Urban anthropology is the branch of anthropology that studies the sociocultural processes that occur in cities. It emerged as a result of the needs generated by population growth and the expansion of cities. For the same reason, it has positioned itself as an essential branch of study to know and analyze our social organization in the medium and long term.
In this article, you will find what urban anthropology is and what it studies , how its object of study emerged and some of its applications.
What is urban anthropology? Definition and influences
Urban anthropology is known as the set of investigations and studies carried out within urban spaces, through a fundamentally ethnographic methodology.
It is a relatively recent area of study, which follows the sociocultural tradition of anthropology. But not only that, but it has many influences from the more classical traditions of sociology, which focused on the study of institutions and social relations in the industrialization processes of the 19th century .
Among other things, these traditions were strongly based on an important distinction in ways of life: there are urban settlements and there are rural (or non-urban) settlements; and the processes and social relations established in each one are also different.
The new design of the city
All this has led some sociologists to consider cities as a kind of social laboratory , as well as everyday and everyday life (apparently devoid of meaning) as an activity that could reflect many social problems and their possible solutions.
Thus, there was an important academic division between sociology and sociocultural anthropology. Faced with this, there were anthropologists (especially from the American tradition), who observed that the communities traditionally studied by anthropology were part of a broader social configuration, where cities played an important role .
This was one of the first motivations for anthropologists to study social processes from the perspective of cities and anthropology. In the North American context, for example, studies related to rural-urban migration and the impact of urbanization processes on people have been very popular since the first half of the 19th century . All of this quickly moved to other major European cities where anthropology was also developing.
Finally, interests in urban studies led to the organization of several scholarly publications, as well as multidisciplinary symposiums in anthropology and ethnological sciences, societies of specialists in anthropology applied to urbanization, specific professionalization in the field, and so on.
Object of study: what is urban?
In the beginning, anthropology was devoted to the study of tribal societies and non-industrialized communities (formerly called “primitive societies”). In contrast, what have been called “complex societies” (which are basically western industrialized societies) have remained spaces of little interest to anthropology.
As we have seen, it was through historical and geopolitical events (which, among other things, extended urbanization and industrialization processes on a global scale), when anthropologists began to advance towards the study of cities and the urban.
This especially increased from the 1990s onwards, amid different discussions and opinions about whether urban spaces and industrialization processes could be constituted as the object of their own study, which also discussed the legitimacy of urban anthropology as a different subdiscipline of social anthropology. and sociology.
Meanwhile, different proposals have emerged. There are those who think that urban anthropology is the study carried out in urban areas, which brought about a new need: to define the object of study of urban anthropology. That is, to clarify what the “urban” is, as well as to determine which areas can be considered urban and which cannot .
Initially, “urban” was defined in terms of population density and in relation to the 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 name just a few examples.
How does this apply?
In the beginning, sociological studies of the urban, which significantly influenced the development of urban anthropology, adopted methods based on historical evidence , interviews and, above all, statistical and demographic material that allowed them to understand different social processes.
It was a quantitative methodology, which was soon rejected by different researchers who adhered to the development of more qualitative methodologies that allowed understanding the meaning produced by the actors in the city. Among other things, the ethnographic method emerges, which soon became one of the main tools of anthropology in all its branches.