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

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies and Edited Volumes
  • Methodology
  • Peer-Reviewed Journals

Sociology Urban Ethnography
Forrest Stuart
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0256


If ethnography is the study of people as they negotiate their everyday lives, then urban ethnography is the study of how urban residents and other inhabitants make sense of their daily social worlds, navigate surrounding communities, and manage the broader forces that structure the urban experience. Methodologically, it privileges deep, immersive fieldwork alongside research participants. Substantively, it focuses on interactions and institutions that define urban space, whether those are public streets, neighborhood organizations, or community events. Urban ethnographies have traditionally thought of “communities” geographically, examining how the central topics of poverty, crime, culture, and peer group formation play out in delimited spaces such as neighborhoods, wards, and districts. Theoretically, it has historically tended to draw on social-constructionist and interactionist orientations, conceiving of the urban life as something “built up,” so to speak, from repeated and ritualized encounters. As one of the longest-standing and iconic subfields of sociology, anthropology, and other humanistic social sciences, urban ethnography remains one of the most influential modes of understanding social life in cities. True to form as one of the most conflictual and controversial subfields, an increasing number of scholars are pushing back on convention, insisting on the need to embrace theoretical orientations that are more critical and structurally focused, and to more adequately consider the global forces and relational dynamics that exist beyond, but fatefully impinge upon, bounded field sites. As urban ethnography’s readership has grown, so too have methodological critiques regarding replicability, as well as concerns about potential exploitation and voyeurism among its practitioners and readership.

Anthologies and Edited Volumes

There are several high-quality anthologies and edited volumes that effectively capture the range of topics, debates, and approaches to urban ethnography. Duneier, et al. 2014 and Ocejo 2013 provide excerpts from seminal books and articles. Low 1999; Atkinson, et al. 2001; and Ocejo 2019 are collections of original essays and critical commentaries.

  • Atkinson, Paul, Amanda Coffey, Sara Delamont, John Lofland, and Lyn Lofland, eds. 2001. Handbook of ethnography. London: SAGE.

    A lengthy and comprehensive volume of original essays covering a variety of substantive, ethical, theoretical, methodological, and professional topics related to ethnography.

  • Duneier, Mitchell, Philip Kasinitz, and Alexandra K. Murphy, eds. 2014. The urban ethnography reader. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This edited volume contains over eight hundred pages of excerpts from previously published books and academic journal articles spanning over 120 years of urban ethnographic research. The reader is divided into eight thematic parts (e.g., “Finding Community in the Modern City,” “Raising a Family,” and “Getting Paid”). Each section and individual reading is prefaced with introductory commentary that summarizes the broader topics and debates into which each reading intervenes.

  • Low, Setha M., ed. 1999. Theorizing the city: The new urban anthropology reader. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    An edited collection of twelve urban ethnographies conducted in field sites across the globe. Written primarily by anthropologists, the chapters are assembled around five themes: the divided city, the contested city, the global city, the modern city, and the postmodern city. The volume is intended to convey the theoretical importance and potential of urban ethnographic research.

  • Ocejo, Richard E., ed. 2013. Ethnography and the city: Readings on doing urban fieldwork. New York: Routledge.

    Similar to Duneier, et al. 2014, this is an edited collection of excerpts from previously published books and academic journal articles. However, this volume devotes more focus to the craft and practice of conducting urban ethnography, with sections organized around topics that include data collection, relationships with participants, and ethical considerations.

  • Ocejo, Richard E., ed. 2019. Urban ethnography: Legacies and challenges. Research in Urban Sociology 16. Bingley, UK: Emerald.

    A collection of original essays synthesizing previous trends in urban ethnography and sketching future directions. Topics include the legacy of the Chicago school, global urban ethnography, training, the concepts of place and space, and issues of researcher identity, reflexivity, and positionality.

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