What I am up to

I want to thank Kerim and all the Savage Minds folks for giving me the opportunity to share my work and thoughts. Its an especially nice opportunity for me because my relationship to the mainstream of contemporary anthropology has been, if not vexed exactly, then fraught. Though I received my PhD in anthropology, though I have taught in anthropology departments for the past five years, and though, in the classroom at least, I have become a believer in anthropology’s indispensability to the well-rounded undergraduate, my writing and research has always felt somewhat oblique to the discipline and its central concerns.

That’s because I investigate issues–urban governance and urban political economy in the contemporary United States–that have generally been addressed in interdisciplinary urban studies. However, the way I investigate them–using ethnographic methods and analysis, paying close attention to my informants’ words and to detail and particularity, and by taking seriously the impact of what I will gloss here as “cultural” matters in the context of urban governance–are very “anthropological,” or at least seem so to me.

Adding to this, the people I have for the most part studied–urban planners, city officials, economic development experts, developers and so on–are generally not studied in any real depth by anthropologists or by people in urban studies. Most urban anthropologists (not all, of course) tend to focus on relatively poor, or ethnic, or working class neighborhoods; when my “people” do show up, its usually only when City Hall and developers are trying to perpetrate some kind of nefarious development scheme. In urban studies, the folks I study typically are either subsumed into the application of some larger structuralist theory of urban governance (the urban growth machine, the capitalist urban state, urban neoliberalism, etc.), or (more common now that Marxist thought has been, if not displaced as dominant in critical urban studies, then theoretically hybridized, ethnographized, and made more flexible) incorporated into nicely context-sensitive empirical accounts in a relatively one-dimensional way, as inhabitants of government positions or as avatars of commodification, rather than as three dimensional individuals with class, race, gender, educational, and other biographical/social/cultural characteristics (that is to say, in the manner that anthropologists typically portray their informants).

Urban anthropology and critical urban studies do a lot of things really well–think of how much we know about the dynamics, complexities, and social organization of poor urban neighborhoods, or about why it is that developers so often get what they want from city government–but one thing they aren’t particularly good at is providing well-rounded and robust accounts of the formation, makeup, development, history, and internal tensions of urban elites. I think this is important to do for both analytical and political reasons.

So that’s what I am up to. Hopefully it begins to explain why an anthropologist would do something like study the administration of New York’s ex-billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

4 thoughts on “What I am up to

  1. Julian,

    “Adding to this, the people I have for the most part studied–urban planners, city officials, economic development experts, developers and so on–are generally not studied in any real depth by anthropologists or by people in urban studies.”

    This is fascinating research, and I am looking forward to reading your posts here. I find city planners, developers, and others who are involved in the development process (contract geologists, biologists, archaeologists, etc) endlessly fascinating, so it will be great hear about how you have approached these issues. Definitely fertile territory for anthropologists! My interest in this comes from my short experience working in CRM in California…unbelievably interesting clashes and politics over how people imagine and enact development. Anyway, I’m glad to see you added to the roster here at SM.

  2. Julian – I am so excited to hear about someone studying this kind of thing. I actually have a bachelor’s in anthropology (which is why I read this blog) and a master’s in community planning and I currently work for a regional planning agency in the midwest. Over the past few years I’ve had the chance to see, from the inside, how planning actually gets done and it is fascinating. Frustrating, too, at least from the planner’s angle. Good luck on your research, I look forward to reading more about it here.

  3. but one thing they aren’t particularly good at is providing well-rounded and robust accounts of the formation, makeup, development, history, and internal tensions of urban elites. I think this is important to do for both analytical and political reasons.

    Yes. Could you tell us a bit more about the sources you use and how you achieve the kind of access that makes this kind of research possible?

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