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Anthropology Professor Receives Wenner Gren Foundation Research Grant

Bruce O’Neill, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, received a $17,080 Post-Ph.D. Research Grant from the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in support of his book project, “The Underground: Urbanism and its Roots in Romania.”

Bruce O'Neill
Bruce O'Neill, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology, is interested in exploring how urban life is evolving in response to political and economic uncertainty.

O’Neill’s funded proposal builds on a decade-long ethnographic engagement with Bucharest, Romania, to rethink the place of the “urban underground” in anthropological thought. Anthropologists have long used the metaphor of the underground to theorize the illicit economies and the subversive politics that animate the back alleys and neglected neighborhoods of the urban periphery. By extension, the people who inhabit these spaces, the so-called “underclass,” are often taken to be the city’s most vulnerable or most improvisational. While inspiring storied literatures, ethnographers have never actually given the city’s literal underground serious attention, which O'Neill says is an oversight.

"I'm thrilled to receive the Wenner Gren's support, especially at such a critical moment for cities,” O'Neill said. "In Bucharest, there is a deeply felt sense of political and economic precariousness that resonates, in many ways, with other deindustrialized cities across Europe and the U.S. but also the global South. The upcoming fieldwork provides an opportunity to examine ethnographically how urban life is taking shape in response to these pressures.”

The Wenner-Gren Foundation will support three summers of fieldwork investigating Bucharest’s subterranean spaces to examine how transit stations, basements and cemeteries, for example, become key sites for staking claims on belonging. This study’s central intention is to move urban anthropology beyond its well-established horizontal coordinates of center and periphery, bridges and doors, and walls and gates to assess the veritable roots of today’s urban ecology. The guiding claim to be investigated is that the actual urban underground is neither marginal nor unregulated, and that the class of people who inhabit it are not necessarily vulnerable. Rather, in its ethnographic form, the underground is a strategic site that shapes how city residents imagine and maneuver toward upward mobility.

Founded in 1941, The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc. is a private operating foundation dedicated to the advancement of anthropology throughout the world. Wenner Gren is one of the major funding sources for international anthropological research and is actively engaged with the anthropological community through its varied grant, fellowship, networking, conference and symposia programs.