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A Sociology of Globalization

Saskia Sassen

W. W. Norton & Co. (11 Sep 2007), 250 pages. Paperback (£12.99), ISBN-10: 0-393-92726-1, ISBN-13: 978-0-393-92726-9.

Reviewed by R. Comunian, School of Geography, University of Southampton.

As Sassen states in the preface, “this small book seeks to map a very large subject” but it does so, bringing together a number of significant issues and analysing their interconnections. Each of the chapter included started as a public lecture given by Sassen.  This benefits the style of the book: chapters read easily and are structured in a lecture-style, taking the reader through concepts and arguments and neatly providing conclusions at the end of each chapter. A reflection of Sassen’s standing, this style means that the book will easily find a larger readership than the academy.  Having said the style lends itself to being used in specific courses within the university curriculum where students are asked to engage with globalisation from a critical perspective. Available in paperback at only £12.99, the low cost ensures that the book can easily appeal to students and to a wider audience.  

The introductory chapter sets the main aim and perspective of the book - notably that globalisation is made up by two of processes: the first - more commonly identified with globalisation are processes linked to the presence of global institutions and global interconnections; the second set of processes – more difficult and challenging to explore – take place at the national and local level, such as state monetary policy, networks of activists and local or national politics and are not always taken into consideration when analysing globalisation. The book successfully builds the argument that considering globalisation as embedded in the national (and even sub-national) scale opens up a different research landscape and a new agenda for all researchers that use globalisation as an explanatory framework for their work. Sassen argues in favour of a new complex understanding of globalisation, complex as behaving like a complex system in which small interactions at the base of the system can still cause effect and emerging new phenomenon at the larger scale.  In fact, she argues for a deeper understanding and study of national and sub-national processes and their being, at the same time, global phenomena.

Organised in eight chapters, the book does not aim to cover all issues around globalisation but to provide exemplary contexts in which this new complex understanding of globalisation can take place. Chapter Two develops the building-blocks of this complex understanding of globalisation based mainly around the idea of scale and place. The relationship between place and scale is explained in terms of old hierarchies and new hierarchies emerging but also through the powerful notion of networks. The centrality of the concept of sub-nation is then put forward as the new site for globalisation taking over the explanatory power of national boundaries.

Chapter Three insists on the critical concept of state and how it can be investigated within a complexity framework. In particular Sassen argues for the need to understand how state change shapes global process, but also how it is changed and shaped by the same processes. Furthermore, she argues that the state remains a “site for foundational transformations in the relationships between the private and the public domains” (p.46) which reinforce the need to more globalisation research to look closer at the national level.

Chapter Four focuses on global cities as the sub-national context in which a multiplicity of globalisation processes and contradictions take place and their potential as site for a new sociology of globalisation:  “the denationalizing of urban space and the formation of new claims centered in transitional actors and involving contestation constitute the global city as a frontier zone for a new type of engagement” (p.128). Linked to the analysis of global cities, international migration is the core topic of chapter five.  Here Sassen focuses on the social conditions that facilitate immigration but underlines the importance of acknowledging that political-economic dynamics cannot fully explain this phenomenon and sociological variables need to be part of a complex understanding of immigration. The emergent social impact of new global classes is addressed in chapter six. Here Sassen highlights the interconnection between these new classes and different national settings but also the issues around traditional class structures in different national context and new emerging classes. Again globalisation is looked at and understood only as a dialectic concept in which the national paradigm is always present.

Chapter Seven looks at emerging new actors, specifically in the context of local activism.
New technical and political resources facilitate the development of these new types of interactions and new multiscalar forms of politics.

The conclusion and main arguments of the book are included in Chapter Eight which looks at emergent global formations and research agendas.  In particular Sassen addresses the central role played by the concept of ‘borders’ as specific environments for the global to take place and also the role of electronic interactive domains.

The book follows much of the development of the research literature in economic geography assessing the role of scale, multiscalar interactions and networks in understanding global process. The role of the national and sub-national is re-stated but has never really been ignored by geographers looking at globalisation. The originality of the book lies in the push towards an understanding of globalisation as an evolving  complex system - emphasizing the interplay between global and local phenomena - in which new emerging phenomena can only be understood looking at complex interactions at multiple levels.  This approach to globalization offers new interpretive and analytic tools to understand the interdependence of different aspects of globalisation.

(Added 15 September 2008)