In The Cosmopolitan Canopy, Elijah Anderson (2004) presents the concept of a “cosmopolitan canopy,” a place where individuals set aside their diverse backgrounds and differences to communicate in more civil and cosmopolitan ways. He argues that people from different racial, ethnic, and class groups, engage in folk ethnography, whereby they reflect and change their initial views based on the evidence they gathered from observing other people. Anderson’s ideas provide a critical sociological perspective on urban ethnography and can be applied to alleviate social barriers between individuals.
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Summary of Main Ideas
Anderson begins with the assertion that private spaces are more vivid in an urban context than ever (15). Particularly in terms of racial lines, there is a white space where white people engage in more civil and trustful communication, while black people are associated with danger and distrust. However, the author states that particular places are embedded in social ambiance, where ethnic, social, and racial barriers are less critical (16). In such venues, people engage with each other civil and cosmopolitan regardless of their skin color or ethnic differences. The author refers to Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia as an example of a venue (Anderson 16). In this “neutral” place, Asian families, Italians, Jews, and blacks sit nearby, enjoy diverse food, and stop at different shops and kiosks (Anderson 18). In such places, it is normal for strangers to approach each other, ask random questions, and engage in spontaneous conversations because of the unique atmosphere of such environments that expects civility (Anderson 21). The group differences do not disappear; instead, they are salient but understated.
Moreover, people also engage in folk ethnography through watching and listening to different groups of people. Through such indirect observations and accidental eavesdroppings, people gather evidence that shapes their notions about how people are and how things work (Anderson 21). The more intimate the place is, the more opportunity to do “fieldwork” (Anderson 23). Such fieldwork later allows people to formulate, rethink, or expand their stereotypes and perspectives about other groups (Anderson 27). The author calls this place a cosmopolitan canopy.
Reflection on the Application
Although Anderson’s idea of the cosmopolitan canopy provides a realistic depiction of urban ethnography, applying them in practice is not easy. Creating cosmopolitan places requires a fusion of different demographics in one place and highly depends on the individual characteristics of people. In other words, simply concluding from the author’s article that areas, where different identities exist, will lead to harmonious, civil cosmopolitan places is mistaken. Although probably, the abundance of other groups eating and shopping together in one place might alleviate social borders, it does not guarantee that it will be successful. From my perspective, such a cosmopolitan context can primarily occur through natural, spontaneous human interaction.
Importance of Cosmopolitan Canopy
Nevertheless, Anderson’s cosmopolitan canopy concept is valuable since it introduces the idea that social barriers and class, ethnic, and racial lines can be collapsed or less elaborated if we have more such cosmopolitan places. Nevertheless, it is essential to remember the confirmation bias caveat in the author’s argument. Even if people from different groups gather in such sites, they might deliberately observe and focus on those traits that confirm their views, such as perpetuating stereotypes and biases about other groups. Thus, the cosmopolitan canopy cannot by default lead to the eradication of social borders.
Anderson, Elijah. “The Cosmopolitan Canopy.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 595, no. 1, 2004, pp. 14–31., doi:10.1177/0002716204266833.