Challenges of Urban Fieldwork: A Scavenger Hunt Approach

street scene, Ring Road, Accra, Ghana

My favorite and most longstanding site for fieldwork is a city, Accra, Ghana. There are some peculiar difficulties of urban fieldwork. The size and scope of such a “site” makes it difficult to know what to do, where to go, what to observe, etc. It can also be difficult given the element of anonymity and social distancing in cities. Cities contain diverse populations. You can never really arrive at the sense that you’ve mastered such a place, that you understand it comprehensively. Cities are culturally layered and contain much that is transitory and impermanent, they reflect the promiscuous intermingling of influences.

Beyond the particular topic you might be studying, how can you come to get a sense of the flavor or style of a city? I’ve been compiling for some time a list of questions that might be useful to ethnographers who are trying to figure out what to do, where to go, and what to ask in urban settings. Especially for short-term research stints, seeking out the answers to these questions (scavenger hunt style) could be a way to ramp up research quickly and get richer context for more specific research questions. As this is an evolving list, I invite additional suggestions.

On a related note, over at Ken Banks offers a list of 15 suggestions for travel habits when traveling in Africa that are usefully oriented to the demands of research. In particular, his suggestion to buy local newspapers and consume other local media I totally agree with. Having a TV where I’m staying I find indispensable, just to see what issues are presented on the local news and especially how they are presented as well as the kinds of local and foreign media content that are available to people living there. I tend to bring home piles and piles of newspapers from my fieldwork excursions with interesting articles marked with post-it notes.

Now for the questions:

1) Who are the figures of fame and celebrity, prestige and notoriety in this society? Notably in Accra, in addition to the usual mix of musicians, TV personalities, and politicians you have the pastors who helm Ghana’s numerous mega churches. Just to name a couple, Mensa Otabil (founder of International Central Gospel Church) and TB Joshua (Nigerian minister leading “The Synagogue, Church of All Nations” whom the current president of Ghana is said to frequently consult).

2) Aesthetics and beauty – what are the bodily ideals as expressed in popular culture? In music lyrics, in local advertising, in dress practices?

3) daily and weekly routines – When does the day start? What do people do first thing in the morning? What do men vs. women do? What do adults vs. children do? What kinds of regular breaks are conventionalized, at what time, and for what ostensible purpose? What do people get up extra early to do?

4) purchasing and markets – what do people buy everyday? Every few days? Once a week? Only when they have a little extra money (little or not so little luxuries)? How would you describe the places that ordinary folks shop for food items and other mundane items?

5) sense of global position – what seemingly non-local influences are apparent (though with a warning that distinguishing local from non-local can be especially tricky)? People of what nationalities are present in this urban space? Where are they visible and involved in what kinds of work? What foreign media are consumed? Is there a neighboring country that serves as a constant source for comparison or rivalry (as Nigeria does in Ghana)? Who (by ethnic or national identity) tends to serve as scapegoat? Where do people dream of traveling to for work or for fun?

6) place names – how are they arrived at? Are places referred to by official names or by the convention of practice? Are they given personal names or descriptive names? What can you find out about the people that places are named after? How do people give directions? How do they navigate to places they haven’t been to before? Are maps available, are maps used much?

7) music and the sonic landscape – what are the different styles of music you hear in this place? Where are these different styles heard? How do people describe when/where different music styles are appropriate? What are the sounds heard in the streets? During the day vs. at night? At what volume? How do people feel about ambient noise levels?

8) leisure activities – where do people go and what do they do for fun?

9) architecture and the built environment – what are buildings made out of? What is the approximate ratio of formal to informal dwellings? How is the architecture of shops different from homes or government buildings, schools, temples or churches, etc? What are the features of dwellings of affluent vs. middle-class vs. poor people?

10) what insults do drivers shout at each other in traffic?

Finally, not a question per se, but various institutions worth visiting in cities if you get a chance: court houses, sitting in (if possible) on a court case, government offices of any sort, health clinics and hospitals, and places of religious practice (mosque, synagogue, church).

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