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sassen and the city

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Chicago-based sociologist Saskia Sassen, one of the speakers at the Royal Festival Hall's 50th anniversary talks, believes that internet-use has led to greater sense of community against a background of civic disenfranchisement by austin williams

Researchers examining the latest US census statistics have concluded that while America is a more multiracial society than at any time in modern history, American cities are becoming more racially divided than ever before. John Logan, professor of sociology at New York State University and author of Never a Melting Pot - an exploration of the incorporation of immigrant and minority groups in New York's labour and housing market - says: 'For minority children, they're growing up in neighbourhoods where they are the majority, but that's not the world they will live in.'

This growing sense of social harmony and concomitant fracture within the US infuses the work of Saskia Sassen, Ralph Lewis professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. Looking at the shifting patterns of - and the relationship between - localism and globalism, she has developed her critique in books such as Globalization and its Discontents.

Sassen comes from the New Urban Sociology tradition of sociologists-cumactivists, which includes the likes of Mike Davis, Dolores Hayden and Manuel Castells. She combines her American professorial duties with a position as Centennial Visiting professor at the London School of Economics. She has just completed her latest book, Guests and Aliens, on immigration and refugees in western Europe, and is also the chair of the Information, Technology, International Cooperation and Global Security Committee of the Social Science Research Council of the US, which, contrary to what the name suggests, is a non-governmental, non-profit organization, aiming to 'advance social science throughout the world'.

Her main focus is on the impact of telematics - combined with the rise of globalization - on the development of cities. In academic-speak, she writes: 'The question is, what are the conditions for the continuity of centrality in advanced economic systems in the face of major new organizational forms and technologies that maximize the possibility for geographic dispersal at the regional, national and, indeed, global scale with simultaneous system integration'. Put simply, she is fascinated by the rise of a 'special civic space' created by new digital technologies, 'which are separate to the built environment'.

She explores in detail her proposition that 'the geography of globalization' tends to have both a centripetal and centrifugal effect on social interaction; 'a dynamic of dispersal and of centralization'. However, these observations, to a greater or lesser extent, have been recognized by Mumford and Unwin. So does the historical reality of, say, the rise of both the suburb and the central district give lie to the idea that globalization is having a 'new impact' on urban patterns? Has not dispersal and centralization equally been caused by the railways as the internet?

The idea, as Castells insists, that we are going through a technological revolution of an equivalent implication to the Industrial era does not seem to ring true.As we become more comfortable with the technology, it becomes clear that the computer has not changed the basic productive relationships prevalent in society, as Stephen Graham has shown in his book, Telematics and the City.

The realization that telematics will affect the way we organize socially is different to accepting that it will instigate a social transformation.

Sassen prefers, therefore, to argue that the geographical sites of production are changing, with consequent implications for the way people interrelate. The radicalizing effect of globalization for Sassen is that the 'ownership' of the city is being called into question, by intervention and by default - and it is these factors that are peculiarly dependent on contemporary events.

Sassen draws on her political critique to analyse the 'dynamics of the disenfranchised'. As she sees it, the new virtual space of digital technologies has led to a separation between civic space and the built environment. New networks and interrelationships have been forged outside any reliance on the physical environment.

She sees this as a positive destabilization;

reflected in recent mass mobilizations, from the World Trade Association protests to the May Day rallies.

Sassen celebrates the validity, 'and transformative potential' of these forms of action. 'As I travel the world', she says, 'I discover play-making and micro-storytelling, which are wonderfully free of partypoliticking. In this new arena, we must readjust our lenses and valorise what is going on at the level of individual action.'

The fact that 'civic space is being made into political space' is a beginning, she argues, of a societal change which has been, in part, legitimized by the People's Power movements from Romania to the Philippines'.What isn't so clear is what these new protest movements are protesting about. By definition, particularist protest lacks a cohesive vision; and mass action and individualist action are mutually contradictory. Sassen is happy to wait and see.

However, she is concerned that 'any conviction can turn into fundamentalism - it is a fragile balance', implying that challenging the status quo can sometimes go too far. 'My prediction for the future is fairly grim', she says. 'The only light at the end of the tunnel is my hope that the current level of protest will show individual capitalists that it is in their self-interest to modify their excesses and to redress environmental damage. It is self-interest that will drive the powers that be to become more enlightened.' In her old socialist days, she might have criticized this attitude as the 'bourgeois utilization of the stage army of the proletariat'.

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