Urban zoos are both popular and imperiled. They are sites of contestation, but what are those contests about? In his new book, American Zoo: A Sociological Safari
(Princeton, 2015), ethnographer David Grazian
tracks the competing missions of zoos as site of education, entertainment, philanthropy, and work. Grazian coins the term nature making to describe the process through which people assert and police an imagined division between nature and culture. On his sociological safari as a dung-shoveling, insect-eating volunteer at two urban zoos, Grazian observes how a range of stakeholders including visitors, employees, and corporate donors all participate in nature-making. Yet these groups make nature in different, patterned ways, which spawns everyday controversies as well as broader struggles to manage zoos rival missions. These contradictions shape what people learn in zoos (no evolution, please), how they imagine distant people and places (often crudely), and how species, both human and nonhuman, interact in zoos and in the wider world. American Zoo
affirms the importance of urban ethnography for studies of organizations, science, and culture. Plus, in an age of irony, the book is constructive not only critical. With both laughter and bite, Grazian models how to sustain ambivalence as well as hope.