Andy Newman: urban anthropologist

Andy Newman, assistant professor of anthropology and undergraduate adviser, is an urban anthropologist who views Detroit as an opportunity to broaden both his engagement and that of his students with the urban issues that cities face across the globe.

Newman’s interest in anthropology began at a young age. Growing up in Houston, Texas, Newman attended a private international school. Students were from various countries from around the world and Newman often found himself as one of the only US-born Americans in his classes.

“I was always hearing people from other places telling me what they thought about where I lived. It was always really interesting to me, and it got me into anthropological thinking, that idea of looking at places where you live through unfamiliar eyes,” said Newman.

The diversity of students played a significant role in Newman’s decision to join the faculty at WSU, who look at more than the cultural and ethnic diversities.

“There are all of these different ways that WSU students are diverse: not only culture and ethnic background, but age range, life stories, occupations. It’s a diversity of diversities, and that is really interesting to me. When I go to other places now, I just find them boring.”

Originally brought on as part of the anthropology of the city initiative, Newman helps his students to understand urbanization through looking closely at Detroit and drawing comparisons between this city and cities in other areas of the world.

“It’s not as much about just studying Detroit for the sake of studying Detroit, but to try to learn about cities and urbanization all over the world. Urbanization is a global process,” said Newman.

To Newman, active engagement with the city is a key factor in broadening your perspective and understanding the urbanization of Detroit. When he began his work at WSU, Newman connected with food justice organizations in the city, which grew into a collaboration with the Detroit People’s Platform. The connections formed here are mutually beneficial to students and the city, as Newman notes it has given students internship and job opportunities while also aiding the city.

“Every year we typically work with different organizations just as a way to keep things fresh and give students a broader perspective of what’s going on in the city,” said Newman.

Newman is an active researcher in his field, currently focusing on two research projects. The first involves fieldwork in Paris, where he studies how a post-industrial area can reintroduce nature into the city.

“There is a lot of innovative stuff that is happening in this edge area of Paris, or what anthropologists would call a liminal space. That’s something that fascinates me.”

His second project, a collaborative mapping project of Detroit, came about after spending some time exploring the city.

“Almost as soon as I got here I started hanging out in the city, not really focusing on research or my work. I just wanted to get to know the city like a human being.”

Newman’s second project aims to put forward an alternative geography of the city, adding that this project is an argument against other mappers about what is important in Detroit. He hopes that this project will help people understand what is happening in Detroit now, but that it may also give alternative ways to plan for the future.

“When you put something on a map and say, ‘This is Detroit,’ and you map abandoned houses or unemployment, you’re making a statement as to what’s important and defining about Detroit,” said Newman. “Our project came out of a feeling that people felt like the way the city was mapped was not representing the interest of the people that live there.”

The training Newman received in anthropology at CUNY and Bard College allows him to bring new perspectives to his work, a skill which he believes is becoming more valuable as the world becomes more globally connected.

“Anthropology allows you to look at the world as if you’re an outsider and see things that others miss. It’s a very powerful lens, and it’s undervalued historically,” said Newman, “but it’s becoming more appreciated as we are encountering more people with different backgrounds. Having that awareness is becoming more and more sought after in a variety of fields.”

This story was originally posted by Wayne State College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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