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Cities in a World Economy

Third Edition
(Sociology for a New Century series)

Saskia Sassen

Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press (2006), 269 pages. Paperback (£20.99), ISBN: 1-4129-3680-2.

Reviewed by Corinne Nativel, University of Franche-Comté, Besançon, France.

Since the publication of her internationally acclaimed book, the Global City (Princeton University Press, 1991), Saskia Sassen has pursued an increasingly sophisticated research agenda, deepening and refining her vision of globalisation’s impact on the economic and social structure of contemporary cities. Cities in a World Economy is a good illustration of this evolution. The original version of this textbook for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in urban studies was published in 1994, followed by a second edition in 2000. The latest version of the book is now divided in eight chapters of around 20 pages, each packed with a wealth of illustrations and tables. In this third edition, the data is thoroughly updated up to 2005, while new concepts are also added.

In the past, Sassen’s work was sometimes criticised for overlooking the articulations and flows that connect global cities. The book clearly incorporates this dimension when it argues that next to the sharp concentration of wealth and widening inequalities, the formation of global cities networks and circuits can be regarded as key new patterns. Referring to the work of Peter Taylor on the global cities system, for example, Sassen suggests that “if we accept that they basically compete with each other for global business, then they do not constitute a transnational system. Studying several global cities then falls into the category of traditional comparative analysis. If, however, we posit that in addition to competing with each other, global cities are also the sites for transnational processes with multiple locations (Taylor, 2004) then we begin to explore the possibility of a systemic dynamic binding these cities” (p.68-70).

The first chapter provides an introductory discussion into how, since the 1980s, major transformations in the composition of the world economy, and in particular the growing significance of advanced producer services (legal, accounting, insurance, etc.), have renewed the importance of major cities as sites for producing global strategic inputs. The chapter argues that the forty or so cities that currently qualify as ‘global cities’ fulfil three major functions. They are command and control centres for the organisation of the world economy, key locations and marketplaces for finance and specialised services, and also major sites of production, including the production of innovation. The chapter stresses that global cities cannot be treated as single entities and that their social and cultural determinants must be taken into account to understand their economic trajectories.

The major aim of the book, then, is to provide conceptual and empirical flesh to this central thesis. The second chapter explores the geography, composition and institutional framework of the global economy to illuminate implications for cities. The shifting role among major cities and the emergence of a new urban system in which cities are crucial nodes for the international coordination and servicing of firms is the subject of Chapter 3. Europe’s ‘balanced urban system’ is contrasted to the ‘primate urban system’ (i.e. inordinate concentrations of populations and major economic activities in one city) that prevails in Latin America and the Caribbean. The chapter then concentrates on transnational urban systems, the emergence of which forces social scientists to reconsider their heavily nation-state centred conceptual apparatus. In the cultural and politico-social spheres, for instance, transnational urban linkages include diasporic and antiglobalization networks, and international women’s agendas. In the economic sphere, the activities of transnational firms and banks are highlighted, drawing on findings from the Globalization and World Cities Study Group or GaWC.

The three following chapters examine the emergence of the new urban economy based on finance and advanced producer services as shown by world and U.S. city rankings of the top largest financial and insurance companies’ assets. These services are characterised by a sharp concentration of activities in downtown areas (Manhattan, etc.) and a tendency towards hierarchy and specialization. However, Sassen warns that nearby manufacturing activities continue to play a decisive role and that some of these specialised services may be aimed at the national economy and not at world markets, as e.g. medical and health services in Washington. Attention to export markets is thus crucial. The conditions under which global cities functions materialise are analysed through case studies of Miami, Toronto and Sydney which are carefully chosen for their contrasting historical backgrounds. Additionally, urban workforce restructuring and earnings inequalities are discussed, mainly through empirical data from the United States.

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 7 on “Global Cities and Global Survival Circuits” which represents a fruitful addition to the previous editions. This new chapter shows how the highly gendered and unequal nature of the global city forces migrant female workers from the Global South into occupations as maids, nannies, nurses and sex workers. The international migration and trafficking of women for jobs in the first world is rarely explicitly analysed in relation to global cities, despite the fact that these are the sites for the production and reproduction of such activities. The chapter’s leitmotiv is that the consumption practices of high-income dual household professionals generate a demand for low-wage workers and that the latter consequently become “incorporated in the leading sectors but under conditions that render them invisible” (page 178; page 191). It is true that reliable data on migration and human trafficking is notoriously difficult to obtain but some references to existing estimations such as those offered by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) amongst others, could have strengthened the chapter’s arguments. Additionally, if we allow ourselves to take a brief step aside of science, we may find worth noting that the enslavement of migrant working women in the contemporary global city happens to be the subject of two important films released in 2007. And cinema often illuminates social issues in much more powerful ways than does any academic publication… “It’s a Free World” by British filmmaker Ken Loach screens the harsh living and working conditions of exploited migrant workers in East London, while “the Nanny Diaries” written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini depicts how unscrupulous rich women from Manhattan’s Upper East Side treat their children’s migrant nannies.

Cities in a World Economy ends on the notion of ‘peripheralization at the core’, fulfilling its stated aim which was to show not only how cities have become of strategic importance to globalisation, but also how they are capable of producing global control and ‘superprofits’, relying on the presence of many devalorized sectors of the urban economy.

A review of the second edition of Cities in a World Economy (Coaffee, 2002) found that “overall this book succeeds in widening debates about the nature of globalization – moving away from the all-too-familiar American-centred concept that prevails in many contemporary accounts – by introducing the reader to other areas of the globe that are affected, albeit differently”. I concur with these comments although my feeling is that some major global cities of those ‘other parts of the globe’ remain overlooked. The book would gain from including a case study of China, with a focus on Shanghai since this city now plays a key role in global city networks. In addition, even if not primarily the outcome of advanced producer services, the spectacular rise of global cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the Arab Gulf and their role in the post-oil economy would no doubt deserve more attention. Perhaps in a fourth edition (logically due in 2012)? In any case, this extremely dense and rigorous text has a solid framework to build on; it could very easily evolve to include new chapters and updated data without having to be rewritten.

In sum, my feeling is that this key text on cities will mature in tandem with developments that the world economy will continue to witness. There is no doubt that it will remain an essential reference item on economic geography and urban sociology reading lists. 


Coaffee, J. (2002) Book review of Saskia Sassen’s “Cities in a World Economy” (Second edition) International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol.26, no.2, p. 426-427.

Taylor, P. (2004) World City Network: A Global Urban Analysis, New York: Routledge.

(Added 11 August 2008)