Saskia Sassen’s Compulsion: Territory, Authority, and Rights

 

Saskia Sassen (right), professor of sociology and co-chair of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University in conversation with Hilary Kahn, Director of the IU Center for the Study of Global Change, and David Zaret, vice president for international affairs.

By 2010, rich governments, firms, and individuals bought or rented 70 million hectares of land in mostly poor countries.  That is 1.7 billion acres or more than a billion and a half football fields.  When Saskia Sassen ponders that figure, and many other current trends, she thinks of territory.  She claims to be a geek about that word; it, along with authority and rights, has become her obsession.  When faced with trends of this scale, we need to rethink what that word means and what territory is becoming. Territory has for centuries been closely aligned with the idea of sovereign states.  Indeed, land ownership is one thing we have come to expect to be documented rigorously and protected to the full extent of the law.  When a company buys a million acres in a poor country, there is no immediate thought that the land is no longer part of the national sovereignty—the nation’s laws still apply to it, don’t they?  Yet, with such a powerful economic presence, the company can win exceptions to regulations and laws.  Localities will bend their rights and authority to keep the economic well-being that seems  promised by such a massive presence. 

Sassen’s goal is not to deny the truths of world economics and politics as we have come to understand them, but to assert that those truths are not sufficient; she wants to provoke us to be less comfortable with our large well-established definitions as globalization expands our ways of working in the world.  Sassen is known world-wide for her work on defining the impact of globalization.  IU Vice President for International Affairs David Zaret explained in his introduction, “She persuasively argues against convention and overly simple accounts that juxtapose global and national as mutually exclusive categories for social forces that are thought to be engaged in a zero-sum game. Instead, she shows that many important global changes operate within the institutional structure of nation-states, but also restructure those states.”  Judging by the many pockets of animated conversation after her presentation, Sassen has succeeded in her provocation.

Sassen is the first in a series of visiting scholars who are part of the IU Framing the Global Initiative, a five-year project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The Center for the Study of Global Change and the IU Press are working jointly to bring top scholars together, virtually and actually, to begin to define new global concepts and analytical frameworks. Their work will take formal shape in a series of books by participating scholars to be published by the IU Press. 

Saskia Sassen grapling with concepts of territory, authority, and rights.