A subdomain of cultural anthropology characterized by the amplitude and diversity of research, urban anthropology established itself as a response of anthropologists to the impasse triggered by the “dissolution of the traditional object” caused by the end of colonialism. This crisis paved the way for a critique of the foundations of anthropology, which in turn materialized in the rehabilitation of the groups “without history, stagnant in time and space”. The initial goal was to understand how urbanization, which has gradually become a global phenomenon, has generated a specific way of life, sometimes marked by social and cultural disorders. By re-evaluating the research options, urban anthropology also operated a consolidation of the study of cultures and human societies in their diversity, a reaffirmation of the global project of anthropology.

The methodological principle used, the ethnographic research, propelled the new subdomain on a field classically occupied by sociologists, and the alternative study was directed towards the society of which the anthropologist was a part of.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the studies that focused on the impact of urbanization on rural areas are a tribute of anthropologists to the first interpretations of the concept of community and society proposed by Hegel and the intellectual effervescence of German universities in the late XIXth century. In Berlin and Göttingen were active personalities from various fields such as Georg Simmel and Ferdinand Tönnies (sociologists), Wilhelm Windelband (philosopher), Moritz Lazarus, Heymann Steinthal and Wilhelm Wundt (psychologists). Their theories have influenced the leading exponents of the Chicago School, William Isaac Thomas, Robert Ezra Park and Louis Wirth, who, through their work, laid the foundations of urban anthropology. By 1930, Chicago became the second largest city in the United States and the fifth largest on the planet, with over three million inhabitants, a space where new social problems arose. “Segregation, delinquency, crime, vagrancy, unemployment, gang formation, etc., were imposed as research topics with a certain urgency, especially since a number of researchers from this” school “had been initially journalists and municipal experts responsible for documenting or solving urban social problems ”. The initial methodological error of the Chicago School was addressing the rural world in order to understand the city as a place of “the emergence of the individual as a unit of thought and action”. A series of perspectives emerged from the contrast between urban life and the idealized rural universe, shaping the history of urban anthropology: the “ethnography of loneliness”, the imaginary mapping of the city into “moral regions” or “natural areas of segregation” and the urban space articulated in a network in which a set of values, ideas and standards circulate.

The research of the urban phenomenon gained momentum only after the 60s, amid radical changes in the social sciences driven by rapid urban transformation, in which rural communities were integrated at that time, more or less controlled. The acute interrogation of the boundaries of the field prompted a number of anthropologists to find solutions, by creating a general framework for the analysis of urban areas. In 1977, Richard G. Fox reflected: “If anthropology could say new things about cities, if anthropologists could conduct effective research in urban areas, I believe that then the discipline […] will live in the present complex rather than expiring alongside with the primitive past ”. Fox’s program focused on studying “urban institutions and their cultural environments in many different societies and times” and distinguished between the anthropology of urbanism, the anthropology of urbanization, and the anthropology of urban poverty. The first perspective focused on researching the specific characteristics of life in the urban environment. The anthropology of urbanization addressed the issue of migration of people from rural areas to cities, and the anthropology of urban poverty identified individual issues relevant to life in cities. There is also a distinction between urban anthropology, of the city and the anthropology in the city, between the macrocosm and the microcosm.
After the 1970s, the expansion of research paved the way for the systematization of the theoretical framework and the advance of a unifying structure of ideas. The urban was approached either from the perspective of physical or social space related to the attitudes and behaviors associated with life in the city. Attempts to define the urban environment and the classifications of city typologies have often been ignored precisely by the anthropologists who were less interested in the essence of the phenomenon than in the actions that took place on the urban scene. The city, seen as the foundation of modern civilization, has become a landmark for a deep understanding of the process that gave rise to different communities from traditional ones. Its characteristics, speed, competition and individualism provoked changes in micro-social institutions such as marriage, family, kinship.

The nucleus that fuels urban anthropology is the process of urbanization considered by some researchers as the fundamental principle of civilization “the highest degree of socio-cultural evolution” that humanity has reached, a recent development of human culture that raises many questions and interdisciplinarity.

Unlike fragmented sociological studies, urban anthropology has been directed towards a holistic perspective, often integrated into the discourse of other social sciences, an extension of areas of interest to encompass almost every dimension of urban life, from individual stories to neighborhoods and institutions, connections between places and populations in the whole urban system, comparing communities at regional, national and international level. In practice, the research methodology favored the study of relatively homogeneous groups or those based on coexistence or common belonging to a certain register of life in the city. The problems of urban cultures and identities were also laboriously analyzed: the concept of ethnicity, subcultures of marginality, delinquency and numerous artistic expressions of “urban theater” (festivals, parades and carnivals, processions, political, sports or commercial events). The historical perspectives, the functioning mechanisms of certain social groups have not been forgotten.

Today “[…] urban anthropology refers to the study of the cultural systems of cities but also of their connections with smaller places and populations, part of a global urban system.”
 “… contemporary issues of urban anthropology include rural-urban migration, demography, adaptation and adjustment of people in densely populated areas, the effects of urban conditions on cultural pluralism and social stratification, social networks, the functions of kinship, work, urban growth, architecture, crime (and other urban dilemmas), practical urban issues such as housing, transport, space use, infrastructure and waste management. ”

Text: Alexandra Rusu

Photo Source: Wikipedia


Wolfgang Kaltenbacher, Positioning Urban Anthropology: A Road Map for a History of Ideas, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/0392192117740024

Michel Agier, Les savoirs urbains de l’anthropologie, https://doi.org/10.4000/enquete.683

Amrit Kumar Bhandari, Urban anthropology: an overview of the discipline and scope, Journal of Sociology & Antropology-Vol. IV, 2010, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/215457781_Urban_Anthropology_An_Overview_of_the_Discipline_and_Scope


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