PhD Research: Spatial Appropriation, Relationality, and Urban Commons in Accra, Ghana

This collaborative PhD research project (in partnership with Spread-Out Initiative and No Limits Charity Organization) investigates spatial appropriation in the rapidly urbanizing city of Accra, Ghana. This research focuses on in-between and open spaces in the city that are used as part of everyday public life. These spaces may be open and unpaved or paved sites, but in all cases, quite actively used for both individual and collective events and activities. This research documents residents’ practices of perceiving, connecting to, repurposing and domesticating these spaces as part of everyday life; their meanings associated with these spaces; and the social-material configurations of place produced through the processes of appropriation. These forms of appropriation, not visible in government plans and designs, are often marginalized within the wider context of urban transformation. Centring these activities (through the research focus and process) renders more visible these everyday practices through which urban residents (re)produce space.

I situate my research project around the following research questions

  • What are the methods, purposes, and rationales by which individuals and groups appropriate open spaces?
  • What are the meanings and knowledges that residents possess about space that inform and are informed by everyday appropriations?
  • How do the dynamics of power, as relayed through gender, status, identity, etc., inform access to (or alternatively, exclusion from) and use of these spaces?
  • What are the implications for conducting this research in a collaborative manner?

In studying these processes and sites, I draw on the critical frameworks of feminist and postcolonial/southern theory and collaborative research. I situate myself, research collaboration, and this research study within the discourses of postcolonial/southern theory and feminist methodology, to theorize from the subject vantage point of the oppressed and marginalized (Smith, 1999; Connell, 2007); to draw on theory that considers the historical difference of coloniality in the present day (Mignolo, 2014); to embrace situated knowledge as a tool for objectivity (Haraway, 1988); and to reflexively consider my own role within this research process, as well as relative accountabilities and desires for impact.

I choose to locate this research lens on the overt, covert, contested and common ways residents find, take, and make space within the gaps of state planning and design, negotiating and managing space at the level of the neighborhood and resident. This is a qualitative research project exploring space and spatial meaning and connections in two communities in Accra, Ghana. Our methods focus on studying everyday life in creative ways: Ethnographic observations, participatory photography and photo-elicited interviews, storytelling, and group workshopping discussions as (an initial) method of analysis.

This research study is focused in Accra, the capital of the Republic of Ghana. The city is the political and economic centre of the country, and faces massive urban transformation, socioeconomic and spatial inequalities. Wealthy, affluent, and middle-income neighborhoods exist, but this research focuses on Accra because large proportions of urban dwellers rely on self-provisioned homes, livelihoods, infrastructure and services as means of making their place in the city. I use two historic neighborhoods – Ga Mashie and Nima – as case study locations in which to conduct site-specific research documenting the dynamics of spatial appropriation processes. These neighborhoods demonstrate the complexities of Accra’s experiences of coloniality, as sites that negotiate traditional, colonial and postcolonial spatial influences and dynamics and manage high levels of spatial appropriation as part of everyday public life. They therefore provide strong windows into understanding these phenomenons. In these two neighborhoods, I have agreed partnerships with local resident leaders and neighborhood-based organizations with whom to conduct the research process.

I use positionality as a framework for situating myself, my research design, methodology and interpretations. My selection of research topic, approach and overall methodology is intimately linked to my position as a Nigerian-American, a black woman, a western-educated researcher with several years of experience working on community projects and working collaboratively with local initiatives and organizations in Accra, Ghana. Awareness of my position enables me to recognize my privilege as a postgraduate student at a ‘westernized university’ (Grosfoguel 2018), the historical context of westernized universities in privileging western forms of knowledge (over non-western forms), and negotiating this with my personal and professional experiences engaging and learning other, non-western forms of knowledge via my experiences in Accra and other West African cities. With awareness of my position, I aim to respond with sensitivity to power dynamics embedded in the research process, to critically consider the research resources I rely on in my process, the importance of relationships in the West African context to social life, and the importance of working in collaboration – relying on and fostering relationships with partners as a research strategy.