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Pardo and Prato on why Ethnography Matters

In this article Italo Pardo and Giuliana B. Prato, series editors of Palgrave Studies in Urban Anthropology, discuss the critical importance of ethnographic research.

Ethnography matters, critically. While there is no need to fetishize fieldwork, it would be difficult to overstate its unique value to theoretical development and to society. As classically-trained social anthropologists, we are well aware of its unique contribution to our understanding of our rapidly changing world.

Today, half of humanity is living in towns and cities and that proportion is expected to grow in the coming decades as existing cities and a growing number of smaller towns are set on a path of demographic and spatial expansion, also through in-takes of native and foreign migrants. It is reasonably argued that the future of the social sciences will inevitably be urban-bound.

As a dominant form of associated life, urban settings encapsulate the increasing socio-economic impact of international regulations and selective management of capital, knowledge and people. Clearly, it is timely and of great importance to grasp the complex dynamics of life in cities, as hubs of cultural and ethnic interaction and as challenging settings for future sustainable development. Ethnographic research is an ‘art of the possible’, and in cities there are many possibilities.

Growing interest in urban ethnographic research is testified by the success of outlets like the series Palgrave Studies in Urban Anthropology, the peer-reviewed, open-access Journal Urbanities – Journal of Urban Ethnography, and the forthcoming Palgrave Handbook of Urban Ethnography. Scientific disciplines are dynamic entities, continuously changing and developing. Fruitful interdisciplinary contaminations — in the sense of cooperation and exchange of research findings — are of critical importance in gaining an informed, adequately articulated understanding of human beings and society. Of course, though, there is no interdisciplinarity without disciplinarity. In recognition of this key point, both the Series and the Journal publish empirically-based, readable contributions from anthropologists, qualitative sociologists and other social scientists that avoid abstract generalities, thus contributing to expanding knowledge in this important field. Both benefit from strong links with the not-for-profit multidisciplinary association International Urban Symposium – IUS and the IUAES Commission on Urban Anthropology – CUA and the conferences and workshops that these bodies regularly organize.

In a global scenario vastly marred by a growing gap between citizenship and governance, proving the intellectual and practical significance of ethnographically-based knowledge is of urgent importance. The core-mission of the IUS is to do precisely this. With the help of its non-academic members, its researchers endeavour to bring out the value of ethnographic urban research to professional and stakeholders, also through engaged debate in the media.

Combined efforts such as those that we have briefly described may well contribute significantly to critical thinking, the development of ideas and the betterment of our world.


Italo Pardo, is Honorary Reader in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. He co-founded and presides the IUS - https://kent.academia.edu/ItaloPardo.

Giuliana B. Prato is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. She chairs the CUA. Dr Prato co-founded the IUS and serves as its Secretary-Treasurer https://kent.academia.edu/GiulianaPrato.