Anthropology Language and Urban Place
Derek Pardue, Lucas Amaral de Oliveira
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0179


Language and urban place is a selective combination of at least three subdisciplines within the US four-field approach to anthropology. While the connection to linguistic anthropology is straightforward, as such scholarship analyzes the use of symbols for the purposes of human meaning-making, the link to archaeology and sociocultural anthropology requires additional explanation. In essence, what language and urban place achieves is the approximation of discourse to materiality. The theoretical strand of interest is a point of convergence with human or cultural geography in that language and urban place researchers give sustained attention to cartography and location. Material culture, in this case, is the sidewalk or a school classroom rather than a 10th-century Viking urn. Based on our areas of expertise, we decided to focus on the “urban”; however, we acknowledge the importance and necessity of a separate article for the “non-urban.” We gesture to this wider literature of human sense of place by citing a couple of foundational texts in the General Overview section. In any case, the basic premise remains: humans occupy space thereby transforming both the meaning of the location and self. The distinction of language and urban place scholars emerges from an articulation of epistemological “turns” (i.e., the linguistic or discursive turn as well as the spatial and mobility turns) within social sciences and the humanities toward the end of the 20th century. In the late 1960s, anthropologists, influenced by sociologists, such as Erving Goffman and Emmanuel Schlegloff, began to consider the role of location or position in the meaning of talk and interaction in the social construction of places. Until the 1980s, the role of surroundings and place on semantics drew much more attention than vice-versa. For their part, a cadre of geographers toward the end of the 1960s adopted an alternative perspective, often termed “the perceptual approach,” to include “culture” in the analysis of place-making. Again, it would take a generation for geographers, following pioneers such as Yi-Fu Tuan, to appreciate the application of “text” within architecture and landscape professions and, subsequently, argue that spoken language can direct attention and organize insignificant entities into meaningful composite wholes. Finally, language and urban place scholarship has contributed to our understanding of power, expressive culture, and identity politics by showing that discourse and place-making are not simply semiotic practices of everyday occupations but systematic claims of recognition and knowledge. Informed by feminism, queer studies, decoloniality, and critical race theory, scholars have also opened new doors toward understanding the operative dimensions of social differentiation and popular identification. The following bibliographic sections represent these themes.

General Overview

We think it useful to provide a list of more general publications that establishes a basic analytic vocabulary, which the scholars highlighted in the following sections utilize as a matter of course. Highlighted key issues include globalization and mobility (Hannerz 1996), globalization and its effects on linguistic studies (Blommaert 2010), linguistic anthropology and rooted moralities (Basso 1996), cultural geography (Cresswell 2004), belonging and place (Nic Craith 2012, Lovell 1998), place and power (Keith and Pile 1993, Shields 2016), and human sensibility of place (Basso and Feld 1996).

  • Basso, Keith. 1996. Wisdom sits in places. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press.

    In one of the few ethnographies that elevates language and place to primary analytical focus, this work develops traditional anthropological fieldwork methodologies of map-making and the recording of local place-names into a deep analysis of Apache morality and cosmology.

  • Basso, Keith, and Steven Feld, eds. 1996. Senses of place. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

    As part of the famed SAR series, this edited volume marked a collective effort for US-based cultural anthropologists to turn their ethnographic lens toward the sentiment of place. Contributors explore various modes of discourse, including spoken language and sound, and their role in local, or native, expressions of human experience in qualitative terms of place.

  • Blommaert, Jan. 2010. The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511845307

    Blommaert joins a cadre of sociolinguists who have debated the paradigm that globalization equals standardization/deterritorialization, by arguing, in contrast, that it means semiotic pluralism. Through an array of examples, he shows that locality is often shot through with globally circulated signs, such as English or French words, which serve an emblematic function to convey meaning beyond conventional linguistic parameters, including politics, class, and a range of indicators of inequality and privilege.

  • Cresswell, Tim. 2004. Place: A short introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Cresswell introduces the concept of place by linking everyday uses to theoretical debates. Place is a meaningful location composed of three elements: location, determined by a set of coordinates; locale, related to the material configuration of social relations; and the sense of place, which encompasses the symbolism of association with a place, the production of meaning, and its representation.

  • Hannerz, Ulf. 1996. Transnational connections: Cultures, peoples, places. London: Routledge.

    Hannerz operationalizes categories such as “the local,” “community,” “nation,” and “modernity” to explain the significance of population movements. He argues that such demographic events imply a wide exchange of resources, discourses, and cultural practices across borders, leading to the formation of identities for those who transit.

  • Keith, Michael, and Steve Pile, eds. 1993. Place and the politics of identity. London: Routledge.

    The contributors to this edited volume propose that the intersections between history and geography serve as a salient departure point to discuss identity and sociopolitical differentiation. In particular, the volume’s introduction is a helpful review of the arguments supporting an “agentic” (rather than a passive) perspective of space.

  • Lovell, Nadia, ed. 1998. Locality and belonging. London: Routledge.

    This edited volume presents a balance of urban and rural articulations of the importance of territory in collective belonging. Contributors argue that locality, similar to culture, can no longer (if ever it could) be understood as a bounded entity. This book departs from others in that the subject matter is squarely located in the Global South.

  • Nic Craith, Máiréad. 2012. Narrative of place, belonging and language: An intercultural perspective. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    This book treats the negotiation of itinerant identities via practices of language acquisition and performance. The central figures of Nic Craith’s text are relatively well-to-do migrants who reflect on the in-betweenness of diasporic experiences and identification.

  • Shields, Rob. 2016. Places on the margin: Alternate geographies of modernity. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.

    Originally published in 1991, during the height of the debate concerning the epistemological dynamics of modernity and post-modernity, this book provokes the reader to take the human capacity to imagine as a serious practice of place-making and identification. Shields mixes methodologies and material, all iterated from peripheral locales in the United States and United Kingdom, to make his argument that marginalization is always a socio-spatial process.

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