Urban Ethnography Research Paper

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Urban ethnography is the close and systematic study of urban life and culture, relying both on first-hand observation and careful interviews with informants, and on available records. Its roots can be traced to the early British social anthropologists. A peculiarly American variant emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, most notably through the fieldwork of Jane Addams, W. E. B. DuBois, and Robert E. Park, all of whom wrote in the interest of social reform.

Their concern was to inform the wider citizenry of the conditions of the urban poor as well as the nature of racial relations. Concerned particularly with the social challenges of industrialism and urbanization, Park and his students conducted seminal ethnographic work on the city, effectively establishing the premier American school of urban sociology in the early part of the twentieth century. The urban world of the twenty-first century presents new challenges to the ethnographer, who must now deal with the social impact of de-and reindustrialization, increased urbanization, more complex immigration patterns, and the local manifestations of such global economic and cultural processes, including structural poverty.

1. The Chicago Tradition

At the University of Chicago, Park and his students produced a series of important and detailed ethnographic case studies of the cultural patterns of the peoples of Chicago. Prominent among these were Anderson (1923), Wirth (1928), Zorbaugh (1929), Thrasher (1927), Shaw (1966), and Drake and Cayton (1945). These studies tended to focus on immigrants, the poor, racial relations and the various social problems of the day, providing a treasure trove of local knowledge about the city, particularly its neighborhoods, creating a mosaic of social scientific work, and establishing effectively the field of urban ethnography.

After World War II, a new generation of Chicago ethnographers emerged, most notably Everett C. Hughes, whose most prominent students included Howard S. Becker and Erving Goffman. Jointly, they shaped not only the field of urban ethnography but also American sociology more generally. Important examples of urban ethnography also appeared from other settings, such as Boston ( Whyte 1943, Gans 1962), Newburyport, Mass. ( W. Lloyd Warner’s Yankee Studies Series), and Muncie, Indiana (Lynd and Lynd 1929). But as time passed, these efforts were overshadowed by quantitative methods of sociology.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chicago School was being reinvigorated by Park’s students’ students, with Morris Janowitz, Gerald D. Suttles, and Howard S. Becker as prominent new teachers. Short and Strodtbeck’s (1965) classic study of gangs in Chicago was followed shortly after by influential works on the urban black ghetto. Though not of Chicago, Liebow (1967) and Hannerz (1968) conducted path-breaking ethnographic analyses on the black ghettoes of Washington DC. And Rainwater (1968) added to this work with his impressive study of a failed housing project in St. Louis.

In the mid-1960s, Suttles took up residence in the ‘Addams area’ of Chicago for three years as a ‘participant–observer.’ He analyzed and described the social worlds of four major local ethnic groups— blacks, Italians, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans—and the ways they shared the social spaces of an area undergoing significant ‘urban renewal’ at the hands of the local government. The groups sorted themselves out in an ‘ordered segmentation’ created among themselves in a kind of territorial ballet. Residents distinguished their own values and social rules by knowing by whom they were opposed, and thus conflict was kept at a minimum.

During the late 1960s, William Kornblum took a job in a steel mill in South Chicago for two years and involved himself in the social world of the mill employees. They accepted him and his family in ways that became a profound learning experience for him. Among his chief findings was the surprising degree of comity and goodwill in the workplace in spite of the ethnic competition, much of it achieved through political sharing, which provided a certain meaning to the lives of the workers. Contrary to widely held assumptions, the people were quite conservative politically. Getting to know the workers through Kornblum’s rich ethnographic experience makes such political views understandable.

In the early 1970s, Elijah Anderson spent three years studying black street-corner men at a Southside Chicago bar and liquor store. He socialized with them closely, drinking, hanging out, visiting their homes and places of work, and he came to know them very well. Contrary to the view of those who are inclined to see this world as monolithic, there were in fact three groups of men at this place. They called themselves ‘regulars,’ ‘wineheads,’ and ‘hoodlums,’ the latter two being somewhat residual, and subject to labeling or name calling. The study sought to understand the ways in which these men came together on this street corner to make and remake their local stratification system.

Around this time, Ruth Horowitz moved into a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, and over three years affiliated herself with a male street gang, the young women who often spent time with them, and upwardly mobile youth, learning about the issues facing such groups at first hand. Her work represented an early document in the sociology of gender, but she also found that as gang members went about their daily lives in both the community and the wider society, they would experience tensions and conflicts between their efforts to pursue the American dream, and their commitment to a code of honor that demanded actions with a high risk of compromising these efforts.

2. Ethnographic Fieldwork

Like the recent Chicago researchers presented above, urban ethnographers typically involve themselves in a social setting or community with the express purpose of learning about the people residing there. Of particular interest is how residents meet the exigencies of life, group themselves socially, and arrive at their shared understandings of the rules of everyday life— conventions, prescriptions, and proscriptions of life peculiar to their world. The answers to the researcher’s questions about solving immediate problems of living reveal much about the social order, or what Clifford Geertz labels ‘local knowledge.’ In particular, key events and people’s reactions to them can alert the ethnographer to the subtle expectations and norms of the subjects, and so to their culture.

In penetrating such local cultures, the ethnographers must not only engage in intensive fieldwork, cultivating subjects, and experiencing their social world, but also keep copious field notes—a journal of the lived experience. In developing questions and hypotheses about the nature of the local setting, ethnographers must also deal with their own world view: their ‘own story’ or set of working conceptions about their own world as well as the world of the subjects. Depending on how the ethnographer treats them, such presuppositions can be problematic or advantageous. The subjectivity inherent in the process of fieldwork is often considered to be a strength, for with it can come profound sensitivity to the core concerns of the people being studied.

In this connection, a useful distinction may be drawn between the ‘participant–observer’ and the ‘observing participant.’ The former may be in an early, tentative process of negotiating a relationship with the group under study, and may be satisfied with this position, while the latter has become close to the subjects, effectively empathizing with them, and, it is hoped, able to articulate their point of view. Both positions have their drawbacks and strengths, requiring the ethnographer to remember constantly the primary goal: to provide a truthful rendition and analysis of the social and cultural world of the subjects. To see the world from their point of view requires learning their vocabulary, their concerns, and even their prejudices. It is from such a position that the ethnographer may be able to raise the most penetrating questions, questions that focus on the subjects’ core issues of social organization. In this respect, the most effective questions blend both the ‘problems’ confronted by the subjects in their everyday lives, and the conceptual ‘problem’—the answers to which would presumably advance the field theoretically.

The ethnographer’s formal response to such questions, once formulated, can be considered a hypothesis, which in turn may serve as the tentative organizing principle for the ethnographic representation and analysis to follow. Here, the critical task is to advance the hypothesis toward a tenable proposition, or a plausible argument. The ethnographer’s accumulated field notes will likely include either positive or negative cases, requiring revision of hypotheses to take the case into account. Through this style of analytic induction, the goal is always to develop an accurate account of the world of the subjects, while at times knowingly generating ever more penetrating questions. Such questions, by provocation and stimulation, trial and error, help to advance the ethnographer’s case to surer ground. In this sense, the questions can be, and often are, more important than the ‘answers.’

In the effort to apprehend, understand, and ultimately represent the social setting, the researcher becomes a kind of vessel, a virtual agent of the subjects themselves, serving as a communication link to the uninformed. Such a task is not accomplished easily. Not only does it require a certain amount of empathy in addition to impressive conceptual and observational skills, but the audience, including other social scientists and the ‘lay public’ to whom the setting is represented may have such strong presuppositions that no amount of evidence will be convincing. This is one of the inherent difficulties and challenges of doing and presenting worthwhile ethnographic work, particularly in socially, politically, or racially charged environments.

3. The Challenge For Urban Ethnography In The Twenty-first Century

In recent years, deindustrialization, reindustrialization, increased urbanization, immigration, and economic globalization have made urban areas increasingly complex, both geographically and ethnically. Boundaries, including national ones, are, at the start of the twenty-first century, less important as a barrier to the movement of people, goods, capital, and culture. Los Angeles, for instance, with its ethnic diversity, sprawl, and lack of a single center may be an anticipation of the shape of future cities. So may ‘edge cities’ (Garreau 1991), such as the Valley Forge– King of Prussia area northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—urban centers that develop near, but not within, existing cities. And New York, as a global hub with an increasingly international population, epitomizes the tensions between ‘local’ and ‘global’ ways of life.

To understand the new global immigration, for instance, ethnographers must now come to appreciate and learn more about the lives of the British Sikhs of California who travel back and forth between New York and extended families in India, as well as Bombay elites and Punjabi farmers arriving in the United States at the same time, and low-and high-caste Indians in Chicago sharing utter confusion toward suburbanites. Also important is the manner in which such ‘new’ people impact established ethnic and racial populations. The black street vendor’s story is important, as are the stories of the New York Haitian taxi driver, who finds his own identity by actively distancing himself from the African American, and who visits periodically his cousins who reside in suburban Paris (see Duneier 2000). Of no less importance is the social situation of the Taiwanese middle-class immigrants to Philadelphia who assimilate to ‘get along,’ but who are strongly ambivalent about ‘losing’ their Chinese heritage (Tsai 1998).

Moreover, the connections between urban poverty and culture become more acute and ever more complicated in these new environments. Park, DuBois, Addams, and other pioneers addressed the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration early in the twentieth century. Modern ethnographers must come to terms with both positive and negative human consequences of deindustrialization, and cybernation of industry in the context of the new global realities, noting particularly the implications for living standards in the local urban environment often beset by ethnic competition. These socioeconomic forces have brought about increasing structural poverty, in which many people are unable to develop the human and social capital necessary to rise from destitution (see Wilson 1987, Anderson 1990). The process of reindustrialization in the areas of light industry, cybernetics, and service must be studied, with its attendant issues of hard and soft skills. ‘Brown racism’ ( Washington 1990) must also be addressed, with its sources and its implications for local urban life and culture. The social world of illegal immigrants from China and from Mexico must be rendered, as well as that of the former peasant from the Ukraine who now makes his living brokering rental properties in New York. In many respects, Thomas and Znaniecki’s (1918) early studies of Polish peasants in Europe and America anticipated the kind of ethnographic work on immigrant ‘flows’ being done at the start of the twenty-first century.

The shifts in social theory that accompany the growing complexity of the empirical world create new lenses with which to see, and therefore present new challenges for conducting a faithful ethnography. Increasingly, ‘local’ social processes are influenced by supra-local forces that must be studied to illuminate the connections among race, class, power, deindustrialization, and pluralism. To be effective, ethnography, then, must be holistic.

Ethnographers themselves, their audiences, and other consumers are also becoming increasingly diverse. The articulate voices of African-American, Native American, Asian-American, Latino, and gay and lesbian ethnographers as well as local residents who have become anthropologists and sociologists are being heard. Such diversity raises obvious questions about the politics of representation. Increasingly, as never before, ethnographers want to render their own stories, their own realities and local knowledge, and in doing so, make competitive claims on intellectual turf. In these circumstances, some stories get heard, others are silenced, and some interested parties want only the most flattering stories of their ‘own’ represented.

These are some of the more pressing challenges for urban ethnography today, and they are well worth the effort. As these challenges are met, urban ethnography will become more complex, meaningful, and it is hoped, effectual. David Riesman once likened worthwhile ethnography to a conversation between classes. In this sense, each ethnographic case study can be viewed as an important part of a dialogue for understanding between and among those of diverse backgrounds, a dialogue that becomes steadily more urgent.


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