Current Institutional Affiliation
Assistant Professor, Politics, University of San Francisco

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2011
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Political Science, University of Wisconsin / Madison
Ghanaian Slums: Constructing Democracy in Unexpected Places

My dissertation project is a comparative ethnography of three Ghanaian slums. The central question of my study asks: Why do some slum communities in emerging African democracies establish effective mechanisms of political accountability that advance the interests and livelihoods of their members while others do not? Contrary to existing literature that emphasizes competitive elections and formal representation, a strong civil society, and formal individual property rights as crucial conditions of political accountability, I propose that the key to local-level democratization is institutional syncretism—the blending of old and new rules and values into hybrid institutions through the everyday practices of ordinary individuals (Galvan 2007). Communities that blend formal institutions with local cultural understandings, such as incorporating a trusted “father” of the community into the formal electoral process, are more likely to make democracy work in contemporary Africa than those that do not. The local political struggle and bargaining process of incorporation may provide the solution to improving the quality of democracy in Africa. This process involves a combination of community organizing in the slums and state legal recognition. Drawing from ethnographic methods, interviews with residents and local leaders, and archival work, I will attempt to explain the origins and processes of political organizing in urban Africa and to reveal the institutional obstacles to effective democratic activity. Rather than treating slums as lawless and anarchic urban spaces, my study suggests that a closer examination of Ghanaian slums is necessary to understand the “nuts and bolts” of how politics works in these areas. I will attempt to illustrate how vulnerable communities can be active participants, even leaders, in the democratization process.