In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews: Readers and Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Historical Notes on Urban Ethnography
  • Classic Urban Ethnographies
  • Theorizing the City
  • Space and Place

Urban Studies Urban Anthropology
Petra Kuppinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0025


Urban anthropologists study cities and spaces. They analyze urban lives, cultures, communities, place-making, and transformations and explore urban inequalities that are the result of uneven class, race, ethnic or gender dynamics, im/migration, labor conflicts, or political oppression. They investigate urban segregation, displacement, disenfranchisement, discrimination, poverty, exclusion, gentrification, environmental justice, neoliberal economies, labor relations, markets, street-vending, housing, civic organization and participation, minority/immigrant cultures, crime, or violence. Using anthropology’s central method of participant observation (mostly in combination with other methods), urban anthropologists are well placed to analyze and theorize the minutiae of diverse urban dwellers’ everyday lives, work, dwelling situations, struggles, cultural and social experiences, and creative culture-producing activities. At the dawn of the 21st century, urban anthropologists examine the devastating impact of neoliberal policies and economies that caused the influx of millions of displaced peasants, and environmental and war refugees into cities in the Global South and North where these newcomers, often in competition with other poor urbanites, struggle to find accommodations and make a living. Urban anthropologists investigate the lives and struggles of disenfranchised individuals, groups, and residential communities, which for example provide their own housing, maneuver aspects of exclusion or structural violence, try to make a better future for their children, and work hard to make a living often in vast “informal” markets that characterize many cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Urban ethnographies describe how the poor, migrants, or refugees to the city create meaningful lives for themselves, their families, and their communities in the face of discrimination or exclusion. In recent years, debates in the field have turned to questions of urban structural injustice, infrastructural issues, and manifestations of environmental injustice. Studies examine topics like the provision of water (or the absence thereof), other amenities and services, or the presence, absence, or quality of public transportation, the presence of toxic industries or waste, and the latter’s effects on poorer urban dwellers especially. To conduct their research, urban anthropologists often live in the communities they study in order to experience the daily struggles of their interlocutors. Some also work in the jobs their research participants hold. Being present in their field sites/communities at all times of the day and night, all days of the week, and throughout the seasons of the year, anthropologists produce nuanced description and informed analyses of urban citizens’ everyday lives, work, and struggles. Ethnographic accounts of the minutiae of urban dwellers’ lives provide analytical insights into how individual and communal lives articulate at the complex intersection of urban social, cultural, economic, and spatial dynamics. They theorize multilayered interactions between individual actors, communal frameworks, local social and municipal institutions, national and international politics, and urban, national, and global economies.

General Overviews: Readers and Anthologies

A number of readers and anthologies illustrate the empirical and theoretical scope of urban anthropology. Earlier works chronicle foundational debates in the discipline and illustrate the articulation of central themes, theoretical questions, and methodological issues. Southall 1973 brings together theoretical and empirical work by early practitioners who shaped and defined the field (e.g., Anthony Leeds, Oscar Lewis). A central concern in the 1970s was the theorization of urbanization processes especially in the context of what were then called “developing countries.” Similarly, authors theorized aspects of rural-to-urban migration. Southall’s volume includes a sixty-page bibliography that provides a comprehensive picture of early (and defining) works in urban anthropology. Mullings 1987 discusses works and trends in urban anthropology in the United States, debating issues such as urban policy, poverty, class and ethnic relations, schooling, gender, and kinship. It also explores research ethics and the role of theory in urban anthropology. Starting in the 1990s, many urban anthropologists who worked in small spaces increasingly analyzed the making, remaking, and sometimes unmaking of such small (material) spaces. They frequently encountered considerably spatial and social tensions or conflicts that centered on social ownership, current and future uses, aesthetic considerations, or overall social and spatial control. Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga 2003 illustrates, discusses, and theorizes complex and often contested spaces and spatialities. It sheds light on the multilayered nature of place-making processes and identifies constituencies involved and invested in particular spaces while examining social, political, cultural, and economic dynamics that frame such processes. The massive reader Duneier, et al. 2014 provides an overview of more than a century of urban ethnographic work. The short chapters are excerpts from classical ethnographies and relevant theoretical debates. Nonini 2014 examines central conceptual and theoretical terms and analyzes their development, transformations, and relevance in urban anthropology. Each chapter covers one term/concept, such as spatiality, built structure and planning, nature, policing and security, or food and farming. This reader provides a comprehensive overview, considerable background information, and discussions of current concerns and debates in the field. Gmelch and Kuppinger 2018 contains more than thirty original essays covering a broad field of current debates in anthropology. This volume is written for an advanced undergraduate or graduate student readership and illustrates the methodological, theoretical, and empirical scope and wealth of urban anthropology. Chapters address foundational issues such as conducting fieldwork in the city, themes to do with urban communities, urban structures and inequalities, and migration, and they highlight current debates in the field about urban agriculture, environmental issues, traffic, or accessibility.

  • Duneier, Mitchel, Philip Kasinitz, and Alexandra K. Murphy, eds. The Urban Ethnography Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    With almost 900 pages, this massive reader brings together a vast selection of excerpts from classical texts in urban ethnography, like for example, Ulf Hannerz, Elijah Anderson, Paul Cressey, Loïc Wacqaunt, Terry Williams, or Philippe Bourgois. The book includes mostly texts by sociologists (and a smaller number by anthropologists), but it neatly captures some highlights in the shared tradition of urban ethnography.

  • Gmelch, George, and Petra Kuppinger, eds. Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City. 6th ed. Long Grove IL: Waveland Press, 2018.

    This is the oldest continuously published reader of original essays in urban anthropology. The sixth edition offers sections about urban fieldwork; communities; urban structure, inequality, and survival; immigrants, migrants, and refugees; changing cities; and current topics in urban anthropology. The last section includes chapters that address debates in urban anthropology such as environment, transportation, infrastructure, religion, or children in the city.

  • Low, Setha, and Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga, eds. The Anthropology of Space and Place. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

    This anthology includes central work in the theoretical debate of spaces and places, among them reflections about small/smallest spaces (like bars, farms, or small sacred spaces). Authors theorize spatialities and debate the complex nature of embodied, gendered, or inscribed spaces. They insist on the importance of an analysis of contested spaces and the spatial tactics of excluded or overall disenfranchised urban residents/actors.

  • Mullings, Leith, ed. Cities of the United States: Studies in Urban Anthropology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

    This volume provides an introduction/overview of the first two decades of urban anthropology in the United States. Chapters introduce the empirical scope of research discussing topics such as “underground economies,” urban schooling, class and ethnic relations, issues of gender and work, immigration, health, and kinship. The volume addresses theoretical issues such as the emergence of the “new poor” as an urban constituency and the related issue of inequality that had grown in the context of Reaganomics in US cities.

  • Nonini, Donald, ed. A Companion to Urban Anthropology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2014.

    This reader contains original topical essays about central concepts in urban anthropology, such as spatiality, community, built structure and planning, class, gender, pollution, or social movements. Essays illustrate historical developments of the respective concepts, stake out their theoretical relevance, and outline future directions for debates and research.

  • Southall, Aidan, ed. Urban Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies of Urbanization. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

    At a historical moment when growing numbers of people moved to expanding cities and more anthropologists conducted research in cities, Southall brings together scholars who conducted research across the globe (Mexico, Japan, Ethiopia, Zambia, Peru, or Fiji). Chapters outline, debate, and refine the rapidly growing field of urban anthropology. Addressing theoretical questions and introducing empirical evidence, chapters cover issues like transportation in Zambia, urban ethnicities in Ethiopia, or rural-urban migration in Peru.

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