This is a Time when stabilized meanings have become unstable. No meaning is permanently stable. But there are periods when they can acquire a certain stability. The current global age that took off in the 1980s has unsettled many of the major social, economic, and political meanings of the preceding Keynesian era in the West. My concern is particularly with some of the major categories we use in the social sciences—economy, polity, society, justice, inequality, state, globalization, and immigration. These are all powerful categories that explain much about the realities they represent. Yet those realities are mutants—today’s concept of the economy dominated by finance and high tech is quite different from that of the Keynesian period dominated by mass manufacturing, mass consumption, and mass suburbanization.
A first move in my research is to posit that we need to discover what these major categories veil or obscure about our epoch precisely because they are powerful. An explanation is not a description—it selects particular features and configurations and must eliminate many others or it becomes merely a description. For instance, in my own work I have sought to show that the national and the global are powerful categories that hide as much as they reveal about our current epoch, and so does their putative mutual exclusivity (Sassen, TAR1).
Such an experimental rumination, I find, requires the freedom to suspend, even if temporarily, method and its disciplining of the what, the how, and the why of an inquiry. I need to engage in what I think of as analytic tactics—the freedom to position myself in whatever ways I want/need vis-à-vis the object of study. I think of this as the space “before method.”
One of these tactics is to locate my site for research and theorization in the shadows generated by the powerful light of major categories. How these explain what they aim to explain, and what they actually do explain, are all [End Page 79] to be taken seriously. We cannot simply throw these categories out of the window. But they are conceptually dangerous. I must ask: What does such an explanation obscure precisely because it sheds much light on an issue or a condition? Thus a category such as globalization has explanatory power. But what do I not see when I invoke it? For instance, I may not see the extent to which national governments are active makers of key features of globalization, thereby overriding the standard global versus national counterpoint. Or, let’s take urbanization, a category full of content and much deployed nowadays. Yet invoking the urban condition on its own terms excludes a range of non-urban processes—from land grabs to destroyed environments due to mining—that are part of urbanization in that they force rural peoples to seek a livelihood in cities (Sassen, “Land Grabs”). Professor Mendieta, in his comments, writes that this “before method” space in my work is actually the space of “epistemological outrage.”2 I return to this illuminating interpretation later.
The work then, is to re-constitute these categories so as to bring into the explanation also that which is in conceptual tension with the established categories. Or to bring in that which produces a “vague” edge that unsettles the aspirational clarity of categories. For instance, when I chose the concept “global city,” I was introducing one such tension, a built-in vagueness (Sassen, Global City). Indeed many responded by saying the concept was a contradiction in terms since cities are in a national hierarchy subordinate to the national state. And this is indeed part of the condition. But I found there was more that needed to be named even if it produced a confusing category.
A second analytic tactic, partly arising from the first, is the need to actively destabilize stabilized meanings. To repeat, no meaning is permanently stable. But meanings can acquire a kind of stability predicated on the features of an epoch. In my discipline, and given my questions, I find the need to destabilize all major categories—immigration, globalization, economy, citizenship, and so...