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Ger Duijzings

The Bucharest urban anthropology and ethnography workshop


Published in Colloquia. Journal of Central European History, XVIII, 2011, 131-149.

[publications page numbers added]

[131] Abstract: This text provides an overview of the main themes and topics discussed at The Bucharest Urban
Anthropology and Ethnography Workshop which took place in May 2010. It brought together anthropologists, sociologists,
architects, and urban planners most of them working in the Romanian capital to discuss the benefits and challenges of
ethnographic fieldwork in (post-socialist) cities. The presentations and discussions focused on the methodological
problems of doing fieldwork in urban contexts, the differences and continuities between rural and urban anthropology, the
problems of scale in ethnographic analysis and the links between local and global processes in multi-sited urban research,
the balance between urban (infra)structures and individual agency, the intricacies of and confusion of roles in fieldwork
carried out at home and related problems of engagement and detachment, the continued relevance of the notion
of post-socialism, and the development of new methodologies to capture movement and the weaving of social
relationships in urban contexts. The workshop aimed to achieve also a clearer and more self-assured positioning of
anthropology and ethnography in the interdisciplinary urban studies field and to formulate useful links and fruitful
interaction.

Key words: post-socialist cities, ethnography, urban anthropology, urban studies, research methodologies, Bucharest

The Bucharest Urban Anthropology and Ethnography Workshop, organized by


Vintil Mihilescu, Liviu Chelcea and the author of this text, took place on 14 May 2010 in
the Romanian Peasant Museum (Muzeul ranului Romn) in Bucharest. It brought together
urban anthropologists, sociologists, architects, and urban planners most of them working
in Bucharest to discuss the benefits and challenges of ethnographic fieldwork in the city.
Despite its local focus, the workshops aim was to transcend the geographical confines of
Romanias capital and discuss in general and theoretical terms the uses and problems of
ethnography in [132] metropolitan areas. An important theme for the workshop was the
methodological issue of how to carry out fieldwork in cities, in particular post-socialist cities.
The aim was thus to reflect on ethnographic research practices, push methodological
boundaries, and explore what is needed to adapt to the crowded, mobile, transient, and
anonymous conditions of the twenty-first century (post-socialist) city. Participants were
asked to specifically report and reflect on these issues from their own fieldwork setting. The
objective of this text is to summarise the contributions made and present the discussion in a
coherent manner.1

Another theme for discussion was the past divergence and increasing convergence of
disciplinary trajectories, of professional training, research careers, as well as funding
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opportunities for anthropologists and ethnologists in Western Europe and the former
socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. What are the implications of these past
divergences and current convergences for what contemporary urban anthropologists are
doing in the most practical terms, i.e. in terms of the choice of topics and methods? One of
the interesting observations to make is that in Romania (and elsewhere in Central and
Eastern Europe) there are many young anthropologists who work almost exclusively in cities.
Because of limited funds, the city normally the city in which they live is the only
fieldwork site affordable, thereby becoming the default location for anthropological
research. Besides its limitations and drawbacks, it may be argued that fieldwork at home
also brings certain advantages: in an embedded and serial manner and in urban contexts, it
is potentially a fertile ground for theoretical and methodological innovation and
experimentation.

[133] Finally, what the workshop tried to achieve was to come to a clearer and more self-
assured positioning of anthropology and ethnography in the wider and interdisciplinary field
of urban studies. As, on the one hand, much work done by urban anthropologists remains
descriptive and is often theoretically disconnected from the wider interdisciplinary field of
urban studies, and on the other hand, some urban studies literature tends to be less
empirically grounded, adopting too simplistic views of how social and cultural processes
work, the aim was to formulate links and generate fruitful interaction between urban
anthropology and the wider urban studies field.

From village to city

Vintil Mihilescu introduced the themes of the workshop providing a reflection on the
trajectory of Romanian ethnology through the prism of his own career moving from the
village to a block of flats. At the beginning of the 1990s, after having worked for twenty
years in a village, he started to do fieldwork in a neighbourhood in Bucharest (Militari). This
anthropological displacement from village to city was not unproblematic, as until then
ethnologists had very little experience in studying cities. It raised eyebrows amongst
colleagues (within and outside the discipline) who were of the opinion that it was not the
task of ethnologists to do fieldwork in urban settings. When he started to study urban
apartment blocks, the most common reaction was that there was nothing for him to do in
such an environment: anthropologists were to focus on the rural, and leave the city to urban
sociologists. Leaving this criticism aside, the process of anthropological relocation has
indeed raised some real issues, for example whether it is possible to use the same
theoretical and methodological toolbox in an urban environment. Indeed, ever since they
made their first steps into cities, anthropologists have continued the kind of ethnography
that was practiced in rural contexts, looking for village-like social settings such as particular
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urban neighbourhoods, and customs such as wedding rituals which rural migrants had
brought with them into the city, doing ethnology in the city, not necessarily of the city.2

Vintil Mihilescu outlined some of the continuities between rural and urban anthropology
at the a) methodological, b) theoretical and c) axiological level: a) urban anthropologists
continue to choose a particular neighbourhood to carry out fieldwork, looking for small-
scale communities and putting the emphasis on the local as was the case in classic
anthropology. This continued emphasis on the small and the local in urban environments
may be seen to be another facet of what John Cole has called an anthropology coming
part-way home3; b) local urban neighbourhoods also provide the proper space to address
our Durkheimian concerns with social cohesion and solidarity, which anthropologists have
studied first and foremost in rural settings and increasingly in modern and post-industrial
[134] urbanized contexts4; c) there has also been continuity in terms of the normative
expectation that community *or neighbourhood+ is good, one of the anthropologists tasks
being to help define the requirements and aspects of good governance in urban
environments. Robert D. Putnams approach centring on civil society and social capital is an
important point of reference here, it represents the idea of community striking back, which
anthropologists empathize with.5 There is a vital difference, though, in terms of how social
cohesion can and should be understood in rural and urban settings: strong social ties are
seen as normal and good in the village, whereas in the city weaker ties may be better to
form bridges between social groups and urban communities.6 Closely-knit and bounded
neighbourhoods in the city may indeed too much bind local communities together in an
exclusionary, introverted, and isolationist or ghetto-like manner.

As Ivaylo Ditchev pointed out, cities are fundamentally about difference and diversity, which
calls into question the assumption of cultural homogeneity discernable in classic
anthropological concepts such as village, community, and nation. As a corollary, one
may wonder to what extent such traditional and cultural homogenous communities still
exist and whether the division between rural and urban is not completely outdated. It is
clear that villages are not what they used to be, as the example given by Ditchev, of a
(Muslim) Pomak village in Bulgaria producing lingerie for the German market suggests.
Therefore, it may be better to talk about pan-urban constellations: in rural areas the
intensity of exchanges with unknown others has increased, so much so that we now can do,
as it were, urban anthropology in villages. Vintil Mihilescu suggested therefore that the
classic division between rural and urban needs to be revisited. There are important urban
footprints and feedback effects on rural communities, and urban phenomena are replicated
in villages, which undermines the notion of rural homogeneity. Mihilescu added a self-
critical note: in the past we thought too much in terms of homogenous rural ideal types,
pertaining for instance to household structures, comparing villages and assuming they
followed similar patterns (cg. the concept of the diffuse household). He referred to David
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Kideckel, who, doing extensive fieldwork near Fgra, demonstrated that there was more
variety and showed that several different household types were in existence in the village.7

Besides the continuities, Vintil Mihilescu also identified methodological and theoretical
shifts brought about by fieldwork in cities, in terms of our understanding of space and
community for instance. Following Talja Bloklands work, urban neighbourhoods are now
understood in more [135] practical than symbolic terms, focusing on topology rather than
topography, space rather than place, and practices rather than territory.8 In other words,
another balance between practical and symbolic investment in urban spaces exists which is
reflected in ethnography. Even though anthropologists know since Malinowski that symbolic
investment in spaces (e.g. mental maps) may be very different from practical investment
(e.g. daily trajectories), urban fieldwork has shifted our attention away from discourses to
practices, which appear to be more important in urban settings. Secondly, urban sites are
socially fragmented and multi-layered sites, where people are part of various networks
which have to be approached differently. These networks are often overlapping, and mostly
extend beyond the neighbourhood. People are networked for instance around the church,
in clubs and associations, and the areas where they shop. Because of this, these multi-
layered urban sites need to be studied in a different manner than rural or village sites. Also,
there is a strong argument to be made for the research agenda to define and embrace a
wider set of urban neighbourhood types in order to provide a more balanced and
comprehensive understanding of social life in the contemporary city.9

Problems of scale

Rzvan Nicolescu discussed problems of scale, illustrating this through his research on
boredom amongst Bucharest teenagers in a relatively affluent part of the city, and their uses
of new technologies and media. An anthropologist doing fieldwork in a large and
anonymous city only sees what happens in his immediate surroundings, and is not
necessarily aware what is going on in the rest of the city. He or she is therefore unable to
simultaneously oversee the extremely diverse urban flows (Georg Simmel) and scapes
(Arjun Appadurai).10 Knowledge is fragmented: what one gathers during fieldwork is a mass
of disconnected bits of information from a variety of contexts, pertaining to different
overlapping, competing, and changing urban groups and communities. It is only through
multiple sequential encounters and contacts that one can start making sense and see
connections. As Ivaylo Ditchev suggested, it is possible to take this idea one step further by
accepting that there is no inherent and self-evident unity to the city, and so, that unity is
always imagined or constructed. At least one of the things that we can do through
ethnography is to describe the imagined city, i.e. the ways in which urban inhabitants and
actors imagine their city as an entity having a particular identity. City branding, through
which city authorities offer a particular representation of their city to the outside world (for
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instance through the internet) in order to attract tourists and investments is one of the
dominant forms this imagining may take.

Another issue addressed by Rzvan Nicolescu was that of entering and exiting the field, i.e.
the difficulty of stable ethnographic presence, which [136] was the norm in the classic
fieldwork situation but is not anymore in urban contexts, especially when the anthropologist
lives and works in the very same city. This confusion of roles between inhabitant and
researcher is one complication of doing ethnography at home. Another one is that it is not
always easy to ensure that we continue to be amazed doing research in the city in which
we live; some anthropologists attempt to remedy this by applying surrealist strategies,
rendering the familiar unfamiliar. Living and doing research in a city at the same time also
means constantly entering and exiting the field at unpredictable moments. The
anthropologist may at some point decide not to be in the role of researcher but
nevertheless end up in interesting situations where he or she was not planning to make
notes. New opportunities arise all the time, and so there is an urgency to observe things
that happen unexpectedly, but the problem remains how to integrate these new
fragments in the ethnographic text. Last but not least, there is the issue of involvement
and detachment: working and living in the same city means being more connected to and
engaged with society and its issues and controversies. We share the site, and our
engagement with it, with other researchers and ordinary inhabitants, as a result of which we
are constantly faced with a multiplicity of existing and possible vantage points. The
consequence is an open-ended writing process, a constant and ongoing polishing of our
findings, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions or produce conclusive texts. In other
words, one of the problems of doing ethnography in urban contexts is at the stage of writing,
i.e. how to construct a story, a coherent and authoritative narrative. As was suggested,
blogs may provide a solution as they offer a faster and more flexible form of anthropological
reporting.

Norbert Petrovici discussed the issue of how to connect different levels of analysis in urban
research, for instance between local and global processes and between different fieldwork
sites in multi-sited ethnography. In his research he studied housing and spatial inequalities
in Cluj, focusing on the political economy of these inequalities through an analysis of various
districts, i.e. villa, suburban, and socialist neighbourhoods. He looked for connections
between centres and peripheries as they juxtapose and interweave in the local urban fabric,
for instance interviewing workers living in one part of the city constructing villas in another.
In the course of his research, Cluj became a multiplicity of sites, a fragmentary space with a
complex imagined geography and intricate economic processes sustaining this geography. In
need of a new theory of locality or a new sense of place11, Petrovici first adopted George
Marcuss multi-sited approach, which offered the most promising venue from both the
methodological and epistemological point of view, as it moves out from the single sites and
local situations of conventional ethnographic research designs to examine the circulation of
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cultural meanings, objects, and identities in diffuse time-space, as Marcus writes.12 Every
chapter of the PhD discusses a different part of the city, each with its own logic of spatial
production, and [137] all of this is connected through the authors argument. Following
Marcuss procedure, Petrovici designed his research around chains, paths, threads,
conjunctions, or juxtapositions of locations in which the ethnographer establishes some
form of literal, physical presence, with an explicit, posited logic of association or connection
among sites that in fact defines the argument of the ethnography.13 In that respect, his
multi-sited ethnography has been constructivist (one of the worst labels possible in some
positivist academic circles), i.e. he connected and constructed the relation between the
different fieldwork sites.

As Petrovici pointed out, classic ethnography is linked with bounded spaces and
communities which are observed and studied within a limited time and space span. The city,
however, cannot be easily bounded in this manner. This raises the issue of how to
conceptualize locality, i.e. to understand the ways in which the local is produced and
constituted: how are local and global processes connected for instance? Since the local is
partly or largely produced from the outside, through other (global) forces, the question
arises whether we should unbound the sites in which we work in a horizontal manner
through multi-sited research, as suggested by Marcus, or through expanding the field in a
vertical manner, as proposed by Michael Burawoy.14 For the purpose of Petrovicis research
in Cluj, the latter strategy proved in the end more useful, looking at historical contexts and
analyzing a locality as one scale amongst other scales. In the views of those that inhabit
these spaces the city remains nevertheless bounded, but what is interesting is that different
categories of people (such as workers and managers) define and imagine the city differently.
It is not easy to create a coherent narrative or assemble a story out of these [138] disparate
points of views: the question arises whether the ethnographers task is to be merely a
witness of these different stories or to construct his own narrative.

Interdisciplinarity

Liviu Chelcea made the important point that the traditional fieldwork setting is very
different from the environment in which urban anthropologists operate. Whereas in the
classic small community or village setting there are usually just one or two knowledge-
producing individuals (the local historian and/or school teacher), in cities there are many
more, i.e. scholars and experts (sociologists, geographers, historians, anthropologists,
architects, planners, engineers, etc.) who are involved in studying the city. Cities are much
more densely populated with such knowledge-producing individuals, who all approach the
city differently. Therefore, moving into the city means at the same time becoming part of an
interdisciplinary urban studies environment. Anthropologist working in this context should
follow an (open and flexible) cognatic logic of combining perspectives from different
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disciplines to build their own approach. The city is also more densely populated with
anthropologists who work in the same city simultaneously, which hardly ever happened in
village contexts. All of this raises the issue of ethnographic authority, which has become
more difficult and complex in cities. As Vintil Mihilescu pointed out, in the village the
ethnologist was clearly somebody (especially in the Romanian village where there were
strong mutual expectations particularly during the process of nation-building), whereas in
the city the ethnographer is a nobody. At best his role is confused with the much more
visible market or political opinion poll researcher, and he has to play a diversity of tricks in
order to get recognition and access to informants. The changed position of the
ethnographer in an urban environment was neatly summarized by Alec Blescu as a shift
from authority to anonymity and from author to being authorized. All of this has resulted
in what Clifford Geertz has called a situation of epistemological hypochondria in
anthropology.15 There is a clear need to restore (self-) confidence in the discipline.

In this interdisciplinary field of urban studies, ethnography has nevertheless been an


attractive option for non-anthropologists. It can for instance throw light on how people
inhabit the spaces created or produced by urban planners and architects. An example of
how ethnography can be put to use in an urban planning context is Ioana Tudoras and
Mihai Culescus work on the unplanned uses of urban voids, of self-made places
appropriated in one way or another by ordinary people and children. From their perspective
it is essential to look at how the designed clashes with the non-designed. For example in
Bucharest, many inhabitants refuse to use particular public spaces that were designed from
above, the prime example being the House of Parliament and Unirii Boulevard. In many [139]
socialist cities, public spaces were deliberately designed to prevent people from hanging
around, similar to the US where there is a long tradition of defensive design making public
places unattractive for loitering. Whereas some designed spaces may not be used, other
spaces are appropriated for unplanned use.16 In Bucharest for instance there are improvised
gardens everywhere, especially around the omnipresent apartment blocks which were built
during communism. Another example is the appropriation of public spaces by children, who
during the socialist period when there were fewer cars used to play everywhere using
Bucharest as their playground. Bucharest always had many informal spaces and urban voids
where children used to play, even though today kids are pushed into playground enclaves
and shopping malls, and are not encouraged to explore and discover the city anymore. To
call these play areas urban wastelands, as many urbanists have done, denies their actual
and potential use by children; it would be much more appropriate to use the old term
maidan (open spaces and fields used as playground).

As Ioana Tudora and Mihai Culescu pointed out, it is symptomatic that architects often use
the word corruption instead of resistance when referring to unplanned uses of urban
spaces, undermining the original purpose of these sites as projected by architects and
landscape designers. In this context of the improper use of public spaces Gerg Pulay
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discussed his research in a poor neighbourhood of Bucharest, Ferentari, describing the


street weddings and baptismal celebrations that take place on streets or squares. Families
bribe the police so it will not intervene, and they then buy their own private security to
keep the unwanted guests out. On the one hand street weddings have a public and
performative element of making the event and celebrations known to others, of showing off
with [140] musical performances of famous manele singers, but they are also private and
exclusive in terms of not allowing everybody in.

On another note, Ioana Tudora and Mihai Culescu pointed out that there is a crucial
difference between architects and urban planners on the one hand and anthropologists on
the other: the former intervene in the city physically, the latter not. Whatever architects do,
they will always have this last step in mind. Their role is to build something, resulting in a
hands-on and here-and-now attitude. Even though some architects do recognize that
anthropologists are needed to understand what people do with these designed spaces,
most architects are too much focused on the physical and built environment, and are not
interested in the actual users who, in their eyes, often just mess up their excellent designs:
architects build villas, but after they have finished the occupants become the villains, as
Ctlin Berescu pointed out. Being an architect himself, Berescu provided a more
provocative take on the issue of how architects and anthropologists compare: Architects
build structures, and are aware of the spatial constraints of a given place, while
anthropologists study the uses of these structures without the same kind of sensitivity for
the spatial aspects. In addition, architects are not so obsessed with proving themselves since
they make tangible and functional objects, which cannot be said for anthropologists: the
latter do not provide concrete solutions for practical questions. Hyperbolically put, while
architects design buildings (for others), anthropologists are in the business of building
careers (for themselves). Another difference is that the activities and interventions of urban
planners and architects are delimited and defined by property and administrative
boundaries (the street, a plot of land), which is not the case for anthropologists who tend to
spread out and have no clear and fixed boundaries.

A further interesting point made was that urban and rural environments require different
theoretical approaches because the balance between vernacular and power architecture
differs in villages and cities. Whereas in the village it is possible to build your own house, in
the city you often need to adapt to existing structures. Notwithstanding the fact that in
small communities individuals have more possibilities to create their own physical [141]
structures, they otherwise enjoy less agency because of forms of social control. In the city,
on the contrary, the physical constraints are more important than the social constraints.
With this in mind it is not always accurate to say that the people who inhabit cities also build
them; villages are much more truly vernacular spaces, whereas cities provide spaces
designed and imposed by others. One can nevertheless find `self-made spaces in cities, or
encounter unintended practical uses of urban spaces which change their functionality (such
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as kids playing along the railways, or people fishing along a canal). In other words, physical
urban structures and constraints can be countered and subverted through forms of human
agency. People indeed seize opportunities and create chances in an urban environment
which they have not made themselves.

The question remains how much agency there really is in the face of imposing and defining
urban structures. Raluca Nagy emphasized indeed the power of structures and
infrastructures: when doing medical anthropological research on various disease
communities in Brussels, she discovered how people are utterly dependent on urban
infrastructures. The wider political context is important but ignored, it is the proverbial
elephant in the room that completely defines urban realities: workers, patients, and those
who are ill and weak lack the power to change these conditions. In that sense, they do not
have much agency, yet they collectively may form a considerable power during elections, as
Norbert Petrovici pointed out: in Cluj for example, workers effectively voted the nationalist
mayor Gheorghe Funar into power in 1992. Likewise, those whom we may think of as being
in control when it comes to constructing our cities, i.e. the architects and designers, have
much less influence nowadays then under socialism. As [142] Ivaylo Ditchev suggested, we
are in a different era now, where state and municipal power have diminished, where
property has been privatized and private actors and investors dictate the situation, as is the
case in many other economic and social spheres. As a result of this situation, large urban
development projects initiated by the local authorities, for instance in Sofia and Bucharest,
fail to materialize.

As Ivaylo Ditchev suggested, anthropologists can indeed show how designed spaces and
structures are used, appropriated and subverted by real people. We may have uniform
apartments in a socialist block, or identical shell units in a real estate development, but
people dress up their empty homes and add colours to white walls. The city is differentially
experienced and consumed, and it should be understood therefore as a site of multiple
subjectivities. In Bulgaria for instance, at the centre of discussion is the debate around the
aesthetics of the old socialist blocks compared to the new post-socialist ones. People
express quite strong opinions about these, as they do about the old and new monuments
which are either deemed to be ugly or beautiful. People are reinvesting in space, which
represents a kind of post-traumatic normalization of the urban environment after the large
and sometimes brutal socialist interventions. In Moscow, for example, the old Stalinist
apartments are the most expensive ones, so here tastes have developed in a socialist
direction especially amongst the very wealthy. The same is true for Bucharest where the
nouveaux riches have a special admiration for Ceauescus House of the People (now House
of the Parliament). Other inhabitants of Bucharest are convinced that the most solid
apartment blocks are the socialist ones, built after the 1977 earthquake; the newer ones
constructed after socialism are believed not to be as earthquake-proof as the former.
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[143] This raised the issue whether the notion of post-socialism is still relevant.17 Ger
Duijzings argued that the legacies of the socialist past linger on in the form of physical
structures and memories of life under socialism, and as such the notion has not lost all its
relevance. Ivaylo Ditchev pointed out that the concept of post-socialism is not just about
taking memories of things past into account, it is also about recognising current injustices
and expressing dissatisfaction with the way society developed after the end of socialism.
Post-socialism may have a very concrete face, as Gerg Pulay showed: in the poor urban
neighbourhood where he works (Ferentari) the period after 1989 has been a period of decay.
Drugs entered the neighbourhood, and part of the street turned into a zone where addicts
and dealers hang out, creating two opposing referential and symbolic local worlds with a
boundary in the middle. Post-socialism as an analytical category should be seen as a latent
element, a variable or dimension when studying cities in former socialist Europe. It is
especially relevant when people refer to socialism, i.e. when they make comparisons or
point back to the communist period in their narratives of present-day phenomena. It speaks
for itself that it is also a generational issue: the memories of communism may still be alive
amongst teachers for instance but completely irrelevant to the kids they teach.

[144] Movement and change, new methods and tools

Anthropologists have difficulties adapting to urban contexts because of the methods they
use: these may have been appropriate for the small-scale (tribe, village, and island)
communities in which anthropologists have worked traditionally, but are not easily
applicable in urban macro-settings. This methodological emphasis which constitutes an
important part of the identity of the discipline is one of the reasons why anthropologists
continue to try and find face-to-face communities, also in cities, often ignoring the larger
flows and anonymity of urban life. As Ger Duijzings suggested, there is a need for new
methods which will capture movement and record the weaving of personal and impersonal
social relationships in the wider urban environment. He talked about the importance of
studying (physical and social) mobility, of trajectories and traffic behaviour, through the use
of moving images. For one year he filmed his trajectories through Bucharest using different
means of transportation (on foot or riding a bicycle, using the car or public transport),
particularly looking at moments of friction and negotiation, which form part of the process
of weaving impersonal relationships in cities. Moving images can be used to carry out
minute analysis of particular instances of friction, looking at how conflicts in circulation and
traffic are resolved. Filming from the more subjective position of a particular traffic
participant differs quite fundamentally from the images that are produced from the
detached and static position of traffic cameras that register flows, traffic jams and
transgressions, for traffic management purposes. Moving images of actual trajectories are
complementary to mental maps, i.e. the ideas and representations people have about the
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urban spaces that they use or avoid, and their spatial behaviour patterns when traversing
the city, which are sketched and mapped out on a piece of paper.

Alec Blescu critiqued the traditional ethnographic paradigm of the contained fieldwork
and its closest corollaries community, place, narrative, and identity suggesting that we
should study the city through forms of bodily engagement. He highlighted the different
scales and territorialities of urban environments, indicating that in cities we have somehow
lost place and gained space. The city displays interesting dynamics, engendered randomly
for instance by the topological connections between two dots on the map, the A and B
between which we move. The focus must therefore shift from a rooted and territorial
approach to a practice based analysis, which is more likely to describe the urban fabric
through the multitude and variety of connections. The social life of practices may be the
answer to anxieties linked to the quest for a contained fieldwork site. Since the model of
anthropological research is participant observation, our bodily practices, experiences and
exposures can become important tools. These embodied aspects of our research provide
opportunities, for instance in terms of our own adaptation to and movement through the
city, which [145] will vary greatly from city to city. The fact that we live in a particular city
has bodily as well as biological implications in terms of the ways in which we dress, eat, and
move. Every city provides a specific environment or habitat, in terms of climate, ecology,
geography, and demography, the built environment including landmarks and monuments,
safety and spatial and political divisions. All of this will have an impact on how we live in and
move through the cities that we inhabit. Blescu detected a fundamental shift in urban
anthropological approaches from (one) body to (plural) embodiments, from (one) subject to
(plural) subjectivizations.

One practical example of exploring urban spaces through bodily movement was provided by
Oana Donose, who did research on the geography of outdoor advertising in Bucharest. She
walked along six routes, starting from University Square, gathering data on billboards,
banners and other forms of outdoor advertising. She was particularly interested in the
number of billboards and banners, their locations (institutions, offices, shopping centres,
metro exits), the part of the city and type of area in which they are located, the size of the
street, the type of advert, the kind of building, the positioning of the billboards and banners,
the sort of products advertised, etc. She gathered data for a few hundred cases, and put
them into a database to establish frequencies and statistical correlations. Even though some
of the data could have been obtained by contacting the advertising companies (as patterns
may be the result of conscious business decisions and strategies) the exercise in itself is in
an interesting and valuable one, since it provides a direct window on advertising in public
areas and streets, and it also allows us to discover peoples responses (for instance in the
form of graffiti).
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[146] These new approaches raise the issue of engagement and detachment in ethnographic
practice in cities. As Ivaylo Ditchev noted, photography and film are more detached and
objectifying, keeping observer separate from the observed, whereas embodied practices
go in the direction of subjective approaches, at a time when the social sciences increasingly
profile themselves as hard sciences. He commented that there may be too much emphasis
on introspection here; our aim should remain to try and understand the practices of others
instead of focusing and reflecting upon our own perceptions and sensations. Although
pictures may be a strong tool, as they are capable of capturing (as Benjamin pointed out)
the optical unconscious18, the use of equipment is never an innocent act: our choice of
physical and technical prosthetics, i.e. cameras, recorders, videos, etc. will engender a
different kind of interaction with our subjects. We also share this equipment with many
others, i.e. reporters, photographers, journalists, and film-makers, which is the reason why
anthropologists may not be recognized as carrying out a particular profession. Yet these
tools also provide opportunities, they may even open doors as Rzvan Nicolescu illustrated:
the difficulties he initially encountered when engaging with teenagers disappeared when he
started focusing on new media. His research developed into an ethnography of the use of
new media technologies by teenagers, where he followed the flows of their everyday
activities and practices through the diaries he asked them to keep combined with interviews.
Vintil Mihilescu warned that when doing interviews researchers should be aware that
what people tell us is more circumstantial and conjunctural in cities. In the village conditions
and temporalities are more stable, in the city they constantly change, so what people say
and why may change as well. That is why it is important not to rely excessively on interviews;
instead the emphasis should be on observing practices.

Mihilescu was slightly sceptical about the novelty and ultimate use of the new methods
proposed. Are they really so different than the drawings Malinowski or the photos Mead
made? And does ethnography in the end not come down to writing things up? Of course, it
should be acknowledged that in an urban environment the context of ethnographic writing
has changed: the city has a very different pace, which has methodological and theoretical
implications. Because of the rapidity of change, it often seems that we cannot enter the
same site twice. The original inhabitants may have disappeared, and the built environment
may have transformed beyond recognition. Therefore urban life appears to be embedded in
a kind of continuous present temporality, for which functionalist and interactionist
paradigms seem to offer the most appropriate analytical and descriptive tools. They explain
social phenomena primarily by pointing at present structures or forms of interaction, which
seems to imply an exit to history. It is debatable though whether there is indeed real change,
whether these transformations represent change at all. Perhaps the changes are not as
drastic as we believe they are and there may be historical continuities we [147] forget about.
There may be something like an urban longue dure which may be helpful to discover: the
past lingers on in the physical objects, the geographical lay-outs and landscapes around us.19
Apart from that, change in cities is not just spontaneous, as it is often based on plans,
13

models and ideals, which may be imitations of something that has happened elsewhere. The
only difference is that nowadays these cultural transfers happen in a very fast and chaotic
manner. Another cautious note on methodological innovation came from Gerg Pulay, who
defended the tested and classic method of rooted and bounded ethnography. In his
fieldwork he made a conscious choice to be located, rooted and bounded, as this is what a
study of a poor and stigmatised community requires, also in ethical terms. Anthropological
fieldwork reveals the living together and conviviality of such neighbourhoods, which goes
against an important trend in urban studies that portrays them as atomistic. In conclusion,
that is one of the contributions anthropology can make to urban studies: to
ethnographically test and if necessary correct and reject the empirically often
unsubstantiated claims made by the grand theorists of life in the city.

Selected bibliography of work published by the participants

Blescu, Alexandru. 2007. Paris chic, Tehran thrills. Aesthetic bodies, political subjectivities.
Bucureti: Editura Zeta Books.
Berescu, Ctlin. 2010. Cte ceva despre arta evacurii n Romnia anilor 2000 / On the art of
eviction in 2000 Romania, in: Alina erban (ed.) Evacuarea fantomei / Evicting the ghost.
Architectures of survival. Bucureti: Asociaia pepluspatru / Centre for Visual Introspection,
pp.113-120.
Chelcea, Liviu. 2003. Ancestors, domestic groups and the socialist state: housing nationalization and
restitution in Romania, in: Comparative Studies in Society and History, 45(4), pp.714-740.
2004. State, kinship, and urban transformations during and after housing nationalization
(Bucharest, Romania, 1945-2004). Doctoral thesis, University of Michigan.
2008. Bucuretiul postindustrial. Memorie, dezindustrializare i regenerare urban. Iai:
Editura Polirom.
Duijzings, Ger. 2010. From Bongo Bongo to Boston via the Balkans. Anthropological contributions to
the study of urban transformations in Southeastern Europe. In: Thomas M. Bohn und Marie
Janine Calic (eds.) Urbanisierung und Stadtentwicklung in Sdosteuropa vom 19. bis zum 21.
Jahrhundert. 47. Mnchen: Verlag Otto Sagner (Sdosteuropa-Jahrbuch 37), pp.93-132.
[148] 2011. Dictators, dogs, and survival in a post-totalitarian city, in: Matthew Gandy (ed.),
Urban constellations, Berlin: Jovis Verlag, pp.145-148.
Duijzings, Ger, and Simona Dumitriu, Aurora Kirly (eds.). 2011. CitiesMethodologies | Bucharest.
Bucureti: Editura Unarte.
Mihilescu, Vintil (ed.). 2009. Etnografii urbane. Cotidianul vzut de aproape. Bucharest: Polirom.
Mihilescu, Vintil, Viorica Nicolau, and Mircea Gheorghiu. 1995. Le bloc 311. Rsidence et
sociabilit dans un immeuble dappartements sociaux Bucarest, in: Ethnologie Franaise,
25(3), pp.484-496.
Nagy, Raluca, and Cristina Plecadite. 2009. Identiti de noapte. Clubbing i clubburi n Bucureti,
in: Vintil Mihilescu (ed.). Etnografii urbane. Cotidianul vzut de aproape. Bucharest:
Polirom, pp.129-147.
Nicolescu, Rzvan. 2009. Adolesceni mobil-izai i mobilgrupurile lor, in: Vintil Mihilescu (ed.),
Etnografii urbane. Cotidianul vzut de aproape. Bucharest: Polirom, pp.173-208.
Petrovici, Norbert. 2010. Corrupt knowledge and the quest for objectivity: A critique of the
Romanian positivist sociology, in: Studia Sociologia, 55(1), pp.221-238.
2011. Articulating the right to the city: working class neo-nationalism in postsocialist Cluj,
14

Romania, in Don Kalb and Gbor Halmai (eds.), Headlines of nationalism, subtexts of class:
working class populism and the return of the repressed in neoliberal Europe. New York and
Oxford: Berghahn Books, forthcoming.
Tudora, Ioana. 2009. Case frumoase / case urte n peisajul bucuretean, in: Vintil Mihilescu
(ed.), Etnografii urbane. Cotidianul vzut de aproape. Bucharest: Polirom, pp.51-64.
2009. La curte. Grdin, cartier i peisaj urban n Bucureti. Bucureti: Curtea Veche.
Tudora, Ioana, and Mihai Culescu. 2011. Looking down on or looking up to Bucharests public
spaces. Militari and Drumul Taberei between vernacular design and urban policies, in: Ger
Duijzings, Simona Dumitriu, Aurora Kirly (eds.). 2011. CitiesMethodologies | Bucharest.
Bucureti: Editura Unarte, pp.46-47.

1
Some participants provided written notes, and others gave oral presentations or contributed to the discussion,
all of which were integrated into this text. Ivaylo Ditchev from Sofia University acted as discussant, providing
valuable feedback on the [149] presentations and discussion. The following people took part: Alec Blescu,
Gruia Bdescu, Ctlin Berescu, Liviu Chelcea, Mihai Culescu, Ivaylo Ditchev, Oana Donose, Ger Duijzings,
Bogdan Iancu, Andreea Matache, Vintil Mihilescu, Raluca Nagy, Rzvan Nicolescu, Norbert Petrovici, Gerg
Pulay, Alina Silian, and Ioana Tudora. I am grateful to Rzvan Nicolescu and Maria Craciun for their comments
on an earlier draft of this text.
2
Grard Althabe, Lethnologie urbaine: ses tendances actuelles, In: Terrain, 3, 1984, pp.3-4.
3
Cole, John W., Anthropology comes part-way home: community studies in Europe, in: Annual Reviews in
Anthropology, 6, 1977, pp.349-378.
4
Patricia Kennett and Ray Forrest, The neighbourhood in a European context, in: Urban Studies, 43(4), 2006,
pp.713-718.
5
Robert D. Putnam,The prosperous community: social capital and public life, in: The American Prospect
13(4), 1993, pp.35-42. See also Amitai Etzioni, The spirit of community. The reinvention of American society.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
6
Ade Kearns and Ray Forrest, Social cohesion and multi-level urban governance, in: Urban Studies, 37(5/6),
2000, pp. 9951017
7
David Kideckel, The solitude of collectivism: Romanian villagers to the revolution and beyond. Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1993.
8
Talja Blokland, Urban bonds. Social relationships in an inner city neighbourhood. Cambridge: Polity Press,
2003.
9
Patricia Kennett and Ray Forrest, The neighbourhood in a European context, in: Urban Studies, 43(4), 2006,
pp.713-718.
10
Georg Simmel. The philosophy of money. London: Routledge, 1990 [1900]; idem, The Metropolis and
mental life. In: Kurt H. Wolff (ed.), The sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: The Free Press, 1950 [1903], pp.
409424; Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1996.
11
Doreen Massey, World City. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.
12
George Marcus, Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography, in:
Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 1995, pp. 95-117, here p.96.
13
Marcus, p.105
14
Michael Burawoy et al., Global ethnography: Forces, connections, and imaginations in a postmodern world.
Berkeley: University California Press, 2000. See also Zsuzsa Gille and San . Riain, Global ethnography, in:
Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 2002, pp. 271-295.
15
Clifford Geertz, Works and lives: the anthropologist as author. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988, p.71.
16
In this context Ivaylo Ditchev mentioned the special issue of Seminar_BG dedicated to the Do-It-Yourself-City,
which presents studies of the unplanned uses of urban spaces in Sofia. See: http://www.seminar-
bg.eu/spisanie-seminar-bg/broy2.html
17
See for instance Chris Hann, Caroline Humphrey, and Katherine Verdery, Introduction. Postsocialism as a
topic of anthropological investigation, in: C.M. Hann (ed.), Postsocialism: ideals, ideologies and practices in
Eurasia. London: Routledge, 2002, pp.1-28.
15

18
Walter Benjamin, A small history of photography. In: One-way street and other writings. London: Verso,
1985 [1931], pp. 240-57.
19
For such an approach see for instance Joachim Vossens cultural-historical geography of Bucharest: Bukarest
Die Entwicklung des Stadtraums von den Anfngen bis zur Gegenwart. Berlin: Reimer, 2004.