American Anthropologist Vol. 78 No. 2 June 1976, p448-449

Anthropologists in Cities. George M. Foster and Robert V. Kemper, eds. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. viii + 261 pp., bibliography. $6.95 (paper).

Anthony Leeds Boston University

It is striking that the anthropological literature on urban places, especially that produced by American anthropologists, has made no significant theoretical, methodological, or technical advance since the first great British social anthropological monographs based on African data. The Foster and Kemper volume provides no exception to this sorry tale, and even steps backward in two respects: (a) the failure (except for one author) to deal with cities, as such, or even with the conceptual problem of what "urban" is to mean theoretically, methodologically, or substantively; and (b) myths it perpetuates.

The "in" of the title signalizes the book's failure. All but one chapter deals with very limited, infra-urban domains--a Colombian squatter settlement (Michael Whiteford), migrants from a Mexican rural community (Kemper), the Black/Chicano school system of Stockton, California (John Ogbu), Ghanaian courts (Michael Lowy), a California retirement community (Susan Byrne), Belgrade "peasant" immigrants (Andrei Simic), Chinese restaurant workers in London (James Watson), and Taiwanese rural- migration (Bernard and Rita Gallin)No author confronts the city as a whole. For example, none conveys the idea that a city government might deeply affect the micro, cosmic domains these anthropologists came in" to the city to study. Many things any urbanite must contend with and which structure the whole city receive virtually no mention e.g., the transportation system, the structures and locations of urban labor markets so important in determining individual and household strategies regarding work housing, and schooling, nor the city's overall social structure, hence the constraints possibly affecting the microdomains the authors studied. Even classic Chicago urban ecology delineating the ordering of the cities absent. In effect, these anthropologists

have pursued older pre-"urban anthropological" interests "in," but have largely failed to cope with, the city itself. Data given in each chapter do not indicate any such inquiries ere made.

The one exception to these comments is Nancie Gonzalez, whose chapter achieves

marked success in delineating a whole city's structure and tracing its relationship to broader urban societal features, including rural-urban migration (as part of the urban process) and government in the Dominican Republic The microapproach results in a failure to contribute theoretically or methodologically while perpetuating old fallacies. For example, the editors (pp. 2-7, 15) contrast quantitative techniques (especially in other social sciences) to "first-hand field research," meaning qualitative participant observation. Long since, this was proved an erroneous opposition: even the most :"primitive 11 societies have complex quantitative aspects requiring demographic and other quantitative procedures. Of course the urban scale and complexity are greater, but that entails no difference in kind between studies of primitives or country and city places. Quantification, based on precise qualitative determination of categories, is essential to both; its lack was a methodological failing of .-traditional" anthropology. Epitomizing the ,editors' parochial methodological views is their comment (p. 15) that the formation of close personal friendships reflects a rural bias!

The issue of methodology and the failure to grapple with theory mean that the book must fail even in its own terms: the editors' Preface states that the book is aimed at helping reduce anxieties of graduate students about to do their first major fieldwork for their dissertations. The book must fail in this because, first, generic methodological considerations are lacking. The particularism of the case studies makes them ungeneralizable Jo other situations. Though many colorful land interesting data appear in the data sections, they remain anecdotal nonetheless.

Second is the absence of theoretical,' methodological, and substantive training, prior to fieldwork, respecting the field situation, as seen in the seven chapters written by Berkeley students. Ogbu, for example, only after months of fieldwork, "discovered" the bureaucracy presiding over Stockton's schools. He then changed his whole research design. Neither Stockton, nor Mexico City, nor any other is a heretofore unknown tribe. Citizens of most countries today would have taken bureaucracy as given, made inquiry about it, and indicated its theoretical implications in the research proposal. Though Whiteford planned to study both a squatter settlement and a housing project, he dropped the latter, but apparently did not trace the city's variation and distribution of low-income housing types--essential, since residential, social mobility, and other household strategies cannot be understood from a single ("traditional" community-study) case.

In sum, the book is a contribution neither to theory nor methodology and even fails in its stated aim. Best are the data sections in, each chapter-but these need the monographic treatments now beginning to appear (e.g., Ogbu, Kemper, Gonzalez). We need serious professional discussion of where urban studies by anthropologists are to go. An "urban anthropology" makes little sense; anthropologists cannot raise a significant voice if they continue to tribalize the city. Urban studies must synthesize pieces of geography, economics, political science, history, information theory, and anthropology into a comprehensive approach. It behooves anthropologists, tyro-urbanists, to help, not hinder, that synthesis.

Foster Home | Biographical Information | Bibliography

Emeritus Home | Anthropology Department | The George & Mary Foster Anthropology Library | Department of Anthropology Publications

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Document maintained on server: by the Anthropology Library.
If you have questions about this page, mail
Last update 08/24/2007. Server manager: contact