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Saskia Sassen on Method and Interpretation: Comments on the 2013 Coss Dialogue Lecture
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Sassen is Interested in what she terms “conceptually subterranean trends” that are for the most part invisible to current analytical methods but visible, or in her words, “legible,” to other, newer sorts of analytical tools that she herself is developing. She thus emphasizes suspension of accepted methods and development of certain “analytic tactics” that function, as she puts it, “before method.” What this means more specifically is that she is not so much analyzing the structures of existing institutions but instead pursuing a more functional approach, that is, seeking to determine how they are assembled, dis-assembled, and re-assembled. Her focus is thus on the making of non-material conditions, that is, their production. In this regard—her emphasis on novel tools for functional analysis—one is perhaps justified in thinking that what she is seeking to provide is a novel “technology” for the field of sociology.

Put somewhat differently, Sassen appears to be interested in the destabilization of putatively stable meanings—phenomena that exist in the shadows of powerful, well-entrenched explanations and that are peripheral to current modes of analytical focus. In her view, for example, determined emphasis on state borders, commonly understood as geopolitical borders, misses the larger point that there are other transition points, and that in fact there are systemic edges within national borders. This change of focus (she says that what she wants to provide are not so much new models as new lenses—thus providing yet more evidence of her shift from structure to function) has considerable potential when it comes to complex matters such as immigration, remittance of funds across geopolitical borders, and even the meanings of the citizen subject.

Readers of William James and John Dewey may recognize a similar strategy in terms of a move from structure to function; de-reification of objects, events, and institutions; and in the case of James, attention to the fringes of consciousness and appreciation of the role of the “vague” in experience.

Destabilizing the immigrant subject, for example, means going beyond standard structural accounts and attending to such matters as the functional aspects of transnational professionals, seasonal contract laborers, business-visa immigrants, family dependents, green-card immigrants, and high-tech visa workers. (I was struck by this first list, however, not so much in terms of its novelty as its accessibility—its recapitulation of topics already under considerable discussion in serious newspapers and journals of opinion.) There is more. Her attention to destabilization of the immigrant subject also turns to low-wage workers, foreign professionals, International Monetary Fund citizens, “sans-papiers,” documented but unauthorized individuals, and types of documentary citizenship. It is here, I think that her strategy is productive, especially with respect to the light it begins to shed, for example, on currently proposed legislation, in some states, that would make driving licenses available to undocumented aliens. This and the issue of the “sans-papiers” are, I think, important examples of how fruitful her strategy of dis-assembling and re-assembling received concepts and institutions might be.

The term “destabilization” thus seems to take on two senses in Sassen’s work. First, there are forces and events that tend to destabilize existing arrangements (assemblages). But there is also the destabilization that is the effect of her own work, that is, of her attempt to de-assemble and re-assemble existing modes of understanding and explanation.

Since some readers of these comments may be coming to her work for the first time, this is probably a good point at which to mention one of the main theses of her book Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (2006). In that work she argues that the received narrative that places nation-states (usually thought to be in some state of dissolution) over against burgeoning globalized institutions in fact reverses the actual situation. It is rather that there are elements within nation-states that are promoting trends in globalizing institutions. This interesting turn introduces into the mix a claim that even in our time, a time of rapid change in which underlying conditions tend to contribute to institutional opacity, there are nevertheless more or less readily legible transitional forces in play, forces that are...

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