Urban Anthropology

Merida M Maria Rua, Arlene Torres

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Urban anthropology investigates cities and the sociocultural experiences and practices of urban dwellers in relation to the larger socioeconomic and cultural contexts. While scholars have focused on an urban milieu throughout the world, theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of urbanity have been carved out of specific locales and historical junctures. Detailed ethnographic and participatory research in the United States and broader Americas seeks to capture daily life in a community, broadly defined. although anthropology and the sister discipline of sociology trace studies of the city to the work of Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges’s 1864 work The ancient city and 19th-century sociology; sustained scholarship in this area of specialization by anthropologists didn’t develop in earnest until the 1940s. The earlier studies were not necessarily recognized in the discipline, because they were dubbed sociological works that were marginal to anthropological theories and methods, focusing on holistic approaches to culture. Exploring the development and role of the city in relation to the hinterland or within a larger sociocultural context, anthropologists since the 1940s have focused on the development of adaptive mechanisms of individuals and collectivities. This prompted studies of cultural displacement and anomie, social stratification, racial and ethnic tensions, and adaptive behaviors and cultural patterns, among the urban poor in particular. Although anthropologists drew on sociology’s long engagement with complex societies, they built upon the methodological strengths of anthropology to study folk in an urban context, but the methodological techniques used to study so-called primitive societies and tribal bands could not be readily transferred. The study of the city, its complex social institutions, and the diversity of lifeways challenged holistic approaches to culture and cross-cultural generalizations. A focus on structures and patterns of social inequality yielded critical analyses of migration, labor, class, race, ethnicity, poverty, and violence. Social and spatial organization and placement and displacement were also informed by processes of industrialization, deindustrialization, and neoliberalism in a local urban sphere that was linked to a broader transnational and global political economy. In sum, scholars of urban anthropology in the United States waged critiques regarding the synchronic and bounded approaches to social life in the city. The relationship among the structure of the city, the cultural apparatus of society, and the transformation of urban settlements was then tied to a political economy ensconced in national and global networks of power, resulting in a range of cityscapes and imaginaries that encompass the industrial, decaying, neoliberal, environmental, and militarized city.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationOxford Bibliographies Online
Subtitle of host publicationAnthropology
EditorsJohn L Jackson, Jr.
PublisherOxford University Press
StatePublished - 2016


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