What is urban anthropology?

Urban Anthropology and/or “the practice of ethnography in urban settings”

My current academic goal is to address the question about the legitimacy of the “discipline of urban anthropology” and the responsibility of anthropologists in the ever-urbanizing geography of the twentieth-first century. Ulf Hannerz (1980) and Garcia Canclini (in Gmelch, et al. 2010) are given credit for giving anthropologists the point of departure: there is a need to understand the circumstances “peculiar to urban living” (Hannerz, as cited in Herzfeld 2001).

First of all, I am obsessed with cities. I like the "urban." As a student/architect/planner/writer who is interested in the urban residents’ mode of inhabitation in a highly complex spatial terrains such as cities, I would like to re-visit the core argument of, as anthropologist Michael Herzfeld calls, “the practice of ethnography in urban settings” (2001 ,p.134). The complexity of urban condition concerns not only with the mode of inhabitation, but also race, gender, age, and class inequalities (Low 1999). For this project, this is main argumentative tool that I will first employ to distinguish this particular practice of ethnography from Sociology, disproving the misunderstanding that ethnography is only suitable for the study of rural settings with limited scope of study and external influences therefore cannot be done in urban settings. I will return to work of Hannerz and Canclini in drawing the attention to the history of its development. Then, I draw upon the work of Michael Herzfeld (2005; 2006; 2009), James L. Watson (1997) and Theodore C. Bestor (1989; 2004) in legitimating tactics for anthropologists – not sociologists, not urban planners – to delve deeply into urban settings to find out about what matters to us in the practice of understanding the society through rigorous ethnography.

Basically, I expand on the basis of Herzfeld’s observations (2001) that the approach to the practice of anthropology today has altered upon its awareness of the complexities of identity politics. Anthropology expands its view from the description of the characteristics of the people to the investigation of how those people define themselves. I plan to, then, discuss a case study from a geographical area of interest that I am particularly interested in, East Asia especially China.

WJH Harvard University
October 26, 2010

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