Los Angeles is a fascinating city that is hard to define. Some theorists think LA is hard to define because it does not seem to have a clear center like “The Loop” in Chicago, ‘downtown’ in New York City or the zócalo in Mexico City. According to Mariana Petersen’s ethnography Sound, Space, and the City (2010), she demonstrates how officials in Los Angeles sought to improve the image of the city by artificially creating a downtown center (e.g. The Civic Center). Petersen questions what this type of center does for the city—does it actually bring diverse people in Los Angeles together? It appears that the Civic Center defines the city in a particular way, but does this new definition resonate with the city’s history and with the people who live and work there?
Other theorists, such as Norman Klein, think LA is hard to define because it is a city that has been forgotten. Klein focuses on the fact that much of the city’s history has been erased as neighborhoods were dislocated and rearranged in order for highways to be built and for the city to be modernized in the 1950s. In The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (1997), Klein argues most people are not aware of the radical changes that were made to LA. Modernization has created a good deal of historical amnesia, and has left a blank space for people to fill in their own definitions of the history and character of the city. Klein finds it humorous that tourists who visit LA assume an authority over knowledge of the city when they haven’t even visited the city for more than a month. Meanwhile, local residents hesitate to characterize the city because they know that there are gaps in their knowledge. For Klein, these reactions are curious and suggest that not only is LA difficult to define, but there is a question as to who has the right to define it.
Objective: Using anthropological tools and methods, you will describe and analyze a facet of urban life in Los Angeles. This project may be “place-based” (i.e. defined by a neighborhood, area, or space within the city) or “people-based” (i.e. defined by a group of people who are most likely to be on the move or located in more than one space). The project requires fieldwork. You must visit your fieldsite a minimum of 2 times during the semester, so you need to choose a site or a group of people that will be feasible for you to study.
Process: There are 3 parts to the project: 1) Literature review; 2) Fieldwork; 3) Analysis, Write Up and Drawing Connections.
The Scope of Assignment: By the end of the course, you are expected to write a 10 page essay [15 pages for “490” students”] based on your review of literature and data collection. You will need to integrate your fieldnotes with an analysis of urban life in LA that is informed by the theoretical readings in the course and possibly historical readings that relate to the space or group of people that you choose to study. Your final project may include photographs, maps, tables, recordings, illustrations and/or any other form of documentation that you feel is important to the story that you wish to tell. Expect to include a bibliography of references that inform your narrative.
Possible Research Topics:
Remember, when developing a research topic, I would like for you to focus on an anthropology of the city rather than an anthropology in the city. That is to say, at the end of the paper, readers will want to hear your insights about the city through the lens of your topic. The context of the city is central to the project.
Develop a question that is important to you AND is answerable by reviewing literature, conducting participant observation, a few interviews, and documenting by creating maps and other visual representation of the outcomes of your research.
Here are some sample research questions to consider:
How do people use and relate to public space in xyz neighborhood?
How do people live in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification? How does gentrification affect people’s lives?
How do people make use of and relate to specific forms of transportations such as public buses and trains?
How is urban life expressed through food, music, car culture, clothing, art, performance, architecture, or another form of cultural expression?
How does the city shape individuals and communities’ experiences with health care, education, housing, financial, political, and legal systems among other systems?
How do people remember parts of a city?
How do people envision the future of a city?
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