Globalization station: hierarchy of cities

Sociology professor ranks the most powerful cities



If you plan on moving to New York or Los Angeles after graduation, you aren’t alone. The cities are pretty popular spots for IU alumni. But why? Why not Seattle or Detroit?

IU sociology professor Arthur Alderson has been working to explain this “hierarchy of cities” and the effect of globalization since 1998. One of his studies, specifically listing cities by “most powerful,” was explained in IU’s “Research and Creative Activity” publication in 2009, but the work continues today.

Inside sat down with Arthur to find out what it means to be a powerhouse city like New York, and why other cities are getting left behind.

How did you gather this data about the world’s cities?

There’s a story that’s told in this literature that you want to find some way of linking cities to one another and then array them in a sort of network, and then look at how they hold those positions in the network. We pursued it by looking at the links between multinational firms and seeing where they are set up.

We looked at the 500 largest firms in the world: where they are headquartered, where they have branches.  One of these large firms could have hundreds of subsidiaries around the world. It’s that link between headquarters and subsidiaries that ties one city to the next.

By tracing out the ties that link cities in this way, you can draw up a hierarchy of the cities. Where are decisions being made and where are orders being followed?

What makes a city powerful?

It has to do with literally the position they occupy in this network, which is generated by these multinational firms and the role they play in that network.

How is that different from prestige?

Power is simply the ability to get people to do the thing that you want them to do whether they want to or not, right? Prestige, in contrast, is one is being chosen over another. We’re looking at power as “Do you occupy this central position in the network?” and then prestige is “Where do firms choose to locate?”

In general, the most powerful cities tend to be the most prestigious, but there can be an interesting disconnect in those ideas. New York is both powerful and prestigious — everyone wants to be there. But there are cities that are less powerful, but nonetheless, are prestigious because lots of firms choose to locate subsidiaries there instead of other alternatives.

What can people do with this data?

If you Google “world city” or “global city,” you’re going to find lots of cities talking about themselves in that term. Twenty years ago, no one would talk in those terms. How do we get our cities plugged in to these sources of power and people? There’s no secret sauce, I don’t think. But people are kind of feeling their way into different strategies, which they hope will be successful.

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