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An Anthropological Focus on Housing Issues

Anthropology has moved over into the business world, as ethnographic studies become popular for uncovering consumer insights. Ethnographic studies look to understand the reasoning behind consumer habits, not just how.

Editor’s Note: Anthropology is the study of culture. While most of its existence has been spent as an academic discipline, some anthropologists have found their way over to business. The ethnographic, qualitative techniques they have adapted from academic research have proven valuable to understanding many marketing issues. Here, Julia Stewart brings us full-circle, discussing how applied ethnographic approaches can be used to study social issues.

Anthropology in a Housing Crisis

Anthropology: The word refers to the study of human culture, but often draws blank stares or questions such as “Doesn’t that involve digging up bones?” or “What do you use it for?”

However, awareness of anthropology – in particular, socio-cultural anthropology – is growing across a range of industries. Anthropological tools such as ethnographic studies are being used by marketing agencies to understand not just how consumers act, but why they act the way they do, while major corporations are hiring anthropologists for UX research. In fact, Microsoft is reportedly the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world. Anthropologists are also working to tackle a range of social issues, from the effects of climate change on different groups to designing effective support programs for homeless populations.

One key issue, to which anthropologists can make major contributions, is housing, a hot-button topic across the globe. I first became aware of these challenges when I worked as a student at a Canadian social housing provider and learned about the thousands of families stuck on the waiting list. Canada faces many housing issues, from a lack of affordable housing to high rates of homelessness among Indigenous peoples and refugees. In Toronto, homeless shelters are running at or near capacity in the winter months, house prices continue to climb, and many renters worry about being priced out of their neighborhoods.

The Power of Qualitative Data

What makes anthropology uniquely suited to studying social issues is its qualitative, ethnographic approach. Traditionally, anthropologists spend months or years in the field conducting ethnography – that is, observing communities and their lived experience to gain something approximating an “insider” perspective and develop a cohesive view of how a culture operates. While ethnographic studies for applied anthropology may be shorter, this immersive approach is still fundamental, and one that makes it particularly useful for engaging with housing issues and conflicts over space, especially in relation to building inclusive communities and dealing with major changes such as rising rents and rapid gentrification.

The anthropologist’s skill set provides insight into the many ways people are affected by these changes “on the ground”– and complements other, high-level, more quantitative disciplines that are already involved in tackling housing issues, such as urban planning and policy.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

Anthropology’s emphasis on looking at issues in their full cultural and historical context offers another essential tool for analyzing and developing possible solutions to social challenges. For example, this tool could help tackle the much higher than average rates of homelessness among Indigenous peoples in Canada. According to Raising the Roof, a whopping 25% of people experiencing homelessness in Canada are Indigenous.

Cultural geographer Julia Christensen uses ethnographic and other techniques to understand the story behind these numbers in the Canadian North. In No Home in a Homeland (UBC Press 2017), she argues that the pattern must be seen in the context of the trauma caused by interventions such as the residential school system and its interaction with policies that do not take this context into account, and can only be tackled once we understand what it means to be homeless in one’s homeland. To properly address issues like homelessness, we must first understand where they come from and how they fit into the larger picture.

The Critical Lens

Finally, as social scientists who often turn their lens on their own society and who understand that many of our ideas are culturally constructed, anthropologists challenge accepted truths by presenting them in a new light. Anthropologists have been instrumental in challenging how development programs are conducted and highlighting their unintended effects. Renowned anthropologist David Graeber played a pivotal role in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, while urban anthropologist Kirstin Johnston- Zimmerman is bringing attention to the way urban public spaces are designed by and for men.

The power of the critical outsider’s viewpoint can also shed light on gaps or inequalities in the system, such as Dalhousie anthropology professor Liesl Gambold‘s work with gender and health professor Jacqueline Gahagan, which has helped reveal the lack of housing for LGBTQ seniors in Halifax. Other areas to which the anthropological lens could be applied include challenging social housing stigma, questioning the greater value that has traditionally been placed on homeownership and pushing for a definition of “affordable housing” that is more in tune with people’s lived reality. The City of Toronto defines affordable housing as at or below market rent, a definition that is out of touch with many residents’ wages. Because one of the goals of anthropology is to move past accepted definitions, it has much to offer policymakers, urban planners and others, as they grapple with the housing issues that Canada faces.

A Way Forward

As cities expand, rents rise, and inequality grows, there is an urgent need for research that takes into account the human experience and costs of housing issues – particularly as the government moves to roll out the National Housing StrategyThis program calls for a human rights-based approach to housing, aims to develop an Indigenous Housing Strategy, and allocates $241 million to fund housing research to improve policies and address gaps. In addition, the City of Toronto’s Sean Gadon writes that the National Housing Strategy faces potential issues such as developing solutions that respond to local situations rather than one-size-fits-all solutions.

Addressing a nation’s housing issues – whether via initiatives like the National Housing Strategy or others – requires a thorough understanding of culture, people’s experiences and the human condition. More than ever, the discipline of anthropology can provide qualitative, holistic and critical perspectives that strengthen the foundation for housing systems that truly work for people and respond to their fundamental needs.


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Julia Stewart

Julia Stewart

Research Analyst, M-Brain Group