national borders, and this national (and not transnational) way of dealing with immigration is addressed by Sassen in her book Guests and aliens. She suggests that we need a post-national policy to regulate immigration. And again, turning back to news, we knew that two days ago the Global Commission on International Migration has proposed something similar to a World Migration Organization that would have the mission of dealing with the international flows of humanity.
This imbrication between her research and the key issues of our time is not a mere coincidence. Sassen has written that, throughout her life as a researcher, she has thought of herself as a digger in the penumbra of master categories. The master categories are those big words, such as “global economy”, that are in the mind of everybody, but that precisely because of their pervasive presence, they tend to go unexplained. Sassen has written that, when she did her work on the global city, her aim was to dig in the penumbra that surrounded the master category of that thing called “the global economy”. And she found that the common representation of the global economy as a placeless space was not accurate. Our new economy is of course characterized by the extraordinary mobility of the capital, but it is precisely because of this elusiveness that the system needs specialized coordination centers in order to operate correctly. And these centers are the global cities. They are the roots of the global economy.
This ironic relation between the material and the immaterial is one of the recurring issues in her work. And it’s a relevant issue for us as Internet Researchers, because we often tend to fall in a fetishism of technology, as if new technologies were the single factors that explain the changes in our contemporary lives.
In her lecture today, Professor Sassen will be addressing some of the conclusions of a project aimed to develop a social science of information technology. As she writes on her recent book Digital Formations, sociology needs to think about technologies as embedded developments in the cultural and societal context within they exist and operate. The main objects of study of this sociology of the Information technology are the digital formations, defined as the information and communication structures that arise out of the intersection of technology and society. Examples of these formations are, as she writes on this recent book, the global capital market and the electronic activist networks. The interesting point here is that, depending on the institutional environment in which they grow, the technologies that sustain these digital formations can produce different outcomes: centralization in the case of the global market, and decentralization in the case of the activist networks.
The double face of technologies, their globality and their locality, the contradiction between their decentrazing potential and their (sometimes) centralized outcomes, is another reflection that permeates the academic work of Saskia Sassen.
But professor Sassen is not only interesting as a scholar, but also as a person. Her personality is relevant to explain her research, I think, at least for two reasons. The first is related to those master categories she wants to explain. She has defined herself as a researcher and a political activist, and it seems that some of her research endeavors are driven by the issues that matter to her as a citizen. In her forthcoming book Territory, Authority and Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Sassen addresses the power shifts within the liberal state, in particular those that happened here in the US since the 1970s. The Executive branch has gained increasing power and now dominates the legislative and the judiciary divisions. The Government increases the secrecy of its actions, just in a moment in which citizens are losing their privacy. These concerns as a citizen have guided in part the writing of her new book.
The second reason why her personality is important to explain her research may be found in her biography. If you look at some of her biographical details, you end up with the feeling that she was predestined to be one of the most authorized voices in globalization. Because Saskia Sassen has been, and she is, a global citizen. She was born in The Hague, in The Netherlands, but soon she went with her parents to Buenos Aires, in Argentina, where she was raised in five languages. She spent part of her youth in Italy and France. Even when she came to the US to continue her fruitful career as a scholar, she has been in constant movement. From the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, where she obtained her Ph.D., to Harvard University, where she was a post-doctoral fellow; from Columbia University, where she was a professor of Urban Planning, to the University of Chicago, where she teaches and does research now. She herself is the best example of that mobility of human capital that she has studied so much and well.
If you don’t mind, I would like to end this presentation with a personal anecdote. In May this year I was sitting on the train reading the newspaper. A story about the coming elections in the UK reported on a survey that asked Britons a question that called my attention. The question was something like: “If you had to sit on a train for an hour long trip, which of the candidates would you like to find on your side?”. I found the question very original, and I formulated it to myself, but with professors instead of politicians: “If I had to sit on a train for a long trip, which professor would I like to find on my side?”. Of course, I confess that I came up with some professors I wouldn’t like to find there. But, of course, I also came up with a wish list, and professor Saskia Sassen was part of my dream team of contemporary sociologists. So I guess that dreams come true in a very strange way. I’m going to listen to Saskia Sassen, but in train full with three hundred passengers! Well, this might be even better than in my dream because, as they say in my village:
“Shared pleasure, double pleasure”.
So please, join me in welcoming professor Saskia Sassen to our conference.