The rich, the poor, the thick and thin

August 22, 2003

Globetrotting Saskia Sassen tells Huw Richards of globalisation's nuances, while Henry Etzkowitz sketches the entrepreneurial university for Walter Ellis.

If a computer program were asked to isolate the ideal background and intellectual temperament for an academic specialising in globalisation, the result might look very like Saskia Sassen. She will be on her native ground when she speaks to next week's World Conference on Cooperative Education in Rotterdam, but she has long moved beyond merely Dutch roots.

When she was 13, her parents suggested that she should learn a foreign language. Not an unusual suggestion for a child of that age, but she was nonplussed - and with reason. She already spoke Dutch, English, Spanish, French and German. "They were serious about it," she says. They had raised her in those five languages, but now wanted also to take advantage of what more formal instruction had to offer.

A few years later, as a student at Notre Dame University, Indiana, she was underwhelmed by the options offered by the sociology department. "I wanted to do economics courses as well," she says. "I devised a programme for myself, attempted to recruit other students and set out to convince the departments that there was a demand for such a course. They accepted it, but I was the only student on the programme."

The fiftysomething academic retains many of the characteristics evident in the teenager and student. Sassen takes cosmopolitanism to mildly improbable lengths. Born Dutch, she spent part of her childhood in Argentina when her father - who matched her multiple identity with a diversity of trades as oilman, journalist and artist - moved the family there. She later lived in Italy and gained a masters degree from a French university. She has lived and worked for many years in the US, at Columbia University and the University of Chicago (she is also married to the US academic Richard Sennett). She now lives in London, where she has a visiting chair at the London School of Economics.

She crosses disciplinary boundaries as easily as she does national ones.

Her chair at the University of Chicago is in sociology, but she might equally be found in a department of economics ("not at Chicago, though!"

she says) or geography. But she does not reject academic canons. "There are many excellent academics working within the confines of established canons," she says, pointing to the intellectual vitality generated in sociology and geography by the move away from them. She cites geographers Doreen Massey and Robert Harvey as being two of the most exciting practitioners in any field.

Someone who crosses boundaries so readily might be seen as an iconoclast, but this would be misleading. The iconoclast sets out to attack the established and the conventionally valued. Sassen terms herself an "eccentric" who, following the logic of her own analysis, has on occasion found the icons blocking her path. She is as wont to question the modish as the long established. When her singular Notre Dame trajectory came to an unhappy end with the rejection of her doctoral thesis by a panel divided between the two departments - an injustice subsequently righted by the university - her response to a setback that would devastate most young academics was to set off for France to study for a masters in philosophy under Jacques D'Hondt. "He was the last of the great Hegelian interpreters of Marx. This interpretation was totally unfashionable, and French students made a point of talking in his lectures as a signal of disrespect. I had to sit right at the front to hear him. But it was the last chance to hear this sort of thing, and I did not want to miss it."

Sassen has credibility on both sides of the debate about globalisation, having participated in both World Economic and World Social forums. She gave up the economic forums, however, after having to be smuggled out of the Melbourne summit by a police escort. This was not out of physical apprehension - she once found herself on the fringe of a riot in Colombia where there were a number of deaths, an experience that taught her the difference between fear and terror, she says - but rather out of a feeling that "my real friends were on the other side of the fence".

She is not short on moral courage, either. She was one of the first writers to note that however deplorable the 9/11 attacks were, they could not be detached from the world's grotesque inequalities. In an article published on September 12 2001, she argued that rich nations "cannot hide behind our prosperity" and that even if they could not bring themselves to help the poor on humanitarian grounds, they should do so out of self-interest. She says: "It was an interesting experience. Along with other people who had formed this view, I was threatened, and we were lectured by The Sunday Times for being insufficiently patriotic. But I'm glad I did it."

Her response - and subsequent signing of the "Not in Our Name" manifesto - was consistent with her academic work. As her reaction to the events in Melbourne shows, she would fall on the sceptical side of a pro/anti-globalisation spectrum, but her work is analytical rather than polemical. She argues that globalisation is more nuanced, complex and diverse in its effects than is generally understood. As fluent in social science terminology as in any of her other languages, she says: "It is a multivalent phenomenon. It creates destabilising effects that are both good and bad."

Sassen's first book, Mobility of Labour and Capital, was published in 1988.

It was followed by The Global City in 1991 and essays collected in Globalization and its Discontents in 1998 and Guests and Aliens in 1999.

There have been numerous contributions to multi-authored books and academic journals. Her next book, Denationalization: Economics and Polity in a Global World, is due early next year, although the title of the UK edition may be changed to avoid giving the impression that she has taken up writing about privatisation.

The consistent theme has been the need to look beyond obvious global actors such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and multinational business, and at the same time to break away from social science's preoccupation with the national. She makes much of the distinction between "thin" and "thick" environments - defining the latter as "complex, diverse and not fully controllable".

She argues that you need to study thick environments to get a full sense of the impact of globalisation. The classic "thick" environments are the great cities she examined in The Global City, which, while focusing on New York, London and Tokyo, made the point that globalisation is most fully expressed by the interconnections between 30 major cities, incorporating centres such as Johannesburg, Sio Paolo and Mexico City alongside the usual first-world suspects, which now live more off their connections with each other than on those with their more traditional hinterlands.

One challenge of thick environments is separating the global from the local or national. Sassen argues that apparently local groups may now have a global dimension - citing the Society for the Promotion of Area Resources in Mumbai, whose work organising slum dwellers to get housing has led to networking with parallel groups elsewhere in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Sassen has written: "Organisations... do not necessarily gain power or material resources... but they gain strength for themselves and vis-à-vis the agencies to which they make their demands."

Another consistent theme, most fully explored in Guests and Aliens, has been the impact on immigration. Starting from a historical analysis, she argues that most flows of migration have been predictable in terms of previous historic and economic links between sending and receiving regions, based on the social, political and economic circumstances in both. She says that the striking thing, contrary to most assumptions, is how few people have migrated, rather than how many. She suggests that modern conditions are different and that the chronic indebtedness of many third-world nations, the despair created by International Monetary Fund restructuring programmes and the growth in international people trafficking are linked phenomena, and that trafficking has created less predictable flows.

All this, she says, creates pressures on states. Their major failing in the face of recent flows has been to invoke asylum rather than refugee conventions. "The dirty secret about this is that asylum rules are unilateral, while those for refugees are international." Multilateral responses would have been more enlightened and more effective, she argues.

Whether governments are listening, in a world recently traumatised by unilateral actions, is another matter.

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