Urban anthropology is a science dealing with the cultural systems of cities, their linkages with other dwelling forms and populations, as well as with their role in the worldwide urban system. The term began to be used in the 1960s, when urban societies and cities were increasingly attracting the attention of cultural anthropologists and sociologists. Anthropologists had been conducting research on cities long before: in the late 1930s a number of anthropologists, including Robert Redfield (1897-1958), shifted their research focus from tribal and rural communities to city-dwellers.
One of the factors for the development of urban anthropology was the desire of researchers to counteract to the traditional "primitivist," anthropology that dealt primarily with primitive communities. Another factor for the emergence of the new discipline was the rapid growth of cities in the 20th century.
It is a field that was previously a study area of sociology and cultural anthropology. Sociology dealt with the study of western civilization and the industrialized world, while the analysis of primitive cultures was reserved for anthropology. Urban anthropologists adopted a more integrated approach, insisting that the treating the industrial western world and the rest, the under-developed world, as entirely separate and unconnected was not justifiable. Early urban anthropology dealt with problems showing the links between the rural communities and the societies in the cities. Rural-urban migration, or the urbanization of societies, along with the related topics of integration, changes to interpersonal ties and collective identities within the city, where all subject to study in urban anthropology.
As urban anthropology sought to study larger cities, it faced the problems of what methods to use to make its research valid. Many anthropologists have been influenced by the methods promoted by the Chicago School of Sociology and Robert E. Park (1864-1944). Park and his colleagues used demographic and census information, interviews and historical data in order to explore particular social problems in the cities. Their focus fell on urban problems such as slums and ghettos. The problem with such approaches, as well as with the method of participant observation which was quite widely used by anthropologists when studying primitive communities, was that they led to the loss of a holistic perspective on the urban problems. This has prompted Ulf Hannerz (b. 1942), the emeritus professor of urban anthropology at Stockholm University in Sweden, and the author of Soulside and Exploring the City, considered to be classic books on the new science, to criticize the early urban studies.
The new discipline also had a problem of finding a common definition for "urban." For some, the term referred to population aggregates of a certain size, while for others the term indicated any occupation not engaged primarily with agriculture. Another group of scholars insisted that the population density defined an area as urban.
To specify its topic field and to find a definition of "urban," urban anthropology has looked at other disciplines like archeology and sociology, as well as geography and ecology. In his essay Urbanism as a Way of Life (1938) sociologist Louis Wirth (1897-1952) stressed that urban life was characterized by impersonal and instrumental contacts which free individuals from the controls of primary groups as the extended family. In 1950 archeologist Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957) described the process by which complex, civilized societies emerged, with the basic criteria for such process including political organization, foreign trade and monumental buildings.
Urban anthropology's first textbooks dedicated to the discipline were published in the 1970s. It was around this time that urban anthropology also grew more regionally diversified. Field researches were carried out in Japan, India and Indonesia, as well as across Africa and South America. Urban anthropology then began to make use of many new methods, such as the network analysis.
Globalization and multiculturalism have brought new issues to the fore for urban anthopology, which continues to study practical city problems such as the use of space, waste management and crime. In 1979, The Society for Urban Anthropology (SUA), was established as a subdivision of the American Anthropological Association. The SUA was later renamed as the Society for Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology (SUNTA).