Urban Anthropology examines the social organization of the city, looking at the kinds of social relationship and pattern of social life unique to cities and comparing their different cultural and historical contexts. It emerged as a separate subdiscipline of sociocultural anthropology during the 1950s and 1960s. In contrast to earlier studies of urbanism, urban anthropology applied anthropological concepts and field research methods to urban populations where the city was the context of the research rather than the phenomenon under study.
This focus is most readily apparent in the tendency of urban anthropologists to examine the social organization of small social worlds within the city, analyzing their social life in terms of larger institutional structures of power. Some of these studies are based on territorial units such as neighborhoods; others examine social networks, webs of relationships linking people who may or may not live nearby. Social networks in cities are frequently nonlocalized, stretching from rural areas of origin to larger ethnic settlements in the cities (Boissevain 1974; Gmelch & Zenner 1995).
Urban anthropology also examines social problems characteristic of large cities such as crime, social disorder, poverty, homelessness, and transience. These studies examine the social organization and cultural practices of distinct groups within the city such as gangs (Suttles 1968), ethnic villagers (H. Gans 1962), kinship networks (Stack 1974), homeless alcoholics (Spradley 1970), and criminals and prostitutes (Merry 1981). These studies usually include the systems of bureaucratic regulation, urban politics, welfare administration, urban renewal, and economic conditions that shape local communities. Other research focuses on systems of formal social control such as police, courts, and prisons.
Despite the concentration of research on the United States and Great Britain, urban anthropology is a comparative field. Studies of kinship and neighborhood in British (Michael D. Young & Willmott 1957) and American cities (Liebow 1967; Lamphere 1987) are paralleled by similar studies in India (Lynch 1969), South Africa (Philip Mayer 1961), Japan (Bestor 1989), and many other parts of the world. Some anthropologists explore the changing nature of work and union movements in urban centers in developing countries (Epstein 1958). Others examine the disproportionate growth of primate cities at the expense of regional towns as a result of economic development in Third World countries.
Urban anthropologists have worked extensively on the migration of rural peasants to the cities. This research has challenged the proposition that as rural migrants settle in cities their social order and cultural life disintegrates, an argument fundamental to the theory of urbanism as a way of life. Studies of the squatter settlements that grew up as a result of rural migrants flooding into the cities of developing countries during the 1960s and 1970s revealed not anarchy, but emerging forms of social order, planning, and institutional structure (Peattie 1968; Mangin 1970; B. Roberts 1978).
Urban anthropology has always focused particularly on the plight of the urban poor. In his controversial work, Oscar Lewis (1966) argued that there was a culture of poverty, a uniform way of life that emerged among the poorest groups in a variety of urban environments such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and New York. Although this concept has been extensively criticized, it was an important effort to theorize the social impacts of living on the economic fringes of a large industrial city (Valentine 1968). More recent research views local communities in large industrial cities as the product of late-capitalist development and the progressive impoverishment of the poor. Susser (1982), for example, explored how the changing political economy of the city shapes the life situations of poor people. D. Harvey (1989b) examined changes in urban life as a result of global capital and labor flows. Anthropologists examine political and economic forces that transform urban neighborhoods such as urban renewal, gentrification, disinvestment in cities, the flight of jobs from the city, racial discrimination in the private housing market, public housing policies, and the creation of new towns. Some work explores the way features of architectural design and urban planning shape social life or foster criminal behavior (J. Jacobs 1961; Merry 1981). There has been considerably less published on the way postmodernity is redefining urban life.
Race, ethnic group, class, and gender as forms of differentiation and exclusion are fundamental to the field, and studies frequently examine how categories of race and ethnicity shape migration and settlement patterns, job opportunities, voluntary organizations, community institutions, access to work and leisure, and the maintenance of kinship relationships (Philip Mayer 1961; Mullings 1987). Ethnicity, in particular, persists in urban areas in the form of ethnic neighborhoods or in such voluntary associations as rotating credit associations and burial societies (Hannerz 1980). Thus, urban anthropology, although inspired in its earlier years by theories of urbanism, now examines social life in the city as it exists for the people who live in it, rather than the city itself.
There was a death and rebirth of urban anthropology in the 1990s and 2000s through the addition of spatial theories drawn from geography and a fuller understanding of the political economy of place. This transition, often referred to as the “spatial turn” or in this volume “spatialities,” is discussed by tracing the methodology, history, and substance of urban anthropology with an emphasis on works that employed spatial theory and privileged the built environment. With its origins in traditional ethnography, urban anthropology initially focused on small groups of culturally distinct people living in urban enclaves, leaving the study of urban space to geographers, sociologists, and urban planning. However, during the 1980s a transition occurred, the so-called “death and rebirth of urban anthropology” based on linking macro and micro analyses of urban processes through re-thinking the city as a space of flows, that is, circuits of labor, capital, goods, and services moving ever more rapidly through space, time, and the internet; and a space of places, that is, the physical locations of social reproduction, recreation, and the home. This discussion reviews both the components of the spatialities approach and highlights how this important change in theory and method occurred within urban anthropology. Briefly, the death of urban anthropology was occasioned by a rejection of traditional ethnography strategies as inadequate for dealing with the complexities of modern cities. The so-called rebirth was then stimulated by theoretical work on urban systems, labor flows, and social networks by Anthony Leeds (1973), the incorporation of political economic approaches drawn from geography, sociology, and political science (Mullings 1987; Susser 1982), and the emergence of the anthropology of space and place that examined the city as a material and spatial as well as cultural form (Low 1999; Pellow 1996; Rotenberg and McDonogh 1993). Theories of transnational and translocal anthropology, also emerging at that time, played a dominant role in conceptualization of the city as a nexus of local and global relationships.
Methodology for Urban Anthropology:
The most distinctive aspect of an anthropological approach to the study of the city is the centrality of ethnography and the production of urban ethnographies of groups of people in urban settings, called “anthropology in the city.” An ethnography is a methodology for describing, analyzing, and theorizing about a group of people from a sociocultural perspective as well as the written text of the results produced by this methodology. There has been lengthy discussion as to what constitutes an adequate ethnography, but for the purpose of this chapter, I refer to urban ethnography as the cultural anthropological study of cities, urban peoples, networks, systems, and environments. Ethnographies are generally characterized by participant observation, a qualitative method that relies on the anthropologist as a recorder and interpreter living among the people studied within their cultural setting, and the process by which he/ she learns about local social, political, and economic life. Most ethnographers, however, use a wide range of methods, including quantitative surveys and maps as well as qualitative interviews, life histories, and personal documents. An urban ethnography offers an intimate glimpse of city life through the eyes of its residents as seen and understood by the anthropologist. It differs from other methodologies because of its emphasis on what has been called “thick description” and narrative explanation of the rich details of everyday social life. Yet the death of urban anthropology occurred because of a widespread disenchantment with some aspects of small-scale urban ethnography and the anthropology in the city model. The critique was based on the inability of traditional ethnographic methods to conceptualize the city as a whole – as a system of symbols, process, networks, or relationships – that was necessary to understand rapid transformations in the global economy and urban landscape. Urban anthropologists retained the use of culture as a theoretical construct, but at the same time challenged its essentialized nature and deconstructed the concept to produce a more fluid and complex notion. At the same time, urban ethnography expanded to encompass historical, political, and economic as well as spatial analyses advocating an anthropology of the city, rather than in the city. The “urban,” then, became re-conceived of as a set of processes rather than a setting, and its material and spatial form integrated into the study of social relationships. While ethnography still plays an important role in defining an urban anthropological approach, it is more likely to be a “multi-sited” ethnography. Bestor’s (2001) study of tuna trade traces the circuits of fishing, marketing, trading, and consuming of tuna as it occurs throughout the world. The “ethnography” includes data collected at all of these sites, including a fishing village in Spain, the central Tokyo fish market, and a high-end sushi restaurant in New York City. He argues that to understand the tuna trade the flow of capital, labor, and commodities needs to be examined and researched. Low, Taplin, and Scheld (2005) argue in a similar vein that to produce an adequate park ethnography, a variety of sites, activities, parks, and neighborhoods must be considered. The point of multi-sited ethnography is that the phenomena studied should be tracked through its local and/or global landscape, following the actors and social processes involved without artificially capturing them within a predetermined location.
The production of urban space and the social construction of urban places and their contestation also have become central in anthropological, not just geographical, analyses. Space has become an analytic tool that complements traditional ethnography, particularly in studies of the consequences of architectural and urban planning projects and embodied analyses of the use of urban space. These spatial analyses require new techniques such as behavioral mapping, transect walks (journeys or tours with informants), physical traces mapping, movement maps, and population counts that complement traditional ethnographic participant observation and in-depth interviewing. The overall strength of urban anthropology methodologies lies in their ability to provide empirical in-depth and embodied understandings of everyday life and individual practices inextricably embedded in and contingent to global socioeconomic and political forces. The link between social forces and global capital with local politics and practices is especially clear in studies that examine grassroots organizing in response to urban transformations, and power dynamics, both local and global, in a variety of community contexts. The linking of the macro political economic analysis with the micro ethnographic reality of individuals provides an integrated social science and humanistic perspective for urban design, planning and policy decisions, and a solid intellectual framework for future urban anthropological endeavors.