Ethnographic Explorations of the City

The details
Sociology and Criminology
Colchester Campus
Full Year
Undergraduate: Level 5
Thursday 08 October 2020
Friday 02 July 2021
07 October 2020


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BA LL36 Social Anthropology,
BA LL3P Social Anthropology (Including Year Abroad),
BA LL6P Social Anthropology (Including Placement Year),
BA LL37 Social Anthropology with Human Rights,
BA LL38 Social Anthropology with Human Rights (Including Year Abroad),
BA LL39 Social Anthropology with Human Rights (Including Placement Year)

Module description

In the past few decades an unprecedented demographic change has taken place. For most of human history that vast majority of the world`s population lived in rural areas. Now, over half of the world's population lives in cities, and the United Nations predicts that this proportion will increase to over 70% by 2050.

This development raises a fundamental challenge to ethnographic practice and anthropological theory, which has historically focused on the life ways and societies of rural areas. Increasingly anthropologists have to come to terms with highly complex urban assemblages that are, paradoxically both longstanding and deeply unstable.

Cities are contested spaces. They are sites of intense social, political and economic struggles, which are waged by coalitions of actors representing a wide variety of sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory set of interests, with battle lines being continually drawn and redrawn in relation to a shifting social terrain.

By utilising a wide range of readings and examples including both the global north and the global south, this module will ask how we are to understand these developments anthropologically. We will pay particular attention to:

1. the ways in which cities have been understood as ethnographic sites,
2. the past, present and future of cities, and
3. the social, political and economic role of cities and how this shapes emerging forms of inequality.

Students will come to understand how anthropologists see the city, the methods they use, the data they cultivate, the topics they address, the hopes and possibilities they see contained there, and the ways that condensations of culture and power are visible in both infrastructural, representational, and social practices.

Module aims

The module aims to:

1. Explore different anthropological and theoretical approaches adopted in the study and conceptualisation of the city
2. Provide students with an understanding of the complex organisation and contested nature of urban social, economic and political processes
3. Equip students with the skill to critically engage with the materials presented
4. Equip students with the skills to examine how the topics discussed in a variety of global settings affect local urban processes.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should:

1. Be able to critically and analytically read texts and articles pertaining to urban anthropology
2. Learn key concepts, ideas, theories and themes in the field of urban anthropology.
3. Be able to communicate ideas and formulate arguments about these key concepts, ideas, theories and themes in urban anthropology—both verbally (through in-class debates) and through written work.
4. Through analysis of ethnographies and case studies, understand how anthropologists have used their methodologies to contribute to key themes, ideas and theories in urban anthropology.

Module information

Autumn Term

Week 1 Introduction, Theorising the city

Low, S. (2005) Introduction: Theorizing the City. In Theorizing the City: the New Urban Anthropology Reader, ed. Setha Low. Pp. 1-33. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP

Week 2 Historicising Cities of the Global North

Childe, V. G. (1950) "The Urban Revolution." Town Planning Review 21:3-17

Engels, F. (1845) "The Great Towns." In Condition of the Working Class in England.

Week 3 Colonial and Post-Colonial Cities

Bissell, W. (2011) Urban Design, Chaos and Colonial Power in Zanzibar. Indiana University Press. (Introduction pp. 1-21).

Robinson, J. (2006). "Ordinary Cities. Between Modernity and Development". Oxon, Routledge. (Chapter 1, Postcolonialising Urban Studies, pgs 1-12)

Week 4 Film, The Battle of Algiers

Week 5 The Social Life of Urban Infrastructure

Larkin, B. (2013) "The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure," Annual Review of Anthropology. 42: 327-343.

Week 6 Urban Social Diversity

Fainstein, S. (2005) "Cities and diversity should we want it? Can we plan for it?" Urban Affairs Review 41(1): 3-19.

Week 7 Urban Politics and Exclusion

Appadurai, A. (2000) "Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai" in Public Culture. 12(3): 627-651

Week 8 The Modernist and Post-National City

Ferguson, J. (1999) Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life in the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.(Chapters 1 and 3)

Week 9 Securing the City

Glück Z (2017) Security Urbanism and the Counterterror State in Kenya. Anthropological Theory 17(3): 297-321.

Week 10 Seeing the City, Urban Ethnography
Whyte, W.F. (1969) Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Appendix A)

Spring Term

Week 11 The Socialist and Post-Socialist Cities

Alexander, C. (2007). "Soviet and Post-Soviet Planning in Almaty, Kazakhstan." Critique of Anthropology 27(2): 165-181.
Berdahl, D. (1999). "(N)Ostalgie' for the Present: Memory, Longing, and East German Things". Ethnos 64 (2): 192-211

Week 12. Film, Goodbye Lenin

Week 13 The Neo-Liberal City

Sassen, S. (2012). Cities in a World Economy. 4th Edition. Sage. (Chapter 1)

Sassen, S.

Week 14 Enclaving

Appel H. (2012) Walls and white elephants: Oil extraction, responsibility, and
infrastructural violence in Equatorial Guinea. Ethnography 13(4): 439–65
Caldeira TPR. (1996) Fortified Enclaves: The New Urban Segregation. Public Culture 8: 303-328.

Week 15 Urban Informality

Roy, A. (2005) Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning. Journal of the American Planning Association.71 (2) 147-158.

Week 16 Legal and Illegal Urban Economies

Roldán, M. (2003). "Wounded Medellín: Narcotics Traffic Against a Background of Industrial Decline". In Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World. Jane Schneider and Ida Susser, eds. Oxford, UK: Berg. Pp. 129-148.

Week 17 The Divided City

Amit, I., & Yiftachel, O. (2017) Urban Colonialism and Buffer Zones: Gray Spaces in Hebron and Nicosia. Geography Research Forum. 36, 143-159.

Week 18 Dystopian Cities

Marr, S, Slouching Towards Dystopia in Lagos and Detroit: Narratives of Apocalypse and Making the New Urban Periphery (April 19, 2013). Available at SSRN:

Week 19 Cities and Nature

Knuth, S. (2016) Seeing Green in San Francisco: City as Resource Frontier. Antipode 48(3):626–644.

Learning and teaching methods

Weekly 2-hour interactive seminars. The teacher will introduce students to the key concepts and ideas of each session, followed by discussions and debates, and in some occasions student-led presentations.


  • Fainstein, Susan S. (2005-09) 'Cities and Diversity', in Urban Affairs Review. vol. 41 (1) , pp.3-19
  • Sumich, Jason; Nielsen, Morten. (2020-07) 'The Political Aesthetics of Middle Class Housing in (not so) Neoliberal Mozambique', in Antipode. vol. 52 (4) , pp.1216-1234
  • Pontecorvo, Gillo; Haggiag, Brahim; Morricone, Ennio. (2018) The battle of Algiers, [U.K.]: Cults.
  • Appadurai, A. (2000-10-01) 'Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai', in Public Culture. vol. 12 (3) , pp.627-651
  • Alexander, Catherine. (2007-06) 'Soviet and Post-Soviet Planning in Almaty, Kazakhstan', in Critique of Anthropology. vol. 27 (2) , pp.165-181
  • (2003-11-01) Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World: Taylor & Francis Ltd.
  • Roy, Ananya. (2005-06-30) 'Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning', in Journal of the American Planning Association. vol. 71 (2) , pp.147-158
  • Davis, Mike. (1999) Ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster, London: Picador.
  • Glück, Zoltán. (2017-09) 'Security Urbanism and the Counterterror State in Kenya', in Anthropological Theory. vol. 17 (3) , pp.297-321
  • Engels, Frederick. (2013-09-12) Condition of the Working Class in England: Electric Book Company.
  • Sassen, Saskia. (2018-06-13) Cities in a World Economy: SAGE Publications Inc.
  • Ferguson, James. (1999) Expectations of Modernity, California: University of California Press.
  • Becker, Wolfgang; Brühl, Daniel; Sass, Katrin; Khamatova, Chulpan; Simon, Maria. (c2003) Goodbye Lenin!, [S.l.]: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
  • (no date) Urban colonialism and buffer zones.
  • Engels, Friedrich. (no date) Condition of the Working Class in England.
  • Appel, Hannah C. (2012-12) 'Walls and white elephants: Oil extraction, responsibility, and infrastructural violence in Equatorial Guinea', in Ethnography. vol. 13 (4) , pp.439-465
  • Whyte, William Foote. (2012-04-26) Street Corner Society: University of Chicago Press.
  • Davis, Mike. (2014-01-14) Ecology of Fear: Metropolitan Books.
  • Low, Setha M. (1996-10-21) 'THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF CITIES: Imagining and Theorizing the City', in Annual Review of Anthropology. vol. 25 (1) , pp.383-409
  • Larkin, Brian. (2013-10-21) 'The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure', in Annual Review of Anthropology. vol. 42 (1) , pp.327-343
  • Bissell, William Cunningham. (2010-12-08) Urban Design, Chaos, and Colonial Power in Zanzibar Urban Design, Chaos, and: Indiana University Press.
  • Sassen, Saskia. (2015-11-24) 'Who owns our cities – and why this urban takeover should concern us all', in Guardian: The Guardian.
  • Nielsen, Morten; Sumich, Jason; Bertelsen, Bjørn Enge. (2020-06-03) 'Enclaving: Spatial detachment as an aesthetics of imagination in an urban sub-Saharan African context', in Urban Studies., pp.004209802091609-
  • Berdahl, Daphne. (1999-01) '‘(N)Ostalgie’ for the present: Memory, longing, and East German things', in Ethnos. vol. 64 (2) , pp.192-211

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Coursework weighting
Coursework   Participation     10% 
Coursework   Overall mark for Film Review    50% 
Coursework   Powerpoint Presentation - Week 7  17/11/2020  10% 
Coursework   Powerpoint presentation - Week 10   08/12/2020  10% 
Coursework   Observation - Week 16   19/01/2021  10% 
Coursework   Observation - Week 22  02/03/2021  10% 
Exam  Main exam: 24hr during Summer (Main Period) 

Exam format definitions

  • Remote, open book: Your exam will take place remotely via an online learning platform. You may refer to any physical or electronic materials during the exam.
  • In-person, open book: Your exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer to any physical materials such as paper study notes or a textbook during the exam. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, open book (restricted): The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer only to specific physical materials such as a named textbook during the exam. Permitted materials will be specified by your department. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, closed book: The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may not refer to any physical materials or electronic devices during the exam. There may be times when a paper dictionary, for example, may be permitted in an otherwise closed book exam. Any exceptions will be specified by your department.

Your department will provide further guidance before your exams.

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
50% 50%


Coursework Exam
50% 50%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Jason Sumich, email:
Dr Jason Sumich
Jane Harper, Student Administrator, Telephone: 01206 873052 E-mail:



External examiner

Dr Aneira Edmunds
School of Law, Politics & Sociology
Senior Lecturer
Available via Moodle
Of 380 hours, 4 (1.1%) hours available to students:
376 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information
Sociology and Criminology

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