Ho Chi Minh City residents regularly orient their bodies and actions in relationship to the position of shadows and the flow of wind through the city. In addition, people’s own actions transform the position of shadows and alter the flow of wind in the city, creating a dialectic between the human and the non-human. Building from this observation, as well as 20 years of ethnographic research in Ho Chi Minh City, this paper playfully draws from Bourdieu’s analysis of the Kabyle (Berber) house to suggest that urban anthropologists might profitably learn to understand the organization of urban space in terms of the symbolic arrangement and physical properties of light and air. Paying close attention to human inter-relations with shadows and wind reveals aspects of urban social organization on the level of individual actions while attending to the cascading effects of these social interactions across the city. In developing this analysis, the paper suggests that anthropological work on cities and urban life must not only limn the boundary between the material and the social but should focus on physical and social properties of life in the spaces between. An anthropology of shadows and wind attends closely to the organization of individual spaces within the city (such as houses, cafes, alleyways, and trees) while always recognizing how these individualized spaces are impacted by and also contribute to transforming the organization of the city as a whole (in terms of urban planning and major construction projects, like boulevards, bridges, and housing developments).
Erik Harms is professor of anthropology and chair of the Council on Southeast Asian Studies at Yale University. He is an urban anthropologist with extensive research experience on social life in Ho Chi Minh City. Harms is the author of Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon, and Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City, as well as numerous journal articles and academic publications.