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Abstract The global city thesis by which Sassen (1991) has linked globalization with increased social polarization has attracted much attention and caused considerable discussion over the past decade. This article illustrates divergent approaches that have been taken to the study of social polarization and provides an overview of the issues that have been discussed in relation to the polarization debate. I argue that the global city thesis has been misleading and that the empirical work underlying it has been too limited. Thereafter I test the empirical basis for Sassen's thesis in an analysis of the distribution of wages in the New York Metropolitan Area during the period 1970 to 1990.