Saturday, November 12, 2016

Anthropologist Anthony Leeds on cities

Anthony Leeds (1925-1989) was an urban  anthropologist back in the days when anthropologists made important contributions to understanding cities and urbanism (today "urban anthropology" means studying globalization in this city, studying neoliberalization in that city, but never looking at urbanism or cities from a comprehensive perspective).

Leeds was a productive ethnographer of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. But for this blog, his claim to fame is the conceptual advances he made in understanding the nature of cities and rural-urban relations.I blogged about his ideas on rural-urban relations last year. I recently came across some notes I took on his publications, and they reminded me of some of his other creative ideas. Here I will go over three of his contributions, all of which are discussed in his 1979 article listed below: (1) his criticism of urban studies for being overly dependent on modern western cities and ignoring early and non-western cities; (2) his discussion of the different types of specialization that are associated with urbanism; and (3) his rural-urban framework.

(1)  Urban studies.  Here are some quotes from Leeds (1979). I sometimes think that in this blog I am channeling his ideas:
  • “Most current discussion of ‘urbanism’ and ‘urbanization’ can be shown to be ethno- and temprocentric and based on a historically particular class of urban phenomena and urban forms of integration.” (p.227)
  • “Generalizations are then made about ‘urbanism’ and ‘urban society’ based essentially on the urban experience of the past few hundred years, apparently without the realization that all urban phenomena of the past four or five hundred years have been ineluctably affected by the expansion of the capitalist system, in short by the development of what Wallerstein calls the ‘World System.’ The generalizations are, then, in fact not about ‘urbanization’ in general but about a single form of ‘urbanism’ or ‘urbanization,’ its evolution, and its acculturational by-products.” (228)
This is one of the critiques anthropologists make of the other social sciences: you cannot look only a modern western society and use that to generalize about all of humanity. Our ancestors lived for millennia in very different ways that people live today. If you want to generalize about humanity or human society, please do so from a reasonable sample! And while you are at it, please don't make up imaginary patterns of non-western or early human behavior (this last is directed at economists......).

(2)  Specialization.  People are always tossing around the term "specialization" when they talk about cities or complex societies. But there are different types and concepts of specialization, with different implications for society. We need to be clear which type we are talking about. Leeds (1979) identifies three types of spcialization:
  1. Specialization of localities. Different places within a system are often the settings for different types of activities or institutions. When a particular type of activity is limited to a few locations, and/or those locations are the setting for a high level of that type of activity, then we can say that the place is specialized. There is a differentiation of functions among places.
  2. Specialization of the components of technology. In this sense, the various aspects of technology can be specialized. Tools, materials, techniques, housings, tasks, activities, labor/skills, and knowledge can all be specialized, often (but not always) within a single large settlement.
  3. Specialization of institutions. This kind of specialization highlights differences between large complex societies and small-scale societies. In complex settings such as today's western nations, institutions such as government, religion, and education are specialized. But in small-scale societies, these institutions tend to be bundled together and their activity spread widely among the people. Instead of schools, everyone is responsible for education; instead of having an organized religion, religious knowledge and activities are widely distributed among people.
Leeds goes on to relate these to the concept of urban:  "I define 'urban' as the interacting confluence of all three of these specializations." (p. 230) I'll stop here, because I'm not sure this is a productive way to define urban or cities. But the concepts of specialization are important.

(3) Rural and urban. In the 1979 article I am writing about, Leeds briefly outlines his ideas of rural and urban, but the best discussion is in a paper from 1980. For Leeds, any society that has cities is entirely an urban society. That is, urban is not the opposite of rural. "Rural" refers to a set of specialized locations (agriculture, mining, forests, mountains) within an encompassing urban society. This is a functional definition of urban and rural: These are defined not as absolute entities of their own, but rather as places within a regional system have have particular functions.

All three of these ideas are productive, and they help us see urbanism not as a unitary phenomenon consisting of the cities on a Google map today. Rather, the urban world extended far back into the past, and around the world. And when we look at any urban society, we find that cities and their (specialized) activities transform the entire society. I cover this in greater depth in my older post.

When I discovered the work of Anthony Leeds, a couple of decades ago, a memory came back from my undergraduate days at Brandeis University. Leeds came to give a lecture at Brandeis, and my professors urged the anthropology majors to attend (just as I urge the majors to attend these talks today). Later, I recalled two things about that lecture. First, I didn't understand it at all! And second, I recalled the title, which I liked, "Some unpleasantries on peasantries."

I highly recommend the work of Anthony Leeds. Many of  his articles were assembled after his death into a nice edited volume (this includes the 1980, but but not 1979 paper). The introductory essay by Roger Sanjek (another outstanding urban anthropologist) is very good. 

The organization formerly known as the Society for Urban Anthropology offers the annual Anthony Leeds Award in Urban Anthropology. The society is now called, "The Society for Urban, National, and Transnational / Global Anthropology." What a joke, this is a signal of the decline of urban anthropology as a productive field (back in the days of Anthony Leeds) to a later diffuse existence where scholarship is not about cities, but rather cities are merely places to study other issues. Anyway, don't get me started here about the decline and fall of urban anthropology. Go look at the works of Anthony Leeds.

Leeds, Anthony
1979    Forms of Urban Integration: 'Social Urbanization' in Comparative Perspective. Urban Anthropology 8: 227-247.

1980    Towns and Villages in Society: Hierarchies of Order and Cause. In Cities in a Larger Context, edited by T. Collins, pp. 6-33. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

1994    Cities, Classes, and the Social Order, edited by Roger Sanjek. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

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