Urban ethnographer = “pretty much a good street reporter with a PhD”?

A Baltimore journalist describes Elijah Anderson’s career:

Elijah Anderson, who might be the nation’s leading people-watcher, has spent most of the last 30 years observing human beings of all colors and ethnicities mixing it up in public spaces — Philadelphia’s, mainly — and of late he mostly likes what he sees.

He’s found whites, blacks and immigrants from all over the world shopping shoulder to shoulder in Reading Terminal Market and equally stunning diversity in Philly’s Rittenhouse Square. Attention must be paid, Mr. Anderson says. As segregated as Americans are in terms of where we live, the great melting that occurs in public spaces is a phenomenon of consequence. We might be suspicious of each other on streets, but there are important places where diverse people come together and, for the most part, practice getting along. These “cosmopolitan canopies,” as Mr. Anderson calls them, give us a glimpse of post-racial America.

Mr. Anderson, a sociologist who has been on the faculty of two Ivy League universities, calls himself an urban ethnographer, which is pretty much a good street reporter with a PhD. He’s interviewed Philadelphians in their neighborhoods, homes, bars and workplaces to figure out how they live and what they think. He was in Baltimore last week with copies of “The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life,” his latest book on urban social dynamics.

The journalist describes Anderson in two ways: he “might be the nation’s leading people-watcher” and “an urban ethnographer, which is pretty much a good street reporter with a PhD.” Neither of these seem to be particularly complementary. The first suggests that anyone can do what Anderson does – indeed, people watching is a pastime of many people. The second suggests urban ethnographers do what any good reporter would do by observing and interacting with people in neighborhoods.

I think both of these descriptions shortchange ethnography. To start, ethnography is a process that requires practice and particular skills. It is not enough to show up and start talking to people or sit and watch. It often involves participant observation, taking part in the practices of the people you are studying. Second, the goal of ethnography is to return to theories, sociological or otherwise. Ethnography should not end with description but connect to and provide insights regarding a broader body of knowledge.

Perhaps this journalist was providing his thoughts about Anderson’s latest book (see my review here) through his description of ethnography.

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