Sassen: Towards a sociology of information technology


Problem: ICTs are understood or conceptualize in terms of technical effects and the relation to the sociological world is constructed as one of applications and impacts.

Aim: Devolving analytical categories that allow to capture the complex overlapping of technology and society

Two aspects:

  1. To recognise the embeddedness and the variable outcomes of ICTs for different social orders

– They can be constitutive for new social dynamics, but can also reproduce older conditions

  1. New categories which overcome traditional binary oppositions (e. g. digital and non-digital)

Focus on three analytic issues:

  1. The complex interplay between the digital and the material world, focusing on capital fixity and capital mobility,
  2. the mediating cultures that organize the relation between these technologies and users, focusing on the gendering of access to and use of electronic space,
  3. the destabilizing of existing hierarchies of scale, focusing on the emergence of a new politics of places on global networks (p. 365 – 366).


  1. The embeddedness of digital technologies

“Digital networks are embedded in both the technical features and standards of the hardware and software, and in actual societal structures and power dynamics” (p. 366).

  • The production of software is shaped by power relations, inequalities, hierarchies,
  • Which can be illustrated by the difference between private and public digital networks.
  • Private networks: Corporate networks (intranet) Protected by firewalls

Digital networks have three features: decentralised access, simultaneity and interconnectivity

The outcome of these features varies if it is a private or a public digital network (p. 366)

While power is distributed in public networks, it is concentrated in private networks.

“We cannot take the distributed power and hence the democratizing potential of digital networks as an inevitable feature of this technology” (p. 367).

“Internet as a space produced and marked through the software that shapes its use and the particular aspects of the hardware mobilized by the software” (Ibid.).

While firewalled intranets and encrypted tunnels for firm-to-firm transactions occupy the public space and so weaken the democratic potential of the internet open access networks strengthen it (p. 367f).

“Non-commercial uses still dominate the Internet, even though the race is on to invent ways of expanding electronic commerce and ensuring safety of payment transactions” (p. 368).

“The Net has emerged as a powerful medium for non-elites to communicate, support each other’s struggles and create the equivalent of insider groups at scales going from the local to the global” (Ibid.).

“Looking at electronic space as embedded allows us to go beyond the common duality between utopian and dystopian understandings of the Internet and electronic space generally” (Ibid.).


“Three analytic issues that capture various features of this embeddedness are:

  • the complex imbrications between the digital and material conditions,
  • the mediating cultures between these technologies and their users,
  • and the destabilizing of existing hierarchies of scale made possible by the new technologies” (Ibid.).


Digital/Material Imbrication (Overlapping)


“Hypermobility or de-materialization are usually seen as mere functions of the new technologies. This understanding erases the fact that it takes multiple material conditions to achieve this outcome. Once we recognize that the hypermobility of the instrument, or the de-materialization of the actual piece of real estate, had to be produced, we introduce non-digital variables in our analysis of the digital.


In brief, digital space and digitization are not exclusive conditions that stand outside the non-digital. Digital space is embedded in the larger societal, cultural, subjective, economic, imaginary structurations of lived experience and the systems within which we exist and operate.” (368f.).

Capital mobility is still based on fixed capital such as houses and build infrastructure.

Even the most digitalised financial market and digitalised financial instruments require a build infrastructure, but this build infrastructure is (partially) liquified (p. 369).

E.g. Liquification of real estates:

House -> owner -> debts -> financial instruments -> trade of debts in global markets

“In fact, the partial representation of real estate through liquid financial instruments produces a complex imbrication of the material and the dematerialized moments of that which we continue to call real estate” (p. 370).

Mediating practices  

The “use [of digital technologies] is constructed or constituted in terms of specific cultures and practices through and within which users articulate the experience/utility of electronic space” (p. 270).

“Electronic space is inflected by the [gendered] values, cultures, power systems, and institutional orders within which it is embedded” (Ibid.).

The Destabilizing of Older Hierarchies of Scale

“Older hierarchies of scale dating from the period that saw the ascendance of the national state continue to operate; they are typically organized in terms of institutional size and territorial scope from the international, down to the national, the regional, the urban, to the local” (p. 371).

“But today’s re-scaling dynamics cut across institutional size and across the institutional encasements of territory produced by the formation of national states” (Ibid.).

“For example, much of what we might still experience as the ‘local’ (an office building or a house or an institution right there in our neighborhood or downtown) actually is something I would rather think of as a micro-environment with global span insofar as it is deeply internetworked” (Ibid.).

“More important, the juxtaposition between the condition of being a sited materiality and having global span” (Ibid.)

  1. New Interactions Between Capital Fixity and Hypermobility

“Information technologies have not eliminated the importance of massive concentrations of material resources but have, rather, reconfigured the interaction of capital fixity and hypermobility” (p. 372).

“We have now come to understand that the vast new economic topography implemented through electronic space is one moment, one fragment, of an even vaster economic chain that is in good part embedded in non-electronic spaces” (Ibid.).

“To illustrate these issues, I focus on three particular aspects of the interaction of capital mobility and fixity:

  1. the ongoing importance of social connectivity and central functions for global digitized economic sectors;
  2. the variety of locational options available to firms in partly digitized economic sectors;
  3. and the multiplication of the possible spatial correlates of centrality made possible by the new ICTs” (Ibid.)

The Importance of Social Connectivity and Central Functions

“While the new technologies do indeed facilitate geographic dispersal of economic activities without losing system integration, they have also had the effect of strengthening the importance of central coordination and control functions for firms and for markets” (p. 373).

“It is not enough to have the infrastructure for ICTs. It also takes a mix of other resources: state-of-the-art material and human resources, and the social networks that maximize connectivity” (Ibid.).

“insofar as achieving this value added depends on conditions external to the firms and markets themselves and to the technologies as such” (Ibid.).

“Even electronic markets rely on traders and banks which are located somewhere; for instance, Frankfurt’s electronic futures market is actually embedded in a global network of financial centers, each of which concentrates resources that are necessary for Frankfurt’s market to thrive” (Ibid.).

Two types of information:

  1. “One is the datum, which may be complex but standardized and easily available to these firms: e.g. the details of a privatization in a particular country” (Ibid.).
  2. Information which require a “social infrastructure” which can not be reproduced everywhere.

“When the more complex forms of information needed to execute major international deals cannot be found in existing data bases, no matter what one can pay, then one needs the social information loop and the associated de facto interpretations and inferences that come with bouncing off information among talented, informed people” (Ibid.).

“In brief, urban centers provide the mix of resources and the social connectivity which allow a firm or market to maximize the benefits of its technical connectivity” (Ibid.).

Locational Patterns

Three types of globally operating firms in terms of their locational patterns.

  1. firms with highly standardized products/services see an increase in

their locational options insofar as they can maintain system integration no matter where they are located. […] Data entry and simple manufacturing work can be moved to wherever labor and other costs might be lowest. Headquarters can move out of large cities and to suburban locations or small towns.


  1. firms which are deeply involved in the global economy and hence have increasingly complex headquarter functions. These HQ functions are often outsourced so they need a specialised service sector around them which is exits mainly in great cities.
  2. highly specialized networked service sectors. It is these sectors, rather than the headquarters, that benefit from spatial agglomeration at the point of production; in this regard, it is these firms rather than large corporate headquarters which are at the core of economic global city functions (p. 374).

The Spatialities of the Center

Four types of centers

  1. First, the center can be the CBD, as it still is largely for some of the leading sectors, notably finance, or an alternative form of CBD, such as Silicon Valley.
  2. Second, the center can extend into a metropolitan area in the form of a grid of nodes of intense business activity.
  3. Third, we are seeing the formation of a transterritorial ‘center’ constituted via intense economic transactions in the network of global cities. These networks of major international business centers constitute new geographies of centrality.
  4. new forms of centrality are being constituted in electronically generated spaces. For instance, strategic components of the financial industry operate in such spaces (p. 375).

“Rather than being neutralized, these emerge with renewed and strategic importance in some of their features, that is to say, not as a generalized condition but as a very specific condition” (p. 376).

  1. A Politics of Places on Crossborder Circuits: Citizen Networks in a Global Digital Age

“Digital networks are contributing to the production of counter-geographies of globalization” (p. 380).

“These can be constituted at multiple scales. Digital networks can be used by political activists for global or non-local transactions. But they can also be used for strengthening local communications and transactions inside a city” (Ibid.).

“We can conceptualize these ‘alternative’ networks as countergeographies of globalization because they are deeply imbricated with some of the major dynamics constitutive of globalization yet are not part of the formal apparatus or of the objectives of this apparatus: the formation of global markets, the intensifying of transnational and trans-local networks, the development of communication technologies which easily escape conventional surveillance practices” (Ibid.).

“Through the Internet, local initiatives become part of a global network of activism without losing the focus on specific local struggles” (Ibid.)

  • Enables cross-border-activism
  • “Because the network is global does not mean that it all has to happen at the global level”.
  • “Digital space has emerged not simply as a means for communicating, but as a major new theater for capital accumulation and the operations of global capital. But civil society – in all its various incarnations – is also an increasingly energetic presence in cyberspace”
  • “This is not the cosmopolitan route to the global. This is about the global as a multiplication of the local”.

“The architecture of digital networks, primed to span the world, can actually serve to intensify transactions among residents of a city or region. It can serve to make them aware of neighboring communities, gain an understanding of local issues that resonate positively or negatively with communities that are right there in the same city rather than with those that are at the other end of the world. Or it can serve to intensify transactions around the local issues of communities that are at opposite ends of the world” (p. 382).

“In brief, social activists can use digital networks for global or non-local transactions and they can use them for strengthening local communications and transactions inside a city or rural community” (Ibid.).

“Cyberspace is, perhaps ironically, a far more concrete space for social struggles than that of the national political system. It becomes a place where non-formal political actors can be part of the political scene in a way that is much more difficult in national institutional channels” (Ibid.).


Sassen, Saskia 2002: Towards a sociology of information technology. In: Current Sociology. May 2002. Vol 50(3): p. 365 – 388. London.


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