I just finished reading Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto by Eric Tang for my urban history list and I really loved the book. Tang came out of American Studies and his book is super interdisciplinary. It's very historically informed, but it's fundamentally an ethnographic account of one cambodian refugee, Ra's, life. He makes argument in this book: that the refugee program is a continuation of liberal hegemony, that the "hyperghetto" is a neo-plantation, that displacement is what characterized much of Ra and other Cambodian refugees life. Importantly, Tang shows that resettlement programs in the United States are an extension of colonialism and imperialism. I saw a lot of relationships with other recent works, notable Evicted Matthew Desmond (the focus on unstable living situations, the continuous moving and lack of home) and From the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs by Elizabeth Hinton. Tang talks a lot about how liberal mechanisms of the state were used as colonial enforcers in the "hyperghetto."
There is a lot I disagree with in this book, particularly the idea of the "neo-plantation." As a historian, those kind of huge historical comparisons make me squirm. But in some ways, Tang models the kind of work I want to do. Tang is an activist scholar and makes that clear from the very beginning-he asserts that the best activist scholarship results from activists and the subjects of books shaping each other's thoughts in collaboration. Tang also uses ethnography, critically, but effectively to make big, political and sometimes polemical claims, while getting at the story of one individuals life. Tang also centered himself in the story, aware at every step about the way his location shaped the story.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about the relationship between oral history and ethnography and what I want to do with my work. I've also spent the last two semesters immersed in feminist theory-the idea of locating one's self in the text and critically using the first person has profoundly effected me. Tang's work is a model of all of these ideas coming together.
I've been reading a lot of urban history and getting really frustrated: am i really a urban historian? So much of it centers the state at the expense of the people. While Tang may not be a traditional historian, his book reminds me of what urban history can do and can be, at it's best.