Exploring Urban Spaces – An Introduction to Anthropology of the City

Anthropology of the city is a field that studies urban spaces and cultures through an anthropological lens. With more than half of the world’s population now living in cities, understanding the ways in which people interact with and shape urban environments has become increasingly important.

Anthropology of the city provides valuable insights into topics such as urban identity, place-making, cultural landscapes, and social dynamics in urban settings.

By studying cities from a holistic perspective that takes into account their social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions, anthropology of the city can help us better understand our increasingly complex and interconnected world.

What is Anthropology of the City?

Anthropology of the city is a subfield of anthropology that focuses on the study of urban spaces and cultures. Its scope includes a wide range of topics, including the social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions of urban life. Anthropologists who specialize in this field use a variety of methods to gather data, such as ethnography, participant observation, interviews, and archival research.

Anthropology of the city differs from other fields like urban planning or architecture in several ways.

While these fields are primarily concerned with designing and shaping physical environments, anthropology of the city takes a more holistic approach by examining how people interact with and shape their urban surroundings.

It also emphasizes the importance of understanding the social and cultural dimensions of urban life, which are often overlooked in more technical approaches to urban planning and design.

Additionally, anthropology of the city recognizes that cities are complex systems that cannot be fully understood or controlled through top-down planning or design interventions alone.

The Importance of Studying Urban Spaces and Culture

Studying urban spaces and culture through an anthropological lens is important because it provides a deeper understanding of the complex social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions of urban life. Anthropology of the city recognizes that cities are not just physical environments but also social and cultural constructs that are shaped by human interactions and practices.

By studying urban spaces and culture through an anthropological lens, we can gain valuable insights into topics such as urban identity, place-making, cultural landscapes, and social dynamics in urban settings.

For example, anthropologists have shown how different groups in cities may have different perceptions of space and place based on their cultural backgrounds or experiences. They have also explored how urban environments can both reflect and shape social inequalities.

Anthropology of the city also emphasizes the importance of understanding the historical and contextual factors that shape urban spaces and cultures. By examining the ways in which cities change over time, we can gain a better understanding of how they are influenced by broader social, economic, and political forces.

Overall, studying urban spaces and culture through an anthropological lens can provide a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of contemporary urban life. It can help us to develop more effective strategies for addressing issues such as inequality, displacement, gentrification, and environmental sustainability in cities around the world.

Methods Used in Anthropology of the City

Anthropology of the city uses a variety of methods to study urban spaces and cultures. Some common methods include ethnography, participant observation, interviews, archival research, and spatial analysis.

Overall, these methods allow anthropology of the city researchers to gain a deeper understanding of urban spaces and cultures by examining them from multiple perspectives – both past and present – while taking into account the complex interactions between people and their environment within cities.


Ethnography involves immersive fieldwork in which anthropologists live among and observe the people they are studying. This method allows for an in-depth understanding of the social and cultural practices of urban communities. For example, Sharon Zukin used ethnographic methods to study the changing landscape of SoHo in New York City, examining how artists, developers, and residents interacted with each other over time.

Participant Observation

Participant observation involves actively participating in the activities of a community or group while also making observations about them. This method allows researchers to gain insights into the lived experiences of urban residents. To give you an example, Setha Low used participant observation to study public space in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park during the 1980s and 1990s.


Interviews involve asking questions to individuals or groups about their experiences and perspectives on a particular topic. This method can provide valuable insights into people’s attitudes towards urban spaces and cultures. Aihwa Ong used interviews to explore how migrant workers in Singapore navigated their daily lives within the city.

Archival Research

Archival research involves analyzing historical documents such as newspapers, maps, photographs, and government records to understand how urban spaces have changed over time. This method can provide important insights into the political and economic factors that shape cities. Thomas Sugrue used archival research to examine how racial segregation was enforced through housing policies in Detroit during the mid-20th century.

Spatial Analysis

Spatial analysis involves using geographic information systems (GIS) or other tools to map out patterns of urban development or social change over time. This method can help researchers identify trends or patterns that are not immediately visible through other methods. For example, David Harvey has used spatial analysis to study gentrification patterns in cities around the world.

Key Concepts in Anthropology of the City

These key concepts help us better understand the complex dynamics at play within urban environments and provide insight into why certain social practices and behaviors persist within specific contexts.


Place-making refers to the ways in which people create and shape their physical environment in order to give it meaning and significance. It involves a range of practices, from designing buildings and public spaces to creating cultural events or rituals. It is important because it helps us understand how people relate to their surroundings and how they construct a sense of identity through their interactions with them.

Urban identity

This relates to how people identify with or feel connected to cities as places. Urban identity can be shaped by a variety of factors such as history, culture, language, ethnicity, class, or gender. Understanding urban identity is important because it helps us understand why people value certain aspects of urban life over others and how these values shape their behaviour within cities.

Cultural landscapes

Cultural landscapes is related to how human cultures have transformed natural landscapes into meaningful places through practices such as agriculture, architecture, and art. These cultural landscapes are important because they reflect the diverse histories and traditions that have shaped different regions around the world.

Social inequality

This concept refers to disparities in access to resources or opportunities based on factors such as race, class, gender, or sexuality. Social inequality is an important issue in anthropology of the city because it shapes patterns of urban development and affects how different groups experience urban life.


Mobility refers to movement within and between urban spaces by individuals or groups for work, leisure, or other purposes. This is an important aspect of anthropology of the city because it affects how people interact with each other and with their environment within cities.

Examples of Anthropological Studies on Urban Spaces and Culture

There are many anthropological studies that have focused on urban spaces and culture. Here are a few examples:

The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs: This classic study by urban activist Jane Jacobs examines the social and economic dynamics of cities, arguing that successful urban spaces require a mix of diverse uses, small blocks, and active street life. Her work has had a significant impact on urban planning and design.

City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo” by Teresa Caldeira: This study examines how residents of São Paulo navigate their daily lives within a city marked by high levels of violence and social inequality. Caldeira argues that residents engage in various forms of resistance against these conditions, including the creation of alternative forms of community organization.

The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo” by Saskia Sassen: This study examines the rise of global cities as centers for finance, technology, and cultural production. Sassen argues that these cities are characterized by complex networks of power and inequality that shape both local and global politics.

No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work” by Grey Gundaker: This study examines the cultural significance of yard work practices among African Americans in Philadelphia. Gundaker argues that these practices reflect a deeper sense of connection to both nature and community.

Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects” by Jordan Sand: This study examines the material culture of Tokyo’s urban spaces through an analysis of everyday objects such as vending machines, signs, or public art installations. Sand argues that these objects reflect local histories and cultural practices that are often overlooked in traditional accounts of urban development.

These studies demonstrate the diversity of approaches taken within anthropology of the city to examine different aspects of urban life – from social inequality to cultural practices – while also highlighting the potential implications for policy makers or designers seeking to create more equitable or sustainable cities.


In conclusion, anthropology of the city is a rich and diverse field that provides valuable insights into our increasingly urbanized world. Through studies of place-making, urban identity, cultural landscapes, social inequality, and mobility, anthropologists have shown how cities are shaped by complex social and cultural dynamics that go far beyond mere physical infrastructure.

The examples discussed in this article demonstrate the many ways in which anthropological research can contribute to our understanding of urban life – from examining the impact of violence and social inequality on urban residents to exploring the cultural practices that shape our built environment.

Overall, anthropology of the city is a valuable field because it helps us understand not only how cities function but also how they are experienced by different groups of people. By shedding light on the diverse social and cultural practices that shape our urban spaces, anthropologists can help inform policies and design decisions that promote more equitable, sustainable, and liveable cities for all.

Related Terms

New Urban Anthropology: A approach to the study of cities that sees them as unique places, with their own cultures and customs.

Folk-Urban Continuum: A model that saw cities as places where folk traditions were being gradually replaced by urban ways of life.

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