Urban anthropology

This article seeks to describe the origins of Urban Anthropology as a specific field of the anthropological knowledge. While anthropology literally means “the study of man”, historically both Social Anthropology (in Britain´s use) and Cultural Anthropology (in the American use) were constructed as the disciplines that study “the others”. That meant in the ends of nineteenth century and early twentieth century the study of non-Western societies, specifically the wrongly called “primitive” cultures. In these times the city, associated with western society, modernity and civilization, was not considered an anthropological object. In such configuration of knowledge in the social sciences the city was studied by historical and sociological approaches.

In fact, there have been two traditional requirements in classical anthropology that hindered the constitution of Urban Anthropology. On the one hand, consolidated as the study of “the others”, Anthropology had –and sometimes has- the requirement of “exoticism”. In this sense, the city was not considered exotic enough. On the other hand, classical anthropology developed a holistic approach of its object: the culture studied by ethnographic methods. The city, especially the modern city characterized by its large population and big scale, seemed not to be an appropriate field to practice ethnography.

These intertwined requirements delayed the anthropological studies of the city. Only after the decolonization processes of Africa and Asia, during the sixties and seventies, the Urban Anthropology was consolidated as a specific field of Anthropology. However, before its institutionalization, there were two schools that began to study the city with anthropological methods and concepts: the Chicago School and the Manchester School. Both schools are recognized today not only as the background of Urban Anthropology but the traditions that shaped the way of seeing and analyzing the city (see, for example, Hannerz, 1980 and Signorelli, 1999).

These schools are similar and different at the same time. Both were born in contexts of accelerated changes: the Chicago School in the early twentieth century while its namesake city was transformed from a small town to a big city because of transoceanic migration; and the Manchester School during the thirties and forties, when the East and the South of Africa were urbanized by European colonization and transformed African cultures. Both schools also focused on urbanism as a way of life using ethnographic methods. The differences between these schools were theoretical. While the Chicago School developed an ecological approach to the urban space representing the city as a mosaic of different worlds, the Manchester School analyzed the city as a relational system emphasizing the relevance of the different urban situations to understand people´s behavior.

In short, their legacy is very significant in methodological and theoretical terms. Both schools proved the usefulness of ethnographic methods in urban contexts. And while the Chicago School thought the city as a spatial object, the Manchester School thought the city as a relational one. Today, the research in Urban Anthropology has the challenge to think the spatial and relational dimensions of the city at the same time.


Hannerz, Ulf (1980). Exploring the City: Inquiries Toward an Urban Anthropology. Columbia: Columbia University Press.

Signorelli, Amalia (1999). Antropología Urbana México: Anthropos Editorial.