Urban Anthropology Research Paper

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Urban anthropology attends to the social relations, symbols, and political economies that are most manifest in the city (Lynch 1994, Zenner 1994). In earlier overviews, Fox (1972, 1977), Jackson (1985), and Gulick (1989) advocate an anthropology of the city, rather than in the city, and argue that this distinction ‘is not trivial or hairsplitting’ (Gulick 1989, p. 14). Both approaches make important contributions: in studies focus on urban ethnography and foreground people, while of studies emphasize peoples’ relationships to political and economic forces and the social and physical structure of the city. Urban anthropology as a subdiscipline combines the strengths of participant observation and intensive research with small groups with holism and political economy within a comparative framework.

Theorizing the city is a necessary part of understanding the changing postindustrial, advanced capitalist, postmodern world in which we live. The city as a site of everyday practice provides valuable insights into the linkages of these macro-processes with the texture and fabric of human experience. The city is not the only place where these linkages can be studied, but the intensification of these processes—as well as their human outcomes—occurs and can be understood best in cities. Thus, the city is not a reification, but the focus of study of cultural and sociopolitical manifestations of urban lives and everyday practices.

1. Historical Overview

The historical trajectory begins with the Chicago School in the 1920s and 1930s and the development of an urban ecological perspective (Park and Burgess 1974). The city is theorized as made up of adjacent ecological niches occupied by human groups in a series of concentric rings surrounding the central core. Class, occupation, world view, and life experiences are coterminous with an inhabitant’s location within this human ecology. Social change occurs through socioeconomic transitions of these areas in an ever downward spiral toward the inner city. Research strategies focus on participant observation as a method of uncovering and explaining the adaptations and accommodations of urban populations to these microenvironments. Urban ethnographies suggest that familiarity, avoidance, and surveillance play important roles in allaying fears that emerge from heterogeneity in the city. Sally Merry (1982) documents the interactions and perceptions of what she terms ‘Black,’ ‘White,’ and ‘Chinese’ residents in a high-rise, low-income housing project in a large Midwestern city, and concludes that lack of familiarity plays an important role in the perception of danger. Eli Anderson (1990) documents avoidance as a coping strategy in his study of ‘streetwise’ behavior of Philadelphians, in which residents cross the street when faced with oncoming young ‘black’ males. Wacquant (1994) portrays how institutional avoidance of young ‘black’ males can create a ‘hyperghetto’ of isolated families in Chicago’s Black Belt, where the streets are deserted and no longer patroled by police; and Philippe Bourgois (1995) dramatizes the fear and sense of vulnerability experienced by residents of El Barrio and depicts their strategies of avoidance and surveillance used to deal with street crime. These studies describe how fear is spatially managed in urban contexts, and how avoidance and streetwise behavior are used by low-to middle-income people to mitigate their fears, while abandonment of the inner city by police and local institutions exacerbates these residents’ feelings of fear and isolation.

A second major influence is a series of community studies undertaken as part of the Institute of Community Studies’ program of policy and planning research on the slum clearance and replacement of housing in London, England and Lagos, Nigeria. These studies, beginning in the 1950s and continuing throughout the second half of the twentieth century (Young and Willmott 1957, Marris 1962, 1995), theorize the city as made up of a series of urban communities, based on extended family relations and kinship networks. Coincidentally, the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations published Bott’s (1957) study of the social networks of middle class English families that drew upon discussions with anthropologists at the University of Manchester (Gluckman 1971). The methodological contribution of network analysis as the basis for studying the social organization of city residents is widely used to understand the rapidly urbanizing populations of Africa (Mitchell 1969) and Latin America (Lomnitz 1977), as well as by North American researchers interested in the interconnections and interdependencies of family and household relationships among the urban poor (Stack 1974, 1996). Network studies still provide an important methodological strategy and theoretical model for urban researchers (Laguerre 1994, Kadushin and Jones 1992, Liebow 1989).

Studies of planned physical and social change in Latin American low-income residential neighborhoods (Lobo 1983, Logan 1984), as well as studies of the planning and design of new towns such as Ciudad Guyana (Peattie 1972) and Brasilia (Epstein 1973) provide further ethnographic examples of local as well as national international conflict over planning goals. These studies identify foreign capital investment (Peattie 1987) and the power knowledge of the technologies of planning and architecture (Rabinow 1989) as antithetical to producing a humane environment for local populations and workers. Studies of urban renewal (Greenbaum 1992) and community rebuilding after natural disasters (Oliver-Smith 1986) further contribute to understanding how the dynamics of redevelopment processes often exclude the psychosocial needs of residents. Anthropological analyses of the conflicts that emerge among government institutions, planning experts, and local communities set the stage for contemporary poststructuralist studies of urban struggle for land tenure rights (Holston 1991) and adequate housing (Low 1988), as well as for studies of planning and architecture as instruments of social control (McDonogh 1991, Plotnicov 1987).

Another theoretical force has been the cumulative work of Leeds (1973) recently published in a posthumous volume (Sanjek 1994). Although Leeds’ work concentrated on supralocal and local linkages and the nation/state level of analysis, the majority of his fieldwork dealt with the city as the point of articulation of these complex relationships. Anthropologists continue to utilize Leeds’ theoretical model of the flow of goods, cash, labor, and services between metropolis and countryside in their analyses of the city (Guildin 1992).

The most important theoretical transition, however, occurred in the 1980s with the introduction of the study of the political economy of the city. Susser’s (1982) landmark ethnography of a Brooklyn working class neighborhood, Hannerz’s theoretical mono- graphs (1980, 1992), and Mullings’ (1987) critique of the study of cities in the USA ushered in a decade of critical studies of the structural forces that shape urban experience. The social organizational paradigm that dominated earlier studies was superseded by a political economy paradigm (Sanjek 1990). These studies theorize the city by examining the social effects of industrial capitalism and deconstructing the confusion of urbanism with inequality and alienation (Mullings 1987, Ong 1987).

The final development in this theoretical trajectory is what Jacobs (1993) has called representational cities—an approach in which messages encoded in the environment are read as texts. Jacobs argues that ‘ethnographic studies were commonly prescribed the role of rendering more real the exotic and marginalized, but were seen to have little value in terms of the modern project of theory-building’ (1993, p. 828). Radicalized urban ethnography, however, makes possible a link between everyday practices and the broader processes of class formation. According to Jacobs, new cities require new forms of analysis in which the urban built environment becomes a discursive realm. Within anthropology this representational approach is reflected in Holston’s (1991) analysis of the planning and architecture of Brasilia, in which the city is read as an ideological tract of an imagined socialist utopia, and in Dorst’s (1989) postmodern ethnography of the recreation of the history and landscape of Chadd’s Ford.

The correspondence of academic training with the geographical area of study has also contributed to continuities of research and theory within culture regions. The tradition of British social anthropology in Africa has created a history of studies that focus on social relations in the city—exchanges, political alliances, market relationships, and network analyses that form the core of contemporary theoretical work (Barnes 1986, MacGaffey 1987, Peil 1991). Other continuities include studies of favelas, shantytowns, and turgurios in the urban periphery, and the informal economy in Latin America (Safa 1986); Japanese studies that focus on work organization (Hamabata 1990, Kondo 1990, Sumihara 1993, Bestor in press); and Chinese studies that emphasize urban hierarchies (Guldin 1993, Jankowiak 1993).

Thus, the historical development of the anthropological study of the city has produced a number of theoretical approaches that continue to be drawn upon by urban anthropologists. These approaches include: urban ecology models; community, family, and network analyses; studies of the power/knowledge of planning and architecture; supralocal/local linkage analyses; and political economic, representational, and discursive models of the city.

2. Theorizing The City: Space, Knowledge, Time, And Aesthetics

The view that contemporary cities not only pose problems that are intrinsic to the metropolitan experience, but also underscore and transform many of the most traditional concerns of the discipline—the social organization of space, the meanings of knowledge, group, and power, and the intricacies of commodity, exchange, and political economy—has been taken up by a group of scholars involved in the theoretical revitalization of the field (Low 1999). The concern is to articulate understandings of particular cities—Vienna, Barcelona, Valencia, Savannah, Atlanta, New York, Toronto, Lagos, Shanghai, Tokyo, Belize City, and San Jose (Costa Rica)—with broader anthropological concepts of space, knowledge, time, and identity. The inquiry begins not with imagining the city as a metaphorical object, but with imagining urbanites—residents, homeless people, planners, municipal bureaucrats, and architects—experiencing the city through the social relations, political economic, and planning processes.

Rotenberg and McDonogh’s influential collection The Cultural Meaning of Urban Space reflects an attempt to understand ‘the meaning of urban spaces through the knowledge of the people who live within them’ (1993, p. 197, 11). The studies are characterized by the search for the underlying social and cultural values and power politics that give form and meaning to the cityscape and the urban built environment. McDonogh’s (1993) exploration of ‘emptiness’ pro- vides an evocative category that marks not an absence of urbanness, but a zone of intense competition that betrays the imposition of urban power. Low (1993, 1995) focuses on the historical emergence of spatial meanings of power relations in the Spanish American plaza, while others are concerned with the symbolic mapping of contested arenas of urban social interaction such as privacy (Pellow 1993), neighborhood (Bestor 1993), and schooling (Rutheiser 1993). Research on the design of housing (Cooper and Rodman 1992, Low and Chambers 1989) and place attachment to urban space (Altman and Low 1992) also contribute to this ongoing venture.

Pellow’s work Setting Boundaries is more concerned with boundaries and perimeters, that is, the way in which ‘physical and conceptual boundaries are integrally tied to the creation, maintenance, transformation and definition of social and societal relations—of sociocultural behavior and action’ (Pellow 1996, p. 179, 3). The concept of boundary is dealt with both spatially and metaphorically, creating a link between the materialist and metaphorical analyses of social and spatial demarcation.

Many of the ideas have been elaborated by asking how meaning is created through both the social production of space and the social construction of space (Low 1996), and how power is represented in the history and evolution of the built forms (Leone 1995, Lawrence 1992). An ethnographic approach to the study of urban space includes four areas of spatial cultural analysis—historical emergence, sociopolitical and economic structuring, patterns of social use, and experiential meanings—as a means of working out this theoretical agenda.

Rotenberg proposes a second project, that of identifying forms of metropolitan knowledge as a subset of the knowledge people gain from their lived experience and value socialization. City dwellers share the knowledge because they live in dense and specialized concentrations of people, information, built form, and economic activity. Rotenberg (1993) speaks of the ‘salubrity of sites’ as a way of understanding how metropolitan knowledge is made manifest on the urban landscape. In Landscape and Power in Metropolitan Vienna (1995), he traces the history of open spaces and gardens in Vienna and documents how these spaces have become a spatial template of urban symbolic communication.

An additional project, the study of time, directs urban researchers to consider the way in which schedules coordinate the circulation of people in the city as a means for studying ebedded power relations. Rutz argues that ‘a politics of time is concerned with the appropriation of the time of others, the institutionalization of a dominant time, and the legitimation of power by means of the control of time’ (1992, p. 7). Rotenberg’s studies (1992) demonstrate the tyranny of urban schedules over individuals subject to their control. Issues of both time and space emerge in the study of homeless people who live in urban public spaces (Hopper 1991).

The city also structures residents’ urban experience, adding urban identity to place and time as universal sources of metropolitan knowledge (Rotenberg 1996). This proposal resonates with Sennett’s (1994) interest in embodied urban experience. These universal characterizations bring us temptingly close to earlier essentializing discourses, but at the same time provide provocative material for perceiving how the city as a set of processes links experience and structure.

Another project that holds great promise is the study of ethnoaesthetics. Although much of this literature focuses on indigenous media and aesthetic and political sensibilities, the implications of this work transform our notions of the urban, global, transnational, and marginal. In the city, where culturemaking often takes place, ‘performing aboriginality’ takes on new aesthetic and identity meanings (Ginsburg 1991). Bright and Bakewell (1995), in Looking High and Low, reposition art and ethnoaesthetics to redefine notions of cultural identity. Urban murals and low-rider cars provide examples of how the city constitutes an important dimension of the aesthetic. Although relatively undeveloped as part of the urban discourse, the study of ethnoaesthetics and cultural identity, and the demystification of art and artistic creation provide important insights for the analysis of the culture of cities (King 1996, Zukin 1995).

Contemporary anthropological studies of the city focus predominantly on the center, producing ethnographies of culturally significant places—such as markets, housing projects, gardens, plazas, convention centers, waterfront developments, and homeless shelters—that articulate macro and micro urban processes. These studies illuminate both the material and metaphorical power of spatial analysis for theorizing the city. Studies of the relationship of the urban to globalization, economic restructuring, and trans-national migration have transformed traditional re- search concerns. The Society for Urban Anthropology responded to this transformation by changing its name in 1998 to the Society for Urban, National, and Transnational Global Anthropology (SUNTA). As a subsection of the American Anthropological Association with a flourishing journal, City and Society, SUNTA provides a forum for the exchange of ideas within the subdiscipline and across the urban social studies.

3. Conclusion

The anthropology of the city incorporates a number of paradigms from other disciplines. The influence of political economy, architectural and planning theory, cultural studies, urban sociology, and cultural geography can be seen in the increasing attention to economic, political, and discursive models of the city. At the same time poststructural and postmodern perspectives have recast the kinds of questions and modes of inquiry used to study the city. The dominant research trends in urban anthropology are currently poststructural studies of race, class, and gender in the urban context; political economic studies of transnational culture; and studies of the symbolic and social production of urban space and planning.

Some areas of anthropological theory are more influential within the broader discourse of urban studies and urban policy. Many anthropologists contribute actively to theory and research on urban poverty, racism, globalization, and architecture and planning. (Stack 1996, Bourgois 1995, Susser 1991, Newman 1993.) The anthropological take on globalization is to focus attention on the transnational aspects of migration, culture-making, and identity management, and on the shifting cultural environments and meanings that contextualize and decontextualize behavior (Smart and Smart 1991, Pellow 1991). Urban anthropologists offer an experience-near critique of city life that provides a more complex understanding of the differences between cities’ and residents’ responses to racial segregation and class inequality (Gregory 1992, Susser 1991). Anthropological critiques of planning and design projects provide a methodology and theoretical framework for decoding the ideological intentions and material consequences of architectural plans and landscape designs (Holston 1989, Rabinow 1989, Rotenberg 1995, Rutheiser 1996). And anthropological studies link the macro- processes of cultural hegemony with the micro- processes of resistance and social transformation within the context of deindustrialization and globalization demonstrating that these linkages can be made through a combination of sophisticated theorizing and empirical fieldwork. The contributions of anthropological fieldwork still retain the power to demonstrate the how, why, and when of urban processes, but are even more effective when linked to theoretical frameworks that provide a grounding for further study and discussion.


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