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Urban Anthropology

Urban anthropology is a multidisciplinary field that explores the social, cultural, political, and economic dynamics of urban environments. It seeks to understand the ways in which people navigate, adapt to, and shape the cities they live in. By examining these processes, urban anthropologists contribute valuable insights into urban development, planning, and policymaking.

Urban Anthropology

Historical Development of Urban Anthropology

Early Research Urban anthropology has its roots in the early 20th century, when scholars like Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Louis Wirth began to study the rapidly expanding cities of North America and Europe (Guest, 2003). These scholars were part of the Chicago School of Sociology, which played a crucial role in shaping urban anthropology as a distinct field of study. The Expansion of Urban Anthropology In the 1960s and 1970s, urban anthropology expanded to incorporate other disciplines, such as archaeology, geography, and political science. This period also saw the rise of influential urban anthropologists, such as Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte, whose work emphasized the importance of community participation and the need for more human-centered urban planning (Guest, 2003). Contemporary Urban Anthropology Today, urban anthropology continues to evolve and adapt to new challenges and emerging trends in urbanization. The field has become increasingly global and interdisciplinary, with scholars focusing on topics like migration, gentrification, sustainability, and the impacts of technology on urban life.

Key Concepts in Urban Anthropology

  1. Space and Place: Space and place are central concepts in urban anthropology. They refer to the physical and social dimensions of the urban environment and help us understand how people perceive, experience, and interact with their surroundings (Low, 2017).
  2. Social Networks and Communities: Urban anthropologists study the complex web of social relationships that exist within cities, focusing on how these networks contribute to the formation and maintenance of urban communities (Guest, 2003). They explore how people build connections, establish social identities, and create a sense of belonging in the urban context.
  3. Power and Inequality: Urban anthropology also examines the various ways in which power is distributed and exercised within cities. This includes the study of political systems, economic structures, and social hierarchies that shape urban life and contribute to inequality (Low, 2017).

Methods in Urban Anthropology

  1. Ethnography: Ethnography is a central method in urban anthropology, involving the in-depth study of people and their cultures through participant observation, interviews, and other qualitative techniques (Guest, 2003). By immersing themselves in the daily lives of city dwellers, urban anthropologists can gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of urban life.
  2. Comparative Research: Comparative research is another important method in urban anthropology, which involves the systematic comparison of different cities, neighborhoods, or urban phenomena. This approach helps to identify patterns, trends, and underlying processes that shape urban environments (Low, 2017).
  3. Interdisciplinary Approaches: Urban anthropologists also draw on various interdisciplinary approaches, such as spatial analysis, social network analysis, and historical research. These methods help to illuminate different aspects of urban life and contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of cities.

Intersections with Other Disciplines

  1. Urban Planning: Urban anthropology is closely linked to the field of urban planning, as it provides valuable insights into the social, cultural, and political dimensions of urban environments. By incorporating anthropological perspectives, planners can develop more inclusive and sustainable urban policies and strategies (Sandercock, 1998).
  2. Urban Geography: Urban anthropology intersects with urban geography, as both fields share an interest in the spatial organization of cities and the ways in which people interact with their environments. Together, urban anthropologists and geographers explore issues like segregation, gentrification, and the impacts of urban design on social life (Low, 2017).
  3. Urban Sociology: Urban anthropology and urban sociology both examine the social dynamics of cities, focusing on topics like social networks, communities, and power structures. However, urban anthropology tends to place greater emphasis on the cultural dimensions of urban life, while urban sociology often focuses on quantitative research and statistical analysis (Guest, 2003).
  4. Urban Ecology: Urban anthropology also intersects with urban ecology, as both fields explore the complex relationships between humans and their environments. Urban anthropologists contribute valuable insights into the social, cultural, and political factors that influence urban ecosystems and the sustainable management of natural resources (Grimm et al., 2008).
DisciplineCommon Areas of Interest
Urban PlanningInclusive and sustainable urban policies and strategies
Urban GeographySpatial organization, segregation, gentrification
Urban SociologySocial networks, communities, power structures
Urban EcologyHuman-environment relationships, urban ecosystems
Table 1: Intersections of Urban Anthropology with Other Disciplines

Contemporary Issues in Urban Anthropology

  1. Migration and Transnationalism: Urban anthropologists examine the impact of migration and transnationalism on cities, focusing on how these processes shape social, cultural, and economic dynamics (Vertovec, 2007). By studying the experiences of migrants and their families, urban anthropologists contribute to a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities that arise from increased global mobility.
  2. Gentrification and Displacement: Gentrification and displacement are critical issues in contemporary urban anthropology, as they involve the transformation of urban neighborhoods and the displacement of long-term residents. Urban anthropologists explore the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to these processes (Lees, Slater, & Wyly, 2008).
  3. Sustainability and Climate Change: Urban anthropologists are increasingly concerned with issues of sustainability and climate change, as cities face growing environmental challenges. By examining the social, cultural, and political factors that contribute to unsustainable urban practices, urban anthropologists can help identify strategies for fostering more sustainable and resilient cities (Pelling & Manuel-Navarrete, 2011).
  4. Technology and Urban Life: The rapid advancement of technology has significant implications for urban life, and urban anthropologists are interested in exploring the ways in which technology is shaping cities and the lives of their inhabitants. This includes studying the impact of digital technologies on social relationships, the digital divide, and the potential of technology to address urban challenges (Castells, 2011).
Migration and TransnationalismImpact of migration and transnationalism on cities
Gentrification andDisplacementCauses, consequences, and solutions to displacement
Sustainability and Climate ChangeStrategies for fostering sustainable and resilient cities
Technology and UrbanLifeImpact of technology on social relationships and urban challenges
Table 2: Contemporary Issues in Urban Anthropology

Future Directions in Urban Anthropology

As cities continue to evolve and face new challenges, urban anthropology will need to adapt and expand its focus. Some potential future directions for the field include:

  • The Study of Emerging Urban Forms As urbanization patterns shift and new forms of cities emerge, urban anthropologists will need to explore the social, cultural, and political dynamics of these new urban environments (Angel et al., 2011).
  • The Impact of COVID-19 on Cities The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound effects on cities and urban life, and urban anthropologists will need to examine the long-term implications of the pandemic on urban environments, social networks, and urban planning (Honey-Rosés et al., 2020).
  • Intersectionality and Inclusivity Urban anthropology must continue to engage with intersectionality and inclusivity, examining the ways in which race, gender, class, and other social dimensions intersect and shape urban life (Crenshaw, 1989).
  • Collaborative and Participatory Research Future urban anthropology research should emphasize collaborative and participatory approaches, working with communities and stakeholders to address urban challenges and promote more equitable and sustainable cities (Campanella, 2015).


Urban anthropology is a multifaceted field that explores the complex social, cultural, political, and economic dynamics of urban environments. By examining the ways in which people navigate, adapt to, and shape their cities, urban anthropologists contribute valuable insights into urban development, planning, and policymaking. As cities continue to grow and change, the interdisciplinary nature of urban anthropology will play an increasingly important role in understanding and addressing the challenges and opportunities of urban life.

See Also

Action AnthropologyAmerican AnthropologyAnthropology of Art
Anthropology of DevelopmentApplied AnthropologyAuto Anthropology
British AnthropologyCognitive AnthropologyCorporate Anthropology
Cyborg AnthropologyDigital AnthropologyEconomic Anthropology
Environmental AnthropologyEpidemiological AnthropologyFather of Anthropology
Forensic AnthropologyFrench AnthropologyGerman Anthropology
Indian AnthropologyJapanese AnthropologyLegal Anthropology
Media AnthropologyMuseum AnthropologyNutritional Anthropology
Philosophical AnthropologyPolitical AnthropologyPsychological Anthropology
Public AnthropologyRussian AnthropologyTheological Anthropology
Transpersonal AnthropologyTribal AnthropologyUrban Anthropology
Visual AnthropologyKinanthropometrySociology
Historical AnthropologyCultural AnthropologyArchaeology


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  • Honey-Rosés, J., Anguelovski, I., Bohigas, J., Chireh, V. K., Daher, C., Konijnendijk, C., Litt, J. S., Mawani, V., McCall, M. K., Orellana, A., Oscilowicz, E., Sánchez, U., Senbel, M., Tan, X., Villagomez, E., Zapata, O., & Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. (2020). The Impact of COVID-19 on Public Space: A Review of the Emerging Questions. Cities & Health, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/23748834.2020.1780074
  • Lees, L., Slater, T., & Wyly, E. (2008). Gentrification. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Pelling, M., & Manuel-Navarrete, D. (2011). From Resilience to Transformation: The Adaptive Cycle in Two Mexican Urban Centers. Ecology and Society, 16(2), 11. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-04038-160211
  • Vertovec, S. (2007). Super-diversity and its Implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(6), 1024-1054. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870701599465
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