Saskia Sassen Named Co-chair of Committee on Global Thought

Special from The Record 

Sept. 28, 2010Bookmark and Share

Urban sociologist Saskia Sassen was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Argentina and Italy, studied in France and the United States, and speaks six languages.

With such a background, "global thought" would seem to come naturally to Sassen, who specializes in the social, economic and political dimensions of globalization and is known for creating the term "global city." The term refers to a city that plays a significant global economic role, illustrating in an extreme way some of the major features of globalization, from the organization of finance to new forms of socio-economic inequality, she says.

Professor Saskia Sassen (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Professor Saskia Sassen
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Now, Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger has named her co-director of the University's Committee on Global Thought, which he set up in 2005. "Given the significance of urbanization around the world," Bollinger explains, "I felt that Saskia's innovative efforts to understand cities in all their complexity offered a wonderful pathway into a better understanding of how global society is evolving." Bollinger points out that the committee is one of a number of initiatives to help the University understand the process of globalization, including Global Centers abroad, the World Leaders Forum on campus and the Earth Institute.

Sassen, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology, taught at Columbia in the 1990s and was lured back from the University of Chicago in 2007.

She will collaborate with fellow co-director, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, to push the boundaries in the emerging field of globalization studies. It's exactly the kind of thing Bollinger had in mind for the committee, whose purpose, he says, "is to support faculty who want to think in broad terms about globalization and also create a place for some unconventional appointments like [Nobel Prize-winning author] Orhan Pamuk."

"It's now widely recognized that globalization is dramatically changing our world," Stiglitz says. The committee "is trying to promote teaching and research on the many dimensions and questions that this raises." He too praises Sassen's work for being so multidisciplinary and crossing geographic borders. "Her focal point is cities, which are the setting in which local, national and global forces all come into play," he says.

Sassen says it was far easier to study globalization 20 years ago. "It has become more complex and contradictory," she says. "We need new categories of thinking, new categories for research and for interpreting data."

She gives an example: China spends billions of dollars to buy mines in Africa and land to grow palm trees for bio-fuels. The leading investors in many developing nations are not from the West, but sovereign wealth funds from countries such as China and the United Arab Emirates. They are making new global geographies that often bypass Europe and the United States entirely, she notes, highlighting the need for new ways of understanding the growing economic and cultural interdependence of the world's nations.

The committee's first five years, Sassen says, really "put this organization on a global map." Last year alone, the committee brought in 70 speakers from around the world. The next step, she says, is to move forward with projects that promote cross-disciplinary collaboration and take a new look at issues ranging from food policy and ecology to trade and war.

To that end, Sassen has organized her second Columbia conference about global cities on Oct. 1, "Cities and Eco-Crises."

"My hope with these annual conferences is to make the subject of cities and their economic, social, technological and ecological challenges one of the core subjects of the CGT, along with governance and religion," she says.

On Oct. 4 and 5, the committee will sponsor a forum titled "Sovereign Wealth Funds and Other Long-Term Investors: A New Form of Capitalism?" Panelists will include speakers from the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, as well as former Vice President Al Gore and George Soros.

"We do these conferences that either are mapping out a new global event or global actor," Sassen says. "The sovereign wealth funds have existed for quite a while. But the global finance crisis has significantly increased their role in the world economy and we need to understand a great deal more about what that means."

—by Adam Piore