Saskia Sassen

The City: Its Return as a Lens into Larger Economic and Technological Histories

Wed. 14.09., 13:30 - 14:30
Hörsaal 1a/b

The city has long been a strategic site for the exploration of many major subjects confronting society. But it is not always a heuristic space -- a space capable of producing knowledge about more than itself, including knowledge about some of the major transformations of an epoch. In the first half of the 20th century, the city was such a place – a heuristic space. This is evident in the work of classic urbanists, including Simmel, Weber, Benjamin, Lefebvre, and most prominently the Chicago School, especially Park and Wirth, both deeply influenced by German social thought. It was a time when cities were the site for massive new processes - industrialization, urbanization, alienation, but also a new cultural formation we have come to call “urbanity.” Studying the city was not simply studying the urban.  It was about studying the major social processes of an era. 

Since then the study of the city, gradually lost this privileged role as a lens into an emergent new reality. There are many reasons for this, but most critical was the fact that the city ceased being the fulcrum for epochal transformations and hence a strategic site for understanding not only urban but also non-urban processes.  The focus shifted: those studying cities became increasingly concerned with what they called “social problems.” 

Today, as we enter a new global modernity, the city is once again emerging as a strategic site for understanding some of the major new trends reconfiguring the social order. The city and the metropolitan region emerge as one of the strategic sites where major macro-level social, political and technical trends materialize. Among these trends are globalization, the rise of the new information technologies, the intensifying of transnational and translocal dynamics, growing inequality, and the strengthening presence and voice of specific types of socio-cultural diversity. Each one of these trends has its own specific sources, contents and consequences. The city is one stop in often complex trajectories that have many non-urban stops, and can in fact be global trajectories. But that urban moment is one where each of these trends (whether economic, technological, social or cultural) interacts with the others in distinct, often complex manners, in a way they do not in just about any other place. In that sense the city makes legible some of the most complex issues we confront. We can learn by just standing at a bus stop.

Prof Saskia Sassen

Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University (

Her recent books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages ( Princeton University Press 2008) and A Sociology of Globalization (W.W.Norton 2007). She is currently working on When Territory Exits Existing Frameworks (Under contract with Harvard University Press).

Forthcoming is the 4th fully updated edition of Cities in a World Economy (Sage 2011). Recent edited books are Deciphering the Global: Its Spaces, Scales and Subjects (Routledge 2007), and Digital Formations: New Architectures for Global Order (Princeton University Press 2005). The Global City came out in a new fully updated edition in 2001.For UNESCO she organized a five-year project on sustainable human settlement with a network of researchers and activists in over 30 countries; it is published as one of the volumes of the Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (Oxford, UK: EOLSS Publishers) [ ]. Her books are translated into twenty-one languages.

She has received several honors and awards, most recently a doctor honoris causa from each Delft University (Netherlands), DePaul University (USA), and Universite de Poitiers (France). She serves on several editorial boards and is an advisor to several international bodies. She is a Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Cities, and chaired the Information Technology and International Cooperation Committee of the Social Science Research Council (USA). She has written for The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Newsweek International, among others, and contributes regularly to and

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