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Urban anthropology: what is and what is studied in it

Urban anthropology: what is and what is studied in it

April 28, 2024

Urban anthropology is the branch of anthropology that studies the sociocultural processes that occur within cities. It has arisen as a consequence of the needs that the population growth and the expansion of the cities have generated. For the same reason, it has positioned itself as a branch of study that will be fundamental to know, analyze our social organization in the medium and long term.

In this article you will find what is and what urban anthropology studies , how its object of study arose and some of its applications.

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What is Urban Anthropology? Definition and influences

It is known as urban anthropology to the set of research and studies that are carried out within urban spaces, through a fundamentally ethnographic methodology.

It is a relatively recent area of ​​study, which follows the line of the sociocultural tradition of anthropology. But not only that, but it has enough influences from the more classical traditions of sociology, which focused on study institutions and social relations within the processes of industrialization of the nineteenth century .

Among other things, these traditions were strongly based on an important distinction of ways of life: there are urban settlements, and there are rural (or non-urban) settlements; and the processes and social relationships that are established in each one are also different.

The new conception of the city

All of the above led some sociologists to consider cities as a kind of social laboratories , as well as everyday and ordinary life (apparently devoid of meaning) as an activity that could reflect much of social problems, and their possible solutions.

Thus, there was an important academic division between sociology and sociocultural anthropology. Given this, there were anthropologists (especially from the American tradition), who noted that the communities that had traditionally been studied by anthropology were part of a larger social configuration, where the cities played an important role .

This was one of the first motivations of anthropologists to study social processes from the perspective of cities and anthropology. In the North American context, for example, related studies on rural-urban migration have been very popular since the first half of the 19th century. the impact that urbanization processes have on people . All this quickly moved to other major European cities where anthropology was also developing.

Finally, the interests in urban studies led to organize different academic publications, as well as multidisciplinary symposia in anthropology and ethnological sciences, societies of specialists in anthropology applied to the urban, specific professionalization in the area, and so on.

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Object of study: what is urban?

In its beginnings, anthropology was dedicated to the study of tribal societies and non-industrialized communities (formerly called "primitive societies"). In contrast, what were called "complex societies" (which are basically Western industrialized societies) had remained spaces of little interest to anthropology.

As we have seen, it was through historical and geopolitical events (which among other things have extended the processes of urbanization and industrialization on a global scale), when anthropologists began to move towards the study of cities and the urban.

Especially this increased from the decade of 1990, between different discussions and opinions on whether urban spaces and industrialization processes could be constituted as an object of study of their own, which also discussed the legitimacy of urban anthropology as a differentiated subdiscipline of social anthropology and sociology.

In the meantime, different proposals have emerged. There are those who think that urban anthropology is the study of what is done within urban areas, which brought a new need: to define the object of study of urban anthropology. That is, to clarify what is "urban", as well as determine which can be considered urban areas and which are not .

In the beginning, the "urban" was defined in terms of population density and in relation to population settlements where social interaction takes place . Others have defined it as the different attributes that cities have as a specific social institution; others as centers of technological and economic change, to mention just a few examples.

How does it apply?

In the beginning, the sociological studies of the urban, which influenced in an important way the development of urban anthropology, adopted methods based on historical evidence , interviews, and especially statistical and demographic material that would allow them to understand different social processes.

It was a quantitative methodology, which was soon rejected by different researchers who subscribed to the development of more qualitative methodologies that would allow them to understand the meaning produced by the actors themselves within the city. It arises among other things the ethnographic method, which soon became one of the main tools of anthropology in all its branches.

Bibliographic references:

  • Patro, G. & Pardo, I. (2013). Forum on 'Urban Anthropology'. Discussions and Comments. Urbanities, 3 (2): 79-132.

SOCIOLOGY - Émile Durkheim (April 2024).

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