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Tuesday 1 June 2021

Spatial Turn in Urban Anthropology


Spatial turn in Urban Anthropology


Urban Space studies: 1

Contested Urban Space. 1

Racialized Space. 2

Landscapes of Fear: 2

Global, Transnational and Translocal Spaces. 2



The methodological and theoretical use of spatiality within anthropology began with ethnographies that examined the relationship of architecture and culture. The concepts of space and place emerged in urban ethnographies through the collective work of anthropologists who employed material space as a strategy for interrogating the city (Bestor 2004; Cooper 1994; Holston 1989; Low 1999, 2000; Pellow 1996; Rotenberg and McDonogh 1993). Their work was directly influenced by French social theorists who theorized space in terms of the power dynamics of spatial relations and the meaning of everyday places and practices.

Drawing upon Foucault (1977), Paul Rabinow (1989) was one of the first anthropologists to link the growth of modern forms of political power with the evolution of aesthetic theories, and to analyze how French colonists in North Africa exploited architectural and urban planning principles to reflect their cultural superiority. James Holston (1989) also examined the state-sponsored architecture and master planning of Brasilia as a new form of spatial domination through which daily life became the target for state intervention.

Lefebvre’s (1991) well-known argument that space is never transparent, but must be queried through an analysis of spatial representations, spatial practices, and spaces of representation also became the basis of many anthropological  analyses. Nancy Munn (1996), and Stuart Rockefeller (2010) draw upon  Lefebvre to link conceptual space to the tangible by arguing that social space is both a field of action and a basis for action.

Other anthropological efforts started with Bourdieu (1977) and focused on how meaning and action interact in interdependent ways to inculcate and reinforce cultural knowledge and behavior. Bourdieu’s theory of practice provides the point of departure for Henrietta Moore (1986) who concurs that space only acquires meaning when actors invoke it. She argues that spaces are subject to multiple interpretations, such that Endo men and women may share the same conceptual structure but enter into it in different positions and therefore subject it to different interpretations (Moore 1986: 163). Margaret Rodman (1992) and Miles Richardson (1982), on the other hand, relied on Merleau-Ponty’s theories of phenomenology and lived space to focus attention on how different actors construct,   contest, and ground their personal experience. Alberto Corsín Jiménez (2003) goes even further and insists that “space is no longer a category of fixed and ontological attributes, but a becoming, an emergent property of social relationship. Put somewhat differently, social relationships are inherently spatial, and space an instrument and dimension of space’s sociality” (2003: 140).

Contested Urban Space

Ethnographic approaches to urban space are an important strategy for studying contestation and resistance in the city. When the appropriation of land for urban redevelopment threatens to limit access to or exclude certain groups from using public spaces, these plans may be contested by local segments of the population whose identity is variously bound to the site (Cooper 1994).

Racialized Space

The processes of racialization have been studied primarily in US and South African cites, focused on different aspects of racism and racial segregation In the United States, the displacement of Blacks through redlining and other real estate activities, analyses of gentrification in African American neighborhoods, and studies of housing abandonment by the city and federal government provide ethnographic explanations of American residential apartheid (Gregory 1998).

Landscapes of Fear:

Landscapes of fear have become a central focus in the spatialities research within urban anthropology, producing considerable debate about the nature of the fear and how it is produced. For example, Washington, DC’s and New York City’s emerging landscapes of fear are being produced by new defensive spatial designs, the erosion of public space through privatization and securitization, and memorials that constitute and reinforce affective responses to the built environment. Hoffman goes so far as to suggest that post-colonial African cities such as Freetown or Monrovia are organized according to a “logic of barracks” creating “spaces of the organization and deployment of violent labor.” For example, Bourgois (1995) describes the fear and sense of vulnerability experienced by El Barrio residents and by anthropologists faced with the everyday violence of those who sell crack in East Harlem, New York City.

Global, Transnational and Translocal Spaces

Within urban anthropology, transnational processes are defined by Ulf Hannerz (1992) based on cultural flows organized by nations, markets, and movements. He criticizes world-systems analyses as being too simplified to reflect the complexity and fluidity of the “creolization” of postcolonial culture. From this perspective, global space is conceived of as the flow of goods, people, and services – as well as capital, technology, and ideas – across national borders and geographic regions, resulting in the deterritorialization of space; that is space detached from local places. Within anthropology, the term “transnational,” was first used to describe the way that immigrants “live their lives across borders and maintain their ties to home, even when their countries of origin and settlement are geographically distant” (Schiller, Basch, and Blanc-Szanton 1992: ix). Part of this effort was to understand the implications of a multiplicity of social relations and involvements that span borders. Eric Wolf (1982) laid the theoretical groundwork in his landmark history of how the movement of capital and labor has transformed global relations since the 1400s, dispelling the myth that globalization is a recent phenomenon. However, while Wolf’s approach to the issue of global connections is seminal, it deals primarily with issues of power and its allocation, and only indirectly with the spaces of daily life. It is much later, through the detailed ethnographies of the rhythms of daily life in transnational migrant communities, that a sense of transnational urban space emerges.

Translocal spaces are also produced by other forms of cultural deterritorialization such as travel, tourism, and religious diaspora. Marc Augé (1995) considers the airport a non-place, a space of supermodernity, where  customers, passengers, and other users are identified by names, occupation, place of birth, and address, but only upon entering and leaving. Airports along with superstores and railways stations are non-places that “do not contain any organic society” (1995: 112); social relations are suspended and this non-place becomes a site of coming and going. Studies of migration and translocality emphasize the role of diaspora communities within the new geography of globalization. The technologies of time– space compression – such as the use of international cellphones, the internet, and bargain airfares – enable diaspora communities to survive, even at the margins of the global economy. The power of the internet to mediate transnational urbanism is a key element in the continuity of culture and social relationships between less developed parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with developed regions of North America and Asia, but also between the metropole and the periphery. Secondary and mid-size cities are becoming  more important as urban processes are seen as spaces of flows of information, labor, and capital. It is in these studies that urban anthropology returns to some of its earliest concerns with the urban to rural and migration circuits, but now drawing upon a new arsenal of theory and bolstered by a critical perspective based on political economic analysis and a spatialities framework as well as ethnographic sophistication. 


 Zoom class lecture on Spatial turn in urban anthropology (bilingual, meant for my students)

Part I: https://youtu.be/1fnSMZtumtk

Part II: https://youtu.be/2P5K_5rkT7o


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