Anthropology Urban Anthropology
Mérida M. Rúa, Arlene Torres
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0026


Urban anthropology investigates cities and the sociocultural experiences and practices of urban dwellers in relation to the larger socioeconomic and cultural contexts. While scholars have focused on an urban milieu throughout the world, theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of urbanity have been carved out of specific locales and historical junctures. Detailed ethnographic and participatory research in the United States and broader Americas seeks to capture daily life in a community, broadly defined. although anthropology and the sister discipline of sociology trace studies of the city to the work of Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges’s 1864 work The ancient city and 19th-century sociology; sustained scholarship in this area of specialization by anthropologists didn’t develop in earnest until the 1940s. The earlier studies were not necessarily recognized in the discipline, because they were dubbed sociological works that were marginal to anthropological theories and methods, focusing on holistic approaches to culture. Exploring the development and role of the city in relation to the hinterland or within a larger sociocultural context, anthropologists since the 1940s have focused on the development of adaptive mechanisms of individuals and collectivities. This prompted studies of cultural displacement and anomie, social stratification, racial and ethnic tensions, and adaptive behaviors and cultural patterns, among the urban poor in particular. Although anthropologists drew on sociology’s long engagement with complex societies, they built upon the methodological strengths of anthropology to study folk in an urban context, but the methodological techniques used to study so-called primitive societies and tribal bands could not be readily transferred. The study of the city, its complex social institutions, and the diversity of lifeways challenged holistic approaches to culture and cross-cultural generalizations. A focus on structures and patterns of social inequality yielded critical analyses of migration, labor, class, race, ethnicity, poverty, and violence. Social and spatial organization and placement and displacement were also informed by processes of industrialization, deindustrialization, and neoliberalism in a local urban sphere that was linked to a broader transnational and global political economy. In sum, scholars of urban anthropology in the United States waged critiques regarding the synchronic and bounded approaches to social life in the city. The relationship among the structure of the city, the cultural apparatus of society, and the transformation of urban settlements was then tied to a political economy ensconced in national and global networks of power, resulting in a range of cityscapes and imaginaries that encompass the industrial, decaying, neoliberal, environmental, and militarized city.

General Overviews

The general overviews in the selections below focus on the development of varied frameworks that encompass regional approaches and cultural variability (Blanton 1976, Brettell 2000); the intersection of urbanism, urban poverty, and urbanization (Fox 1977); the integration of individuals, ethnic groups, and communities linked to larger socioeconomic and political processes (Hannerz 1980, Leeds 1994, Low 1996); and the historical precursors that contribute to this deep anthropological tradition (Disputed Interdisciplinary Foundations) (Harrison 1998, Mullings 1987).

  • Blanton, Richard E. 1976. Anthropological studies of cities. Annual Review of Anthropology 5 (October): 249–264.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Blanton argues for a regional approach to the study of cities, by way of a critique of traditional theories of cities. He suggests that a regional approach can allow us to explain cross-cultural variability and the dynamism of cities. Available online by subscription.

  • Brettell, Caroline. 2000. Urban history, urban anthropology, and the study of migrants in cities. City & Society 12.2 (December): 129–138.

    DOI: 10.1525/city.2000.12.2.129

    Argues that the city as context had been relatively unexplored. Urban anthropology coupled with urban history allows us to compare cities that have traditionally received immigrants and those that have been more recently reconfigured. Insights about residential segregation patterns, racial/ethnic enclaves, and an urban ethos are brought to the fore. Available online by subscription.

  • Fox, Richard Gabriel. 1977. Urban anthropology: Cities in their cultural settings. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    This oft-cited book identifies three major approaches to the study of urban life from an anthropological perspective—urbanism, urban poverty, and urbanization. It argues that a comprehensive integration of these three approaches provides a suitable framework for the examination of cities.

  • Hannerz, Ulf. 1980. Exploring the city: Inquiries toward an urban anthropology. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    A survey that distills and develops into a coherent schema previously dispersed bodies of scholarship on character and organizations of the city and urban life, in order to advance future urban anthropological analysis. Offers a social-network approach as a unifying framework that accounts both for the foundation and future study of cities.

  • Harrison, Faye V. 1988. Introduction: An African diapora perspective for urban anthropology. Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development 17.2–3 (Summer–Fall): 111–141.

    An overview that draws attention to the scholarly productivity of black anthropologists and sociologists dating back to the turn of the twentieth century, which demonstrates that the theoretical and methodological issues that urban anthropologists brought to the fore in the 1960s were not new to the field. Available online by subscription.

  • Leeds, Anthony. 1994. The anthropology of cities: Some methodological considerations. In Cities, classes and the social order. Edited by Roger Sanjek, 233–247. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    The author suggests that the future of anthropological studies of cities must contend with a synthetic framework that incorporates a myriad of variables and that ethnographers working with and within the city should bear this in mind as ecological and holistic perspectives are conjoined.

  • Low, Setha M. 1996. The anthropology of cities: Imagining and theorizing the city. Annual Review of Anthropology 25:383–409.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.25.1.383

    A review essay that challenges anthropologists to theorize the city in their explorations of the relationship of individuals, ethnic groups, and communities to larger socioeconomic and political processes and the related experiences. The author offers theoretical models and analyses of the city that provide important insights about time, space, creativity, the production of knowledge, and public policy.

  • Mullings, Leith, ed. 1987. Cities in the United States: Studies in urban anthropology. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    A volume of original essays that cover a range of anthropological approaches to the city, in which the authors contend that examinations of urbanism and the United States are part of a deep anthropological tradition. The book departs from frameworks of urban disorganization and notions of culture as bounded and unchanging.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.