The reissue of Soulside, the noted ethnography of a black community in Washington, DC, originally published in 1969, provokes the contemporary reader to consider how easily the study can now be romantically cast as a classicˇand thereby consigned to the safe distance of history. Ulf Hannerz was a Swedish doctoral student when he conducted his fieldwork in the pseudonymous Winston Street neighborhood from 1966 through 1968. This was during a period of increasing racial tension that saw ghetto uprisings in Harlem (1964), Watts (1965), Chicago (1966), and Cleveland (1966), and, ultimately, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, in April 1968. Hannerz's completed work is a dispassionate collection of essays on American black urban life, from the various and fluid lifestyles to the self-conception and social dramatization of gender roles, the impact of mainstream (i.e., white) culture, and the aspirations and self-definitions of the "ghetto dwellers" he met. Written in the unselfconscious "ethnographic present" employed most famously by Brownislaw Malinowski, Soulside conjures an image of the American inner city that has since become immediately recognizable from its increasingly frequent presentation in film and literature: "People stand at the corner or sit on high staircases in front of houses . . . through the hot and humid summer months . . . children throw balls, hula hoop, ride bikes, push each other in carts . . . sometimes the fire hydrant . . . is switched on, and the children shower in the water spray and bathe in the gutter."
Guided by a sense of social responsibility and a desire to influence social policy, Hannerz was an early anthropologist engag?. In particular he sought to respond to the prevailing model of the day for understanding racial communities. This was most clearly articulated in a 1965 report by then assistant secretary of labor for policy planning Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Moynihan had concluded that the "deterioration of the Negro family" (deterioration cast as an internal cultural problem) was the source of the ghetto's "tangle of pathologies," a conclusion supported by the "culture of poverty" perspective gaining credence at the time among social scientists. According to this view, poverty was the result of character and culture rather than economic structure. Uncomfortable with the former explanation, Hannerz dwelled at length on the importance of cultureˇdistinct from anything innate or naturalˇin shaping human action and development. His critical use of the concept in fact foreshadowed the debate in the decades to come about the usefulness of "culture" for anthropologyˇa debate that reemerged most recently in the '90s, with Lila Abu-Lughod's suggestion that anthropologists dispense with the concept of culture altogether, given that it has served to entrench difference more than anything else. A rereading of Soulside today provides an opportunity to trace the trajectory of the American anthropological culture wars, and to consider the extent to which the prejudices and inequalities of racism have been grafted onto what Hannerz calls "culturespeak."
In the 1960s, an ethnography based in the Western world that took the urban as its field was still a noveltyˇthe phrase "urban anthropology" first appeared in print only in 1963, and it was not until 1972 that the journal Urban Anthropology was launched. Indeed, Hannerz's intellectual influences came largely from sociology rather than anthropology, particularly the work of the Chicago School in the '20s and '30s. Two of the school's leading figures, Robert E. Park and George Herbert Mead, were interested in the demographic transformations of the periodˇnamely, massive immigration to the United States, as well as migration within its borders, in which members of the lower classes and racially diverse groups relocated to the inner cities while the middle classes moved out of and away from those same urban centers. Neighborhood zones, leisure life, and the formation of various institutions through collective community behavior were these sociologists' main areas of focus. From their studies, Meadˇalso a leading figure of the Symbolic Interactionists (a subgroup within the Chicago School that included Charles Horton Cooley and Erving Goffman) and a proponent of social psychologyˇdeveloped his theories of role taking and interaction.
In his study, Hannerz applies sociological and interactionist theories alike, as he was eager not only to synthesize his observations but to emphasize the fluidity of his concepts. In describing, for example, the four lifestyles taken up by his "ghetto dwellers"ˇmainstreamers, swingers, street families, and street-corner menˇHannerz stresses that these were only "ideal types," to be used instrumentally rather than attributed deterministically. "A life style," he wrote, is "an orientation toward participation in a certain social context," and these contexts involved conscious presentations of selfˇin other words, the subjects were actively taking up particular roles, and as circumstances (age, family, income) changed, so too did lifestyles. This constitutes the "double consciousness" of the ghetto that Hannerz referenced in an epigraph, quoting from W.E.B. Du Bois.
As an early urban ethnography, Soulside prefigured concerns that the subdiscipline continues to grapple withˇfor instance, the "interplay between [local] culture and [wider] social structure . . . between the ghetto and American society." Hannerz's study is free of anthropological archaisms insofar as it rejects the "cookie-cutter" approach, the notion that a society can be seen as self-contained and understood in isolation from macrostructural realities. It is in trying to understand the overlap between these various dyads that Hannerz's work is perhaps most interesting today. After all, black urban communities in the late '60s were in a state of developing political radicalism, though Hannerz qualifies the high-profile events and figures with the widespread absence of activism he encountered among black inhabitants of the inner city, who were reluctant to take part in what seemed to them a dangerous militancy. However, if the opposition was the American state, mainstream American culture and the opportunities it offered also supplied the very aspirations held up by the radicals. Indeed, Hannerz's choice of title for his study was a play on the ambiguity of the significance of "soul"ˇon the one hand, an emerging feeling of black pride and identification with the music of James Brown, say, or the reaffirmed tradition of soul food; but also, on the other, a major obstacle, as allegiance to the notion of "soul" demanded that the cornerstone of ghetto identity be weakness and victimhood. "Soul as solidarity is a reaction to the threat of a split in the community. Its internal differentiation is tied to mainstream society and culture so that individual striving for improved standing ultimately leads out of the community," as Hannerz put it. Brown himself epitomized this paradox: "A soul brother made it, now ain't that a groove?" he would say, proudly recounting his rise from shoe-shine boy in Georgia to owner of a small fleet of private planes, shaking hands with his country's president. As Hannerz wrote: "In order to make this solidarity encompass even the least privileged, it must be symbolized by those most undiluted forms of black proletarian experience which everybody can claim as his heritage, and to give it a positive valence weakness must be turned into strength. Thus poverty, oppression, and troubled relationships are interpreted as the foundation of an endurance." Hannerz, already in 1969, had seized on the problem at the core of identity politics: As an emancipatory means of activism, noting the common, suturing affirmation of tradition, it simultaneously forecloses the possibilities of achieving anything other than an exclusive, restricted freedom.
Today the observation of a ghetto community by a Swedish anthropologist would be regarded with far more suspicion than it was some thirty years ago. As Hannerz notes in his afterword to the new edition, the validity of outsider perspectives, and the moral and political objections to anthropological presences in such an environment, entered the discourse of the discipline in the '70s, rendering problematic the theoretical and epistemological foundations on which Soulside was built. Hannerz has since conducted fieldwork in Africa, but more recently he has "studied sideways" rather than "down," looking at issues of globalization and foreign media correspondents, juxtaposing their workˇin particular their concepts of space, time, and cultureˇwith that of anthropologists. His interest in globalization and media already existed in the '60sˇin Soulside he cites, for example, Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media as an influenceˇbut his move away from the kind of work that produced his first published study is symptomatic of a greater retreat by anthropologists from the kinds of fieldwork that previously characterized the discipline.
Emilie Bickerton is a writer and critic based in Cambridge, England.