Tag Archives: Ghana

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

Technology Unfolds Over Time

Ghana Internet Cafe pic by Rachel Strohm CC BY ND 2.0

Many ethnographers stick to one place or region throughout their careers. Perhaps the memory of the trials and travails of entering the field in the first place, of early incomprehension and discomforts, the exhaustion of language learning, makes them shudder to imagine starting that all over again. Social ties to the field can be maintained in new ways (such as through Facebook). For example. Over time these relationships become deeper, richer. It becomes easier to ask more sensitive and private questions. One develops a growing capacity for insight into a culture, for the non-public side of society, for a better understanding of social performances vs. personal idiosyncrasies, the cleavage points beyond a society’s well-ordered face.

After 7 years of traveling to Ghana, I’ve started to see this sense of time and of change emerge in my own work as well. In part experiencing this more private side of life, but also observing firsthand the changes made sharper and more apparent by my absences. The Internet café scene in Ghana is not what it was when I started fieldwork in 2004. It was around 2008 that I started to see reports from the news media and people in Ghana about ‘sakawa’ a vernacular term that referred to Internet fraud. This was a term only whispered about during my fieldwork but had emerged around 2008 as part of a very public moral debate and was incorporated into the narratives of Ghana’s popular culture – in music and local video-films.

To formalize this sense of passing time I re-interviewed 12 individuals from my 2004 fieldwork. I believe this makes my study the very first longitudinal examination of the Internet in Africa. I was especially interested in whether, with time, the Internet yielded benefits to this group, delivered on their initial enthusiasm and conviction in the way the Internet worked (which in 2004 was bolstered by astonishing second-hand stories/rumors of big gains but very little successful direct experience among users).Read More… Technology Unfolds Over Time