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Urban cultures at the end of the

century: t he anthropological
N6stor Garcia Canclini
As the twentieth century draws to a close, the
field of anthropology seems ready to embrace
the whole century. Several decades ago it
moved beyond the study of non-European and
non-Western rural populations, which had been
anthropologys speciality when it started out as
a discipline. Anthropologists have conducted
investigations on metropolises and have been
concerned with all types of societies - complex,
traditional, modem, cities and transnational
networks. Postmodern re-
searchers are even showing
that the anthropological
approach offers a special
way of revealing the forms
of multiculturalism which
proliferate under globaliz-
To some degree, other
disciplines such as demo-
graphy and economics also
strive to be omnipresent and
omniscient in their quest to
explain the entire universe
by means of a single para-
digm. But anthropology
of an urban theory. There are three reasons why
I have chosen a different approach. First, such
an encyclopedic task, which would entail much
more space than the present article allows, has
already been carried out by various authors over
the past decades (Eames and Goode, 1973; Han-
nerz, 1992; Kenny and Kertzer, 1983; Signor-
elli, 1996; Southall, 1973) and by journals in a
number of languages, for example, Ethnologie
francaise, 1982; La ricerca .folklorica, 1989;
NCstor Garcia Canclini is an anthropol-
ogist and head of the programme of stud-
ies in urban culture at the Universidad
Aut6noma Metropolitana (POB 55-536,
09340, Mexico, D.F.). Dr Garcia Canclini
has published twenty books on cultural
studies, globalization and the urban
imagination. He has been a Professor at
the Universities of Stanford, Austin,
Barcelona, Buenos Aires and S%o Paulo.
His book, Hybrid Cultures (1995), was
chosen by the Latin American Associ-
ation to receive the first Ibero-American
Book Award for the best book about
Latin America.
claims in addition to focus on the macro- and
the micro-social and to explain, at the same
time, how qualitative and quantitative knowl-
edge is linked. The city is one area in which
this all-inclusive approach turns out to be parti-
cularly problematic.
I shall avoid in this text one notable way
of assessing the work done by urban anthropol-
ogists, which is to review the contributions that
anthropology has made during its history to the
knowledge of specific cities and the elaboration
several issues of Urban
Life; Urban Anthropology,
1991; and the International
Social Science Journal,
1996. According to the
assessment made by
Kemper and Kratct in
Urban Anthropology, which
deals almost exclusively
with research in the United
States, at the beginning of
the decade there were 885
urban anthropologists, in-
cluding archeologists, lin-
guists and physical anthro-
pologists. The same report
indicates, however, that social anthropologists
account for 70 per cent of the researchers
(Kemper and Kratct, 1991). That is one reason
why the present analysis will be confined to
this subdiscipline.
Secondly, we have to acknowledge that
while numerous studies on cities are to be found
in the anthropological literature since the nine-
teenth century, anthropologists who talk about
cities are often actually referring to something
else. Although they deal with cities such as
ISSJ 15311997 0 UNESCO 1997. Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road. Oxford OX4 IJF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
346 N&or Garcia Canclini
Luanshya, Ibadan, MCrida or SBo Paulo, the
main purpose of many studies is to investigate
cultural contacts in a colonial situation or
migratory flows during periods of industrializ-
ation, working conditions and patterns of con-
sumption, or what traditions remain under con-
ditions of contemporary expansion.
Apart from the early work of the Chicago
School in the 1920s, when cities became a parti-
cular focus of investigation for sociologists and
anthropologists, the latter used them only
occasionally as the core of their social analysis.
It was only in the last three decades that
urbanism became a legitimate field of research
for anthropologists, with all that this implies:
leading researchers have specialized in the field,
full recognition has been given in graduate and
postgraduate curricula, and funding has been
provided for fieldwork, scientific meetings and
specialized journals (Kemper and Kratct, 1991).
The third reason for not using a historical
review to show how anthropology today is deal-
ing with cities is that the challenges of this
research have become radically different in the
epoch of conurbanization, globalization and
transnational integration. What is meant today
by city and anthropology is very different from
what was understood by Robert Redfield, the
Chicago and Manchester Schools and even more
recent anthropologists. We need simply recall
how much the significance and size of cities
has changed since 1900: at that time only 4 per
cent of the worlds population lived in cities;
now half its population has become urbanized
(Gmelch-Zenner, 1996, p. 188). In certain peri-
pheral regions, such as Latin America, which
were the preferred subject of earlier anthro-
pology, 70 per cent of the population lives in
urban conglomerations. Because urban expan-
sion is due in great part to the influx of rural
and indigenous populations, these social groups
which have traditionally been studied by anthro-
pologists are now found in large cities. It is
here that their traditions are passed on and
transformed and that the more complex
exchanges arising from multi-ethnicity and
multiculturalism evolve.
Ol d ideas in new contexts
It is not by chance that a large number of urban
anthropological studies focus on migrants and
the so-called marginal sectors. In attempting to
study these changes in the habitual targets of
anthropological research, it became clear that
modem cities were presenting new challenges to
the anthropological concepts and methodologies
that had been developed to study small, indigen-
ous and rural communities. It has to be
acknowledged that the ethnographic approach
has contributed original qualitative work on
inter-ethnic and intercultural relations, which in
other fields have been subordinated to a macro-
social view of things. Nevertheless, the
approaches used by anthropologists for a long
time inhibited the construction of an urban
anthropology involving a comprehensive picture
of the meaning of urban life. As Durham (1986,
p. 13) noted, they were engaging not so much
in urban anthropology as in anthropology in the
city. As a result, the city becomes more a locus
of research than its object. In any event, this
is a difficult matter to resolve both in anthro-
pology and in other fields. How is it possible
to embrace in a single concept - urban culture -
all the variety of city life? Is there really a
unified and distinct phenomenon of urban space,
especially in such complex and heterogeneous
agglomerations as New York, Beijing or Mex-
ico City, or would it be preferable to speak of
various types of cultures within the city? If so,
should the categories be based on social class,
organization of space, or other criteria?
At the same time, besides reshaping the
model of anthropology, urban issues have
demonstrated the resourcefulness of anthropo-
logical conceptual tools and methodologies in
dealing with key aspects of modern cities which
are of interest to all the social sciences. I shall
discuss three of these: multicultural heterogen-
eity, intercultural and social segregation, and
Sociocultural heterogeneity or diversity,
which has always been a basic theme in anthro-
pology, is today one of the most destabilizing
elements for the classical model offered by
urban theory. The difficulty of defining what is
meant by city derives in part from the variety
of forms cities have taken throughout history
(industrial, administrative, political capitals, ser-
vice cities, ports and tourist cities); but this
complexity is even greater in the major metro-
polises which cannot even be reduced to such
monofunctional characterizations. Some theor-
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Urban cultures at the end of the century 347
ists maintain that the parallel existence of many
different functions and activities is, in fact, the
defining feature of the present urban structure
(Castells, 1995; Signorelli, 1996). Moreover,
this flexibility in performing various functions
is expanding as the delocalization of production
weakens the historic ties between certain cities
and particular types of production. Lancashire
is no longer an international synonym for the
textile industry; Sheffield and Pittsburgh are no
longer synonymous with steel. Manufactured
goods and the most advanced electronic equip-
ment can be produced just as well in the inter-
national cities of the first world as in the cities
of Brazil, Mexico and South-East Asia (Castells,
1974; Hall, 1996; Sassen, 1991).
The diversity of a city is usually a result
of distinct stages in its development. Milan,
Mexico and Paris all provide parallel evidence
at least of the following periods: (a) historical,
whose monuments make them cities of artistic
and touristic interest; (b) industrial, the develop-
ment of which restructured - in a specific way
in each case - the use of land; and (c) a recent
transnational and post-industrial architecture
(financial and telecommunications industries)
which has restructured the appropriation of
space, movement in the city and urban habits,
and the incorporation of these cities into supra-
national networks. At the present time, the
existence side by side of these different periods
gives rise to a multi-temporal heterogeneity
where processes of hybridization, conflicts and
intense intercultural exchanges occur (Garcia
Canclini, 1995a, 1995b).
Adding to the heterogeneity and hybridiz-
ation which stem from the contiguity of build-
ings and spatial organization of different histori-
cal periods, is the cohabitation of immigrants
from different regions of the same country and
from other countries. These immigrants bring
to the great cities languages, behaviour patterns
and spatial structures from different cultures.
The same process can be observed in metropoli-
tan and peripheral countries, cancelling out to
some extent the differences noted in an earlier
period by evolutionists between cities in
developed and underdeveloped regions.
The close proximity of native-born com-
munities with many others has brought about
an explosion of the traditional urban idiosyn-
crasies in Lima as much as in New York,
Buenos Aires or Berlin. The sudden, and at
times violent, confrontation between the present
and the past, between social scientists and
exotic peoples, allows us to assert that urban
anthropology has been decisive in fully liberat-
ing anthropologists from the sense of belonging
to a universe divorced from the purposes of
their study; it has also helped some researchers
feel less guilty about interfering in foreign cul-
tures and has discouraged evolutionist subter-
fuges designed to restore that distance by means
of a learned stance. While urban anthropol-
ogists may not be from the same ethnic group
or from the same class or national background
as their subjects, they are exposed to the same
or similar socio-spatial, advertising and tele-
vision influences.
While macro-social planning, the stan-
dardization of buildings and roads, and in gen-
eral the unified development of the capitalist
market have tended to turn cities into mech-
anisms of homogenization, these three factors
have not prevented the forces of diversity from
emerging and expanding. But the explosion of
differences is not just a concrete process; it is
also an urban ideology. Since the 1970s, the
postmodern trends having an impact on anthro-
pology and urbanism have promoted difference,
multiplicity and decentralization as the con-
ditions of urban democracy. Nevertheless, these
trends must be assessed differently in the metro-
politan and peripheral countries. Such a distinc-
tion is essential above all for political and econ-
omic reasons. We cannot equate the growth of
self-management and plurality after a phase of
planning designed to regulate urban growth and
satisfy basic needs (as in nearly all European
cities) with the chaotic growth of survival
efforts based on scarcity, erratic expansion and
predatory use of land, water and air (which are
the norm in Asia, Africa and Latin America).
A second distinction concerns scale. For
countries which entered the twentieth century
with low mortality rates and with planned and
democratically governed cities, the detours,
shifts and loss of power by all-embracing insti-
tutions may be seen as part of the logic of
decentralization. In contrast, in cities like
Caracas, Lima or Sgo Paulo, dispersal - arising
from the population explosion, popular or
speculative invasion of the land, and far from
democratic means of representing and adminis-
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348 Nestor Garcia Canclini
Shanghai street scene. Frangois Pedcosrnos
trating urban spaces - may be perceived as
adding to a disorder which is always on the
verge of exploding.
In the first case, the weakening of planned
institutions may be a liberating step forward. In
the majority of cities in the peripheral countries,
meanwhile, the ideology of decentralization
often serves only to reproduce ungovernable
agglomerations, thus encouraging at times the
perpetuation of an authoritarian and centralized
government reluctant to let the people vote or
make decisions. Research into social movements
generally considers that the destructuring of cit-
ies stimulates the formation of local, youth, or
ecological groups which try to create alterna-
tives to the hegemonic (dis)order. Other disci-
plines equate decentralization with a heighten-
ing of chaos, the spread of gangs, urban terror
and sexual aggression, or see it simply as an
opportunity for business interests and even
neighbourhood groups to appropriate public
spaces and discriminate against the rest. As
pointed out by Holston and Appadurai (1996,
p. 252), the popular exercise of democracy can
therefore produce anti-democratic results.
It is clear that in many African, Asian and
Latin American cities a weakened regulatory
authority does not increase freedom but rather
leads to insecurity and injustice. In those coun-
tries, postmodernism usually means exasper-
ation with the contradictions of modernity: the
disappearance of what little urbanization had
been achieved, the emptiness of public affairs
and the private search for alternatives - not to
a different kind of city but to urban life, which
is seen as a stressful tumult. The abandonment
of unified public policies, combined with an
increase in unemployment and violence, gives
rise, as shown in the studies by Mike Davis on
Los Angeles and by Teresa P.R. Caldeira on
Siio Paulo, to spatial segregation: those in a
position to do so shut themselves away in forti-
fied enclaves. Instead of working with conflicts
arising from interculturality, there has been a
separation of groups by means of walls, fences
and electronic security systems. Recent anthro-
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Urban cultures at the end of the century 349
pological studies have demonstrated the signifi-
cant role played in creating urban segregation,
along with physical barriers and changes in hab-
its and rituals, by obsessive discussions about
insecurity which tend to polarize good and evil
and to set up symbolic walls and distances that
reinforce the physical barriers (Caldeira, 1996).
Studies of the changes in cultural consump-
tion practices in Mexico City show that a pro-
cess of de-urbanization is taking place: in recent
years there has been a decline in the recreational
use of public spaces. This is due in part to
insecurity, and also to the growing preference,
promoted by electronic technology, for culture
delivered to the home through radio, television
and video instead of going to cinemas, theatres
and sporting events, which means travelling
long distances through unsafe areas of the city.
Staying at home or leaving the city for the
weekend are more than just a way for people
to free themselves a little from the violence,
stress and pollution; they are ways of saying
that the situation of the city is hopeless (Garcia
Canclini, 1995).
In political terms, the democratization of
the government and popular participation is per-
haps the only way to reverse partially this
majority trend towards private seclusion and to
control the voracity of private real estate, indus-
trial and tourist interests which interfere with
balanced urban development. But how can the
democratization of public policy and the growth
of responsible citizenship (Perulli, 1995) man-
age to revive the public space and produce a
viable and more appropriate distribution of
social forces that can reshape the map of the
city and the overall meaning of urban social
life? If this does not take place, we are faced
with the risk of ungovernability: the explosive
potential of destructuring and destructive trends
could lead to greater authoritarianism and
Various studies from the 1990s consider
the challenges raised by large and medium-sized
cities as an opportunity to revitalize popular
participation and organization. When the nation-
state loses the ability to mobilize the public,
cities re-emerge as strategic sites for the devel-
opment of new forms of citizenship with more
concrete and manageable referents than those
offered by national abstractions. In addition,
urban centres, especially megalopolises, have
become a medium for the international flow of
goods, ideas, images and people. Whatever is
taken out of the peoples hands by supranational
decision-making appears to be recovered to
some degree in the local arenas of home, work
and consumption (Dagnino, 1994; Ortiz, 1994).
Those who today feel that they are voting spec-
tators rather than citizens of a nation are redis-
covering ways of relocating the imagination
(Holston and Appadurai, 1996, pp. 192-95).
Redefinition of cities
Anthropology is in fact not the only discipline
that must reformulate its project in the light of
these changes in multiculturalism and segre-
gation, in the local and in the global, which are
being manifested with particular intensity in the
major cities. Uncertainty about what defines cit-
ies and how to study them, which is also raised
by the other social sciences, makes it necessary
to reorient the entire field of urban studies.
This field thus provides a good opportunity to
examine the current state of interdisciplinary
and transdisciplinary efforts - the theoretical
and methodological conditions under which
various pieces of knowledge may be linked.
From the perspective of the changes that
have taken place in the cities, twentieth century
urban theory looks like a series of unsuccessful
or inadequate efforts. Rather than providing
stable solutions or responses, we find a suc-
cession of approaches that have left many prob-
lems unresolved and have serious difficulty in
predicting changes and adapting to them.
There are, for example, the studies which
have attempted to define cities by contrasting
them with the countryside or of conceiving of
them as what the countryside is not. This
approach, which was very common in the first
half of the century, made an overly categorical
distinction between the countryside as a place
of community and primary relations, and the
city as the place of secondary membership
relations, where roles were more segmented and
people belonged to several groups at the same
time. In various countries going through the
process of industrialization this methodology
was applied up until the 1960s and 1970s.
Prominent theoreticians, like Gin0 Germani,
elaborated this approach in their studies of Latin
America and of Argentina in particular.
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350 NPstor Garcia Canclini
Germani considered the city to be the nucleus
of modernity, the place where people could get
away from primary and obligatory affiliations
and the intense personal, family and neighbour-
hood relationships that are part of life in small
communities, and enter the anonymity of elec-
tive relations and segmented roles, which he
analysed from the particular standpoint of his
functionalist background.
Many criticisms have been levelled at the
categorical opposition of city and countryside;
it should, however, be kept in mind that this
distinction is limited to external aspects. It is a
descriptive distinction which does not explain
structural differences or the frequent parallels
between what goes on in the countryside or in
small communities and what happens in the
cities. It does not deal, for example, with how
rural communities are now split by internal con-
flicts brought on by the urban invasion. By
contrast, in Africa, Asia and Latin America, it
is often said that the cities are invaded by the
countryside. One can still see families riding
around in horse-drawn carriages - the way
country people do - as if there were no cars.
These are the points of intersection between the
urban and the rural that cannot be understood
in terms of simple opposition.
A second, long-standing definition, pro-
posed by the Chicago School, is based on geo-
graphic and spatial criteria. Wirth defined the
city as the relatively extensive and dense perma-
nent localization of socially heterogeneous indi-
viduals. One of the main criticisms of this
geographickpatial approach is that it fails to
take into account the historic and social pro-
cesses which gave rise to urban structures and
which determined their size, density and hetero-
geneity (Castells, 1974).
A third approach has been to use certain
economic criteria, defining cities as the outcome
of industrial development and the concentration
of capital. Cities have in fact led to a more
effective organization of social life and, up to
a certain period, more efficient reproduction of
the labour force by concentrating mass pro-
duction and consumption. However, the econ-
omic perspective usually fails to take account
of cultural aspects, everyday urban life and the
way in ,vhich city dwellers represent the city.
Authors who have conceptualized urban
experience and representations, such as Antonio
Mela, who does so on the basis of the theory
of J urgen Habermas, note two features which
define the city. One is the density of interaction;
the other is a faster rate of message exchanges.
Mela specifies that these are not just quantitat-
ive phenomena, since both features have an
influence on the quality of urban life, at times
in opposite directions. The increase in com-
munication codes means that new, specifically
urban skills must be developed; this is evident
to any newcomers arriving in the city who feel
out of place and find it difficult to orient them-
selves in the midst of interactions and rapid
information exchanges. When urban studies
began to focus on this issue at the time of the
mid-century migrations, the question was raised
as to who could use the cities.
This approach, which defines the urban
question as a tension between spatial rationaliz-
ation and expressivity, led to a linguistic analy-
sis of urban society (Mela, 1989). While semi-
otic studies have placed most emphasis on that
feature, anthropology also sees cities today not
simply as physical phenomena or as a way of
occupying space but as places where expressive
phenomena arise and may be in conflict with
the rationalization of social life or with attempts
to rationalize it. The industrialization of culture
through electronic communications has made
this semantic and communicational aspect of
human settlements more self-evident.
If our goal is to come up with a universally
valid theory of urbanism, we would be forced
to conclude that, in some sense, all such
theories have failed. They do not give us one
satisfactory answer. Instead they suggest a num-
ber of perspectives, none of which can be over-
looked; they coexist today as part of the reality
of urban life, of what we believe might give it
some meaning. Yet, all these definitions cannot
be easily linked together into one satisfactory
and relatively operational definition to further
our investigations of urban life. This uncertainty
about the definition of cities is even greater
when it comes to megacities.
Megalopolises: crisis and
Only half a century ago megalopolises were the
exception. In 1950, New York and London were
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Urban cultures at the end of the century 35 I
the only two cities in the world with more
than 8 million inhabitants. By 1970 there were
already eleven such cities, five of them in the
so-called Third World - three in Latin America
and two in Asia. According to United Nations
projections, by the year 2015 there will be
thirty-three megacities, twenty-one of them in
Asia. These megalopolises are notable as much
for their unrestrained growth as for their multi-
cultural complexity, which blur their historical
context and call into question the definitions we
use to understand them.
What is a megacity? Studies carried out in
recent years in cities like Los Angeles, Mexico
and SHo Paulo lead us to reformulate the term
as it is habitually used in the specialized litera-
ture, where it refers to a phase in which neigh-
bouring cities become part of a large urban
agglomeration, forming a network of intercon-
nected settlements.
This spatial characterization is undoubtedly
applicable to the Mexican capital (Ward, 1991),
where the population in 1940 was 1,644,921
and now exceeds 17 million. Among the main
factors responsible for this expansion have been
the numerous migrations from other regions of
the country and the incorporation into the
metropolitan area of twenty-seven adjoining
Meanwhile, during the fifty years that the
urban space was growing to 1,500 square kilo-
metres, making communication between its vari-
ous parts impractical and destroying the physi-
cal image of the whole, communications media
were growing at a fast pace, developing and
disseminating images that renewed the connec-
tion between the disparate parts. The same
economic policy of industrial modernization
which caused the city to overflow its boundaries
at the same time stimulated the development
of new audiovisual networks which restructured
information and communication practices and
reconstructed the meaning of the city. What
conclusions can be drawn from these facts?
While demographic and territorial expansion has
discouraged the majority of people living in
peripheral areas from going to the cinemas,
theatres and dance halls concentrated in the
centre, radio and television is bringing culture
to 95 per cent of homes. This reorganization of
urban practices suggests that the socio-spatial
definition of the megalopolis needs to be sup-
plemented by a socio-communicational defini-
tion which takes into account the restructuring
role played by the media in urban development.
The central hypothesis of this reconcep-
tualization is that the megalopolis, in addition to
linking large population groups by consolidating
them physically and geographically, connects
them through macro-urban experiences trans-
mitted by mass media networks. Of course, the
existence of mass media connections for
medium-sized and small cities and the fact that
the full range of television and computer tech-
nology is also available to populations of 10,000
shows that this is not a feature exclusive to
megacities. Nevertheless, cities like Mexico,
Los Angeles and S2o Paulo which have been
destructured by an extraordinary territorial
expansion and their strategic position in inter-
national networks, lead us to wonder how this
increase in media connections may take on
particular significance when it is linked with
the history of demographic and spatial expan-
sion and with the complex and widespread cul-
tural offerings typical of major cities.
Some urban researchers have examined this
double role of cities from the point of view of
the effects of information technologies on spa-
tial transformations. Manuel Castells speaks of
the information city and of information flow
spaces to describe the way in which territorial
customs are now influenced by the circulation
of capital, images, strategic information and
technological programmes. Despite his emphasis
on that aspect, Castells continues to recognize
the importance of territory as a means of
affirming group identity, as a mobilizing force
for populations to achieve their demands, and
as a way of restoring the modicum of control
and meaning people derive from their work.
According to Castells (1995 p. 485), people
live in places and power is wielded through
information flows.
I prefer to speak of information flow sys-
tems rather than spaces: the notion of space
corresponds more closely to the physical aspect
while information flows, although they can
occasionally take a physical form, usually oper-
ate through invisible networks. Furthermore, I
cannot agree with the distinction between the
places where people live and the information
flows which dominate them. But these are no
doubt minor details compared to the enormous
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352 Ndstor Garcia Canclini
contribution made by Castells in redefining the
meaning of the city in the light of the new
conditions of technological development.
The current literature highlights the dual
nature of cities - which are both spatial and
comrnunicational - in two ways: first, in relation
to information systems and their impact on the
relationship between capital and labour, which
is the main focus of studies by Castells and
other recent urbanists (Peter Hall, Saskia
Sassen); and second, in connection with the new
urban sociocultural patterns and practices to
which the communications technologies are giv-
ing rise (Garcia Canclini, Martin Barbero).
Purpose and methodology:
what distinguishes
What, then, distinguishes urban anthropology
from other fields such as sociology, urbanism
and semiotics? Some researchers maintain that
anthropological research is still in a unique pos-
ition because the data is obtained through direct
contact with small groups. They acknowledge
that urban research has modified the length of
time spent in the field and the ongoing and
close relationship with the people being
observed and interviewed, and that the new
technology (from portable tape recorders and
cameras to computerized surveys) provides
information on a scale which is more suited to
urban life. They believe, nevertheless, that field
observations and ethnographic interviews are
still the specific reseurces of anthropology. In
contrast to sociology, which constructs huge
maps of urban structure and behaviour from
graphs and statistics, the qualitative and lengthy
investigations conducted by anthropologists
yield, in principle, a more profound understand-
ing of social interaction.
Several anthropologists have pointed out
that because researchers have less strong ties to
the people they are studying and no longer
share the exact same living conditions (poverty,
violence, survival difficulties), there is a risk,
as noted by Durham (1986), of seeking in the
symbolic interaction an identification with the
values and aspirations of the population under
study. This would explain the over-emphasis in
many studies on the cultural aspect of urban
life and on the analysis of discourse or symbolic
processes. In the central and peripheral coun-
tries alike, anthropologists involvement in the
field of urban studies has undoubtedly been
decisive in focusing attention on cultural aspects
which had been - and continue to be - neg-
lected by the demographers, economists and
sociologists who preceded them in investigating
the urban sphere. However, neither the trad-
ition of anthropology as a discipline nor the in-
disputably economic and symbolic nature of
urban processes justify limiting anthropological
research to cultural factors. The growth of cities
and the reordering (or disorder) of urban life is
linked to economic, technological and symbolic
changes whose interrelationships make it essen-
tial to maintain the classic anthropological
approach of considering the various dimensions
of social processes all at the same time. That
has been the approach used in the 1980s and
1990s in investigations on the economic and
cultural significance of urban social movements
and working conditions, neo-liberal de-indus-
trialization, informal markets and survival
strategies (Arias, 1996; Dagnino, 1994; Adler
Lomnitz, 1994; Sevilla-Aguilar, 1996; Silva
Tellex, 1994; Valenzuela, 1988). I have men-
tioned only Brazilian and Mexican researchers
simply to limit the examples that might be given
from the vast bibliography on the subject. Fur-
thermore, Brazil and Mexico are the two Latin
American countries in which the most consistent
work has been done on how economic, political
and cultural aspects are combined, by studying
the relationship between various forms of resi-
dence and work behaviour, family life and how
gender affects trade union participation and cit-
izenship. Of course, this approach is also used
by urban anthropologists, including some of the
authors just cited.
Yet, with few exceptions, those studies are
more anthropology in the city than about the
city. The field as a whole has not yet achieved
the target of carrying out studies that connect
the micro- and macro-social and the qualitative
and quantitative in a comprehensive urban
theory. The only way to capture the complexity
of urban life is to understand the experiences
of communities, tribes and neighbourhoods as
part of the organizing structures and networks
of each city (Holston and Appadurai, 1996;
Hannerz, 1992).
0 UNESCO 1997
Urban cultures at the end of the century 353
At the top of the Latin American Tower, Mexico. DahedCamma
According to another view, the distinctive
feature of anthropology lies not in its object of
study but in its methodology. The sociologist
talks about the city while the anthropologist lets
the city speak: with their careful observations
and in-depth interviews and their manner of
being with people, anthropologists try to hear
what the city has to say. Paying attention to
the eloquence of everyday acts has been
rewarding as a methodology. From an epistemo-
logical point of view, however, it gives rise to
doubts. How much confidence can we have in
what people say about how they live? When
subjects relate their experiences, who is speak-
ing - the individual, the family, the neighbour-
hood in which they live or the social class to
which they belong? In response to any urban
problem - transport, pollution, itinerant trade -
there are so many opinions and so much infor-
mation that it is difficult to distinguish between
the real and the imaginary (Silva, 1992).
Epistemological analysis of common sense
and ordinary language is nowhere more needed
than in the big cities. We cannot record the
divergent views of our informants without ask-
ing ourselves if they know what they are saying.
Indeed, the fact of having lived a particular
experience intensely obscures the unconscious
motivations for acting and leads individuals to
reshape the facts to construct versions that are
satisfying to themselves. An isolated ethno-
graphic approach to the fragmentation of the
city and its discourse usually falls into one of
two traps: either producing monographs which
describe urban fragmentaton but fail to explain
it or else claiming that the urban fragments
have been pieced together, opting for the expla-
nation of the most vulnerable informants. The
methodological populism of certain anthropol-
ogists thus becomes the scientific ally of polit-
ical populism.
We are not conceding epistemological
privileges to anthropologists or urban
researchers who take a global view of the city.
The postmodern debate spurred by anthropo-
logical research prompts us to think that anthro-
0 UNESCO 1997.
354 Ntfstor Garcia Canclini
pologists, too, are unsure of their subject when
they practise ethnography. The polemical
debates between Robert Redfield and Oscar
Lewis on Tepoztlih, for example, make it
appear at times that they are not referring to
the same city and that their research, in addition
to proving that they were there, is undertaken
as Clifford Geertz suspects, in an effort to create
a place for themselves among those who have
arrived in the universities and at symposiums.
These three ways of reclaiming the tra-
ditions of anthropology - the defence of eth-
nography, the integration of the socio-economic
and the symbolic, and the method of letting
native theories speak for themselves - can
enrich urban studies. However, this methodology
has to transcend local and partial communities
in order to help redefine cities and their place
in transnational networks. As anthropologists, we
must not retreat into the illusory independence
of the neighbourhoods or communities and
keep silent about what we can contribute in
terms of a global view of the city. Why not
readjust the profession to the reality of the
megacities instead of holding on to a provincial
notion of structure and social processes? I n order
to study urban life properly, is it not essential
to focus on the new forms of identity which
are being shaped as a result of the enormous
communications networks, the multiple rites and
the access to urban goods that make us part of
international communities of consumers? Some
researchers are attempting to prove that anthro-
pology can throw light on the new forms of
multiculturalism and interculturism that are gen-
erated in the exchanges which have arisen from
tourism and immigration (Valene L. Smith,
1989), and the deterritorialization of communi-
cation and consumption (Renato Ortiz, 1994;
Garcia Canclini, 1995a, 1995b). Against the
background of the tendency towards homogeniz-
ation noted by economists and sociologists,
anthropologists can discover how each group
constructs its own particular profile in different
societies and especially in the setting of large
From this vantage point, what best disting-
uishes anthropologists is their traditional con-
cern for the other, and the others. But the other
is no longer that which is far away and foreign;
it is the multiculturism of the cities in which
we live. The other is borne within the anthro-
pologists themselves as they share in different
local cultures and focus less on transnational
cultures (AugC, 1994). The current problems of
urban anthropology consist not only in under-
standing how people reconcile the rapid pace
of an international city with the slow rhythm
of the territory itself. The task is also to explain
how the seemingly improved communication
and rationality associated with globalization has
given rise to new forms of racism and
exclusion. The current rapid increase in funda-
mentalism in major cities like Los Angeles,
Mexico, Berlin or Lima means that anthropol-
ogists cannot merely be apologists of difference.
They must seek to understand how international
information networks and the simultaneous need
for belonging and for local roots can coexist,
without discriminatory hierarchies, in a multi-
cultural democracy.
From this redefinition of anthropology,
being elaborated amidst general uncertainty
about the meaning of cities, it can be concluded
that anthropologists must not perpetuate the
tendency of the profession to focus on what is
vanishing. This temptation is even greater
because the megalopolises are full of books,
magazines and scientific articles that talk about
the end of the city (for example Chombart de
Louwe, 1982). The alarm bells set off by the
population explosion, traffic jams, and air and
water pollution bring out the melancholy side
of anthropology - its propensity for studying
the present while yearning for small pre-mod-
em communities.
It would be more appropriate to distinguish
between what is actually dying in the medium-
sized and large cities as a result of economic,
technological and sociocultural transformations,
at both the city and global levels, and the new
forms of urban life. In this respect, urban
anthropology is one division of the field that
can most readily demonstrate its capacity not
only to take pleasure in what is fleeting but
also to disentangle the promises and contribute
to resolving the dilemmas of a new century.
Translated from Spanish
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