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Political Ecologies and Intersectionality in Ghana's Urban Commons

Author Pambana BASSETT
Director of thesis Dr. Jean-David Gerber
Co-director of thesis Dr. Akosua Darkwah, Dr. Deniz Ay, Dr. Miriam Tola
Summary of thesis

In January, I began my doctoral research work with the COMMONPATHS project with the Work Package 5, Intersectional Political Ecologies Team (https://commonpaths.unibe.ch/). Much of the below is outlined in the group Research Proposal- my PhD project will carry out an intersectional analysis of urban commons through a feminist political ecologies' lens in Ghana.


COMMONPATHS Project Description

The increasing pace of resource consumption and inequalities in urban areas in the Global North and the Global South pose urgent socio-ecological problems of sustainability. With rapid urbanization, drastic measures to reduce resource consumption are necessary to achieve a more just future for all within the planetary boundaries. The COMMONPATHS project examines how urban commons institutions (UCI) contribute to addressing these challenges and to strong urban sustainability in Ghana and Switzerland. The project focuses on the emergence, organization, effects, and conditions for success of three trends of commonification aimed at (1) greening cities, (2) creating affordable housing and (3) supporting community agri-food initiatives.


The main goal of the project is to develop new design principles of sustainable commonification of resource governance in urban settings. By developing a typology of transition pathways, the project will evaluate the potential of UCIs to create “islands of decommodification” in urban landscapes and the risks of domination by profit seeking behaviours. The project will provide an empirically grounded contribution to debates on postgrowth organisation of societies. Achieving these ambitious objectives requires an inter- and transdisciplinary approach. We build on the close collaboration of complementary disciplines: (1) urban geography and institutional analysis, (2) individual behavioural perspectives and transition studies, (3) political ecology and intersectionality, and (4) urban ecology. These disciplinary approaches span natural and social sciences, qualitative and quantitative research that provide individual-level and socially relevant interpretations, and empirical and theoretical approaches.



2. Research questions and design

My background

Within COMMONPATHS, my PhD project is situated in the Work Package on Intersectional Political Ecology. I have an academic, theoretical, and analytical background that is interdisciplinary, focused on race, class, gender, and socio-ecological movements. My undergraduate studies focused on the environmental-human society nexus using mixed methodologies, including policy review, interviews, and statistical analysis using an ecofeminist lens. As a recipient of the Watson Fellowship, I conducted fieldwork with Indigenous women textile cooperative artists who protect communal forests and mobilise community voting processes that call upon ancestral principles and international legal mechanisms. During my master’s degree in development studies, I further refined my research skills through exploration of the political economy of communal land tenure for Black/African-descendant communities in the Americas and addressed a U.N. working group on these. Throughout my career I have worked directly with local organisations carrying out participatory action and qualitative research and have facilitated advocacy and communications campaigns between grassroots and decision-making bodies to ensure that community socio-ecological expertise resulted in institutional change.


These experiences qualify me to carry out this research project under the supervision of Prof. Jean-David Gerber (University of Bern), Prof. Miriam Tola (John Cabot University, Rome), Prof. Akosua Darkwah (University of Ghana, Accra), and Dr. Deniz Ay (University of Bern). They will provide me with theoretical and methodological guidance and collaborate in the co-production of publications. I will be responsible for finalisation of research design (case selection, contacts, design, test research instruments, data collection (interviews, focus groups, document analysis), and data analysis and writing of scientific articles towards an accumulative thesis.


COMMONPATHS Research questions

As I will finalise my research proposal within the six months, the following are key research questions for the project work package:

Addressing the “social heterogeneity” and “social sustainability” challenges, we ask:

(5.1) What ontologies of human-environment relations are enacted within the UCIs? How do groups of actors negotiate their relations to urban resources?

(5.2) Which power inequalities constrain the development and perpetuation of UCIs vis-à-vis state and market actors?

(5.3) How are social differences tied to gender, race, class, migration patterns, age, and ability relevant for explaining power inequalities within the UCIs? What is the relationship between social differences, access to resources, and responsibilities in governing urban resources?

(5.5) What is the relationship between the research goals identified by academic researchers and the goals of people participating in commons projects?

(5.6) How can the researchers enable commons participants to challenge power inequalities and scale up their strategies of commonification?


Devising my own research questions

For my dissertation, I look forward to collaborating with the other teams that make up this multi-institutional and intersectional COMMONPATHS project within these framework questions. I will devise and explore my own research questions regarding the Ghana UCI’s and their collectivising of resources, governance, and the decommodification of ownership, labour, and belonging.


My finalised research proposal will be shaped by the questions raised by the UCI practitioners, existing research on the urban planning and the commons in Ghana (Cobbinah and Darkwah, 2017) including those intersectional dynamics explored by the University of Ghana leads (Harris et al, 2017), and the examples and analyses of Ghanian and pan-African feminists regarding urban commons institutions (see proposal). I am interested in employing participatory action research and other feminist methodologies that describe power inequities along race, class, gender, ability, and citizenship within households, groups, communities, and national and international levels (Nazneen et al, 2014).


Questions that emerge regarding intersectional political ecology point to how access to and dispossession of natural resources is shaped by dominant global gender relations (Chaudhury et al, 2012) and how the positionality, exclusion, and leadership of women, particularly racialised and Global South women, can have differentiated impacts that lead to qualitatively and quantitatively different management practices and outcomes, including ones more aligned with strong sustainability (Harris et al, 2017). This framing may allow for deeper understanding of how UCI’s housing, agrifood systems, and greening interact with the global political economy, and what makes the contributions of women in UCIs unique.


Another interest area is in how these UCIs respond to different institutions, whether those institutions have different interests and different gendered impacts, such as: state actors, political elites, customary governing bodies, and private local and multinational corporations, as well as the dynamics within the members of the UCI and those involved secondarily. How do these shape property rights, land tenure, regulations, and political participation over resources, and how do UCI practitioners engage with these actors?


COMMONPATHS Sample / data collection: A total of 18 case studies will be jointly selected as relevant to COMMONPATHS. From these, our work package will ideally focus in more detail on 6 of the 3 types of UCIs under scrutiny (affordable housing, greening cities and community agri-food initiatives), half of which are located in Ghana and the other half in Switzerland. My dissertation project focuses on the Ghana context and UCIs based in Ghanaian cities, while my fellow PhD candidate colleague, Leandra Choffat, will focus on the 3 selected UCIs in Switzerland.


Qualitative interviews will be conducted with members of these UCIs (approximately 7 interviews for each UCI: with the sample stratified by gender, race/ethnicity; age, length of participation in the UCIs). In addition, there will be an ethnographic observation of a range of activities within the UCIs, including everyday management of urban resources, decision-making processes, relation to other parties, etc. The combination of ethnographic observation and interviews will allow an assessment of the contrast between embraced values and enacted values within the UCIs.


Facilitated action research activities (Schurr & Segebart 2012), specifically designed to reduce the risk of extractive data collection, will provide an additional methodological layer. These will adopt a rigorous reflexivity to combine the aim of enabling local communities to identify and challenge power inequalities within the UCI, while considering power dynamics involving academic researchers and UCI members.


I share the commitment of the Intersectional Political Ecologies team members to carry out research that employs feminist and decolonial methodologies and is of use to implementers and institutional change. I plan to use participatory action research and narrative analysis that both critically analyse the power inequities inherent in the relationship of the researcher and the researched, and actively seek to centre those carrying out the grassroots work of building UCIs, often excluded from the social science academic canon, and understudied within post-growth (Ackerly & True, 2019).


My undergraduate Environmental Analysis- Race, Class, Gender thesis highlighted as environmental and traditional ecological knowledge the testimonies and stories told by Indigenous women weavers with their engagement in the research process and interpretation of findings and called for U.S. environmentalists to engage in transnational solidarity particularly against the role of our governmental and corporate actors in ongoing imperialist efforts (Gutto Bassett, 2013). This approach recognises the importance of personal narratives in understanding power and socio-ecological issues and emphasising both the lived experiences of women and socio-, economic, and political aspirations to change existing gender inequities meted out on the individual, organisation, community, national, and global levels.


Data analysis: This data will be analysed through qualitative content analysis.



Ackerly, B. A., & True, J. (2019). Doing feminist research in political and social science. Bloomsbury Publishing.


Chaudhury, M., Darkwah, A., Sultan, M., et al. (2012). Participatory gender-sensitive

approaches for addressing key climate change-related research issues: Evidence from Bangladesh, Ghana, and Uganda. CCAFS Working Paper.


Cobbinah, P. B., Darkwah, R. M. (2017). Urban planning and politics in Ghana. GeoJournal,

82(6), 1229–1245. doi.org/10.1007/s10708-016-9750-y


Gutto Bassett, P. P. (2013). Handcraft and Environmental Knowledge: Mapuche Women Weavers. Scripps Senior Theses, 146. Retrieved from scholarship.claremont.edu/scripps_theses/146


Harris, L., Kleiber, D., Goldin, J., Darkwah, A., & Morinville, C. (2017). Intersections of

gender and water: Comparative approaches to everyday gendered negotiations of water access in underserved areas of Accra, Ghana and Cape Town, South Africa. Journal of Gender Studies, 26(5), 561-582.


Nazneen, S., Darkwah, A., & Sultan, M. (2014, July). Researching women's empowerment:

Reflections on methodology by southern feminists. Women's Studies International Forum, 45, 55-62. Pergamon.

Status beginning
Administrative delay for the defence 2027