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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 Kiwanja.net 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.Read More… Challenges of Urban Fieldwork: A Scavenger Hunt Approach