For best experience please turn on javascript and use a modern browser!

Anthropology and the city: Standing on the shoulders of giants? - by Gareth A. Jones & Dennis Rodgers

Publication date 05-06-2016

Over the past decade there has been a flourishing of anthropological texts dealing with the city.

Examples of anthropological studies dealing with the city are Sian Lazar’s El Alto, Rebel City (2008), Didier Fassin’s Enforcing Order (2013), Thomas Blom Hansen’s Melancholia of Freedom (2012), Kristin Peterson’s Speculative Markets (2014), or Austin Zeiderman’s Endangered City (2016), for example, all offering insightful depictions of the dynamics of urban life.

Holistic perspective

A common element of these works is that they explicitly explore the affective dimensions of city-living from a holistic perspective, to the extent that taken together they arguably represent something of an urban anthropological regeneration when considered in relation to the sub-discipline’s traditional mainstay, the neighbourhood ethnography. Yet studies explicitly offering a window onto the broader nature of urban contexts are not necessarily new, and as we argued in a new CUS working paper, were in fact the basis upon which urban anthropology originally emerged as an identifiable sub-discipline in the first quarter of the 20th century before subsequently taking a more particularistic turn. 

photo by Mark Rutgers

Historical review

In our paper, we offer a historical re-appraisal of the origins and evolution of holistic urban anthropological approaches, explaining how, why, and in what context these coalesced during the first quarter of the 20th century, as well as offering an explanation for the ensuing rise of more parochial approaches to city life. In particular, we argue that the origins of a holistic epistemological approach to urban contexts lie in the work of the famous Chicago School of Sociology rather than anthropology per se. To a certain extent, this reflects the fact that the boundaries between sociology and anthropology were much less clear-cut in the past, something that is also evident in the way they share key foundational intellectual figures such as Immanuel Kant or Emile Durkheim, for example. At the same time, this particular genesis also implicitly highlights how urban anthropology took something of a ‘wrong turn’ at some point, insofar as the mainstay of urban anthropology was for many years the neighbourhood study focusing on a specific area of a city, more often than not treated as a bounded entity. While often extremely valuable, these studies tend to offer a limited insight into broader urban processes, and represent a very different tradition to the more holistic anthropological research that is (rightly) being celebrated today.

Alternative historiography

Our alternative historiography of urban anthropology however does more than simply offer a re-appraisal of the intellectual foundations of the contemporary urban turn in anthropology, but also highlights a number of enduring methodological and epistemological lessons that the Chicago School of Sociology’s foundational urban investigations continue to offer for anthropology today. Studies such as Nels Anderson’s The Hobo (1923), Frederic Thrasher’s The Gang (1927), Paul Cressey’s The Taxi Dance Hall (1928), Harvey Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and the Slum (1929), Clifford Shaw’s The Jack-Roller (1930), Pauline Young’s The Pilgrims of Russian-Town (1932) – to name but a few of the Chicago School of Sociology’s prolific output – were all in constant theoretical and empirical conversation with each other, highlighting how an ‘urban anthropological’ approach – grounded in a holistic disposition or sensitivity towards cities – has the potential to offer something much broader. More specifically, they demonstrate how the way forward is clearly not just developing ever more nuanced and holistic ethnographies of individual cities, but rather returning to something that was at the heart of the original anthropological project, namely comparison, and developing what other disciplines have described as “the comparative gesture” in order to attain a better understanding of the underlying nature of what the Chicago School scholar Louis Wirth famously and elegantly described as “urbanism as a way of life”.

Gareth A. Jones

Gareth Jones is Professor of Urban Geography, Director of the Latin America and Caribbean Centre, a part of the Institute for Global Affairs, and Associate Member of the International Inequalities Institute.

Dennis Rodgers

Dennis Rodgers is Professor of International Development Studies. A social anthropologist by training, his research focuses broadly on issues relating to the political economy of development, including in particular the dynamics of conflict and violence in cities in Latin America (Nicaragua, Argentina) and South Asia (India).