Urban ethnography

“.. in the coming decade and century anthropology should be evaluate as much on the basis of what it documents and explains in the urban half of the world as on the basis of its theoretical contributions to itself.” (Sanjek 1990: 156).

A print out of Sanjek’s review titled ‘Urban anthropology in the 1980s: A world view’ (1990) has floated around my desk at home for over a year now. I probably came across it when I was reviewing anthropology’s use of the term ‘world view’ and I probably kept it because the projects I feel draw to are generally urban. I have not filed it away yet because I feel like I have yet to take anything way from it.

Bryson’s work in Australia (eg Bryson and Winter 1999) is very relevant for me but the scale and the methodology contrasts with my project as it stands. There has been ethnographic urban research in Australia looking at poverty (eg Peel 2003). I am spending a bit of time reading books that have come out of vaguely ethnographic research as a way of trying to work out how I can make my project feasible.

On what sorts of projects are possible, Sanjek provides a suggestion.

“Urban pathways lead persons to situations where economic, political, legal, medical, educational, religious, and aesthetic activity may be studied. They connect the domains of production, social reproduction, neighboring, traffic and leisure. Their meaning to their users is open to cognitive, psychological, and symbolic analysis. They may be studied through participant observation at selected stopping points (as by Finnegan), through network analysis, and through interviews and dialogic recreation and reflection.” (Sanjek 1990: 176).

So stopping points, networks or recreation and reflection. From the start I have been favouring a stopping points approach with my methodology. Every now and then I think of coming up with a more concrete stopping point, which I may have already blogged about. One of my favourite ideas if I was to go down this path would be to take gardening as my stopping point (across the spectrum of private land, exclusive use- ie community garden plots, and public lands). This is an idea I had last year when I was thinking about why is it that community gardens are seen as such a ‘fix-all’ solution.

Returning to what I am reading, I am not even half way through Elijah Anderson’s Street Wise (1992) which I am finding very difficult to take seriously. I do not think it is only the style of ethnographic writing of the time as I am reading Varenne’s Americans Together (1977) and really enjoying it, even though I am not completely sold on the argument (Varenne is seeking to demonstrate how individualism is the paramount value – in Dumont’s sense – in an American town). Both Anderson and Varenne’s books seem to be suggesting that while capital matters and limits choices, there are a number of more significant considerations than what you earn for what sort of connections you have with society. It is probably not very appropriate to contrast these two books, as they have clearly been written for very different purposes, but I am finding it interesting the way that the two authors discuss drugs.

Anderson’s book is the result of having moved into an area which had been greatly gentrified, with a very disadvantaged area bordering it 25 years prior, with 14 of those years spent researching the area. The image of this married academic discussing his suburb with fellow academics at conference dinners comes to the front of my mind every time he gives an account of what all crack houses are like or the way that some women entice men into the drug scene with sex. Varenne, in contrast, spent a year in the town doing field work and most mention of drugs comes about because he spent his weekend evenings at parties with some of the young adults in the town where they would drink and sometimes smoke some pot.

Still, Anderson has clearly had a successful career and I look forward to reading through this special edition on urban ethnography he edited. Googling Varenne also proved to be worthwhile as he has a blog, which is also something I am looking forward to reading.

Anderson, E. 1992[1990]. Street wise: Race, class, and change in an urban community. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Bryson, L., and I. C. Winter 1999. Social change, suburban lives : an Australian Newtown, 1960s to 1990s.St Leonards: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Peel, M. 2003. The lowest rung : voices of Australian poverty. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sanjek, R. 1990. Urban anthropology in the 1980s: A world view. Annual Review of Anthropology 19:151-186.

Varenne, H. 1977. Americans together, structured diversity in a midwestern town. New York: Teachers’ College Press.



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