Excerpt from “The Citizen. What Do We Know About Inhabitants of Big Cities”

How to study urban tribes.

Photo: Strelka Institute

A new collection of essays entitled “The Citizen” published by Strelka Press hit the shelves last month. Is it possible to create a composite image of the citizen living in the big city? The editors of this particular book claim that this is not only possible, but actually desirable. Diversity may be the defining quality of a metropolis, but drawing a portrait of an average Muscovite, Saratovite, New Yorker, or Parisian can help urban planners create comfortable cities and better respond to complex needs. Here, Strelka Magazine provides an excerpt from an essay included in the book, “Urban anthropology: from local ‘tribes’ to global ‘flows’”, written by urban anthropologist Mikhail Alekseevsky.

Citizens as natives

Modern cities still seem like an unusual field for an anthropologist to study: exotic tribes and vanishing communities are traditionally perceived as more likely subjects for this kind of research. But it’s precisely the use of this approach that has enabled anthropological study to acquire a competitive advantage in urbanism. Psychology deals with the intricacies of human mentality, and society as a whole is being studied by the sociologists; meanwhile, anthropology focuses on communities or “urban tribes”.

Map of Newburyport / source: wikipedia.org

The origins of anthropology as a science are deeply entangled with colonialism. In the second half of the 19th century, the British Empire was undergoing rapid expansion: as new colonies were created, managing those territories became increasingly more challenging. There was a lot that was considered to have been “lost in translation” in the interactions between the colonial administration and the local population. Anthropology grew out of this pragmatic need to gain a better understanding of the cultural and social aspects of the everyday life of those who were referred to as “primitive societies” and considered less “civilised” than the Europeans. Even though the majority of British anthropologists at the time refused to work directly for the colonizers, trying to maintain their neutral position, the knowledge of the social hierarchies, everyday life, and culture of the various ethnic groups that they provided was actively utilised in the management of the colonies. Сontemporary anthropology, on the other hand, driven by feelings of shame and guilt regarding its colonial past, focuses more on the advocacy potential of the discipline. The aims of this “activist anthropology” are in direct opposition to the practices of the past: here, research is seen as a means of promoting and protecting the rights and needs of indigenous peoples.

But this wasn’t the case in the early days of anthropology. The perception of various ethnic groups as fundamentally different from Europeans precipitated the emergence of very particular methodologies for data collection. One of the methods to appear in this period was “participant observation”, an attempt on the part of the researcher to actively partake in the everyday rituals of the group being studied while making detailed records of his or her observations.

For decades, the dream of almost any anthropologist was to travel to the edge of the world, away from civilisation, where a vanishing community was living, and to dedicate himself to the long, gradual exploration of its traits, rituals, and culture. For a long time, the persistence and popularity of these aspirations meant that there was little interest left for the study of cities. The only exception was the work of the American researcher William Lloyd Warner. He was the first to apply the methods of anthropology to his research concerning urban communities.

Postcard, Newburyport, 1880

The initial steps of his career path were quite orthodox: he spent three years in Australia surveying the indigenous people, an experience that was later summarised in his book “A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe”. But even then, Warner often confessed to his colleagues that the main aim of his study of the “primitive” communities was in fact to gain a better understanding of Western society.

After his return from Australia in 1929, Warner decided to employ anthropological methods in his research on contemporary Americans, and chose what he perceived as a “typical small town” for his research. He picked Newburyport MA, one of the oldest towns in America, founded in 1735. In order to preserve the anonymity of his informants, Warner concealed not only their identity, but also the name of the town they were from. He came up with a fake name for Newburyport, calling it “the Yankee City” in all of his works.

It was one of the largest anthropological studies of a town in the history of science. Almost 6 years were spent exclusively on data collection (1931-1936), while processing and analysing this material took another two decades. Warner published a total of five monographs dedicated to the Yankee City.

Photo source: newburyhistory.org

When studying various aspect of the everyday life of the Yankee City, William Lloyd Warner employed the anthropological methods he had practiced during his time in Australia broadly, adding to them sociological tools: members of his team conducted in-depth interviews and brief surveys, made observations of the population, worked with documents and the local press, collected street ads, and used experimental methods. In order to make sense of the social hierarchy of the town, Warner’s team interviewed almost every inhabitant of the Yankee City (roughly 17,000 people) and created a general map representing the reputations of the various citizens. But no one managed to immersed himself in the local life of Newburyport quite as profoundly as Warner himself: he not only moved there, but also married a local woman.

The innovative nature of his approach lay in the fact that he was one of the first anthropologists who intentionally used the methods of this discipline in order to study American society. It’s important to note that Warner believed in the unity of human nature. He was convinced that, despite the obvious external differences, the culture of an Australian tribe and the culture of a provincial town shared in the universal laws of human interaction that could be defined by means of comparative analysis. Many of his discoveries were due to his successful attempts at finding in American culture symbolic systems that were familiar to him from his study of the “primitive” societies. He was one of the pioneers in the research on the rituals of contemporary societies. By trying to look at his own culture as “alien”, he managed to grasp the various phenomena of American public life as forms of ritualised behavior. He saw a ritualisation of the past in town celebrations, thoroughly studied practices for honouring of the dead, and even the perceived the mayor’s election campaign as a ritualistic play with strict predefined roles. As an anthropologist, he had a great deal of interest in communities, but rather than perceiving Yankee City as a collection of several communities, he saw it as one: in it, he expected to glimpse a reflection of American society as a whole.

Photo source: wikipedia.org
Photo source: wikipedia.org
Photo source: wikipedia.org

Warner hoped that dozens of similar studies of other towns would follow, allowing him to eventually collect comparative material for a more profound analysis of contemporary society. But his dreams failed to come true. Bearing in mind that in order to collect data for only a tiny community he needed more than 5 years and a 30-person team, it’s hard to imagine a similar study of a city as big as New York. Faced with this limitation, other anthropologists found it impossible to adopt his approach and had to search for other methodologies.

Translation: Olga Baltsatu