Interview with Saskia Sassen

© Andrew Iliadis and Figure/Ground
Saskia Sassen was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. March 9th, 2015

Saskia Sassen is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. Dr. Sassen’s research and writing focuses on globalization (including social, economic and political dimensions), immigration, global cities (including cities and terrorism), the new technologies, and changes within the liberal state that result from current transnational conditions. Her numerous books include Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (2014), Cities in a World Economy (1994), Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (2006), and A Sociology of Globalization (2006).

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it conscious choice?

Yes and no. It was initially an instrumental choice. I wanted to make a better world, and sociology seemed an instrument. I was 12 or 13 at that time. From then on I aimed at it, but the reason for getting a PhD evolved.

Who were your mentors in university and what are some important lessons you learned from them?

I did not quite have mentors in the full sense of the word. But there were people from whom I learned key aspects, professors who made all the difference. At the University of Notre Dame these were Andrew Weigert and Fabio DaSilva in Sociology, and Andrew Rubel in Anthropology. Enormous support came from Bill D’Antonio and Julian Samora, they made all the difference in giving me the opportunity to get a doctorate at the University, especially since I did not have a college degree. I went from high school – albeit the French style baccalaureate, a very serious type of high school – to doctoral studies.

In your experience, how has the role of university professor evolved?

Not much really. If we made intensive use of the technological innovations in universities such as mine, I think there would be significant differences. But the new technology remains a sort of appendage and utility.

What effect has the “information age” had on the university and on pedagogy?

I think the main difference has not been so much on pedagogy (teaching) as on learning and research and writing – all familiar facts. Regarding pedagogy, I think we are at the merest beginning. There is enormous resistance from professors and universities to this mode. From universities because they fear they will lose a key reason for charging outrageous amounts of money for students to attend. For professors because it is too different, too fixed – once that lecture is recorded it is there, it will not go away. One loses control. I personally do not mind, and have all kinds of YouTube and Vimeo clips taken by, I do not know whom, mostly…fine with me. I think it is great. I wish my university allowed those of us who want to record my large undergraduate lecture class to do so.

What is the status of disciplines today? What are the strengths and/or weaknesses of interdisciplinary studies?

For decades there have been projects to develop more inter-disciplinary modes of doing scholarship and organizing knowledge. But mostly these inhabit institutes and centers. The core curriculum has changed only if there were individuals who pushed for it.

From where I sit and look at the world, there is a very specific kind of interdisciplinarity I need and have promoted in my work. I describe this in my little A Sociology of Globalization book (Norton 2007). We need to develop new conceptual architectures that allow us to use bits of knowledge from diverse disciplines but on the condition of repositioning these into a somewhat developed and articulated conceptual architecture. To make sure they are working (whether empirically or conceptually).

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Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2015). “Interview with Saskia Sassen,” Figure/Ground. March 9th. >

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