Researcher Reflexivity in Planning Research: My view from Elmina, Ghana*

As a Ghanaian keenly interested in the development of my country I feel very frustrated most times when I think of the considerable abuse of power coupled with the systemic and structural constraints to innovative thinking among planners and policy makers.

Within this context of yearning for development in Ghana, the conduct of my fieldwork and analysis of interviews have been in part tinted with this frame of thinking. As I analyse, think and write out the structure of my thesis I am faced with the difficult job of reconciling my desire for a ‘meta theory’ for change in Ghana – i.e. how can the system be changed – and the need to fulfil the requirements of a PhD. This lead to situations where I try to think beyond my research in coming up with ways to ‘fix’ some of the development planning issues in Ghana. But such thinking beyond my research can be emotionally heavy work especially in the face of deep systemic and structural constraints. Moreover, thinking beyond my thesis means I am not fully focused on my PhD research. I just want to be done with my PhD but at the same time I think to myself, what is the point of the PhD if am not able to sketch out a way of ‘fixing’ the development planning deficit in Ghana.

In earlier post on FOReTHOUGHT the issue of planning’s goal has been addressed by Jamie GoughJohn FlintCaroline McCalman and Andy Inch among others. Indeed the tagline of our department of Urban Studies and Planning summarises this goal of planning as – “Planning: making better places”. If this is the goal of planning (at least in the view of our department), then the next logical question becomes making better places for who? By whom? Through which means and according to whose vision? These questions, but especially possible answers are not always as explicit as one would like them to be in many discussions on planning. As planning researchers what is supposed to be our role in this making of better places process? I am not quite sure of the answer and this might be because I am an unplanned planner with no specific academic background in planning prior to starting my PhD in a planning department. But this question of the planning researcher’s role in making better places plagued my mind during my second fieldwork visit to Ghana in July, 2015[1]. The reason for this second visit was to conduct additional clarifying interviews with policy makers and planners with regards to a tourism-led local economic development planning (LED) initiative (Elmina 2015 Strategy) that was started in the early 2000s.

The Elmina 2015 Strategy had the theme of “building on the past to create a better future”. The ultimate goal was that by the end of 2015, the city of Elmina, through tourism based on its UNESCO World Heritage sites, will be a place of equitable socio-economic development and improved local governance. My research is therefore looking at how various governance interactions shaped the way this ambitious tourism-led LED planning initiative unfolded. During my second fieldwork visit and as I continue to analyse the data from my research the dilemma I faced centred on how to situate myself in relation to the research. I wondered about what my role should be within the planning practices that I was researching about. I was not sure what or rather how I could express my emotional feelings after I get to know about how people are botching up the planning process in the community I am researching in. What am I supposed to do? How do I process the emotional difficulties I face when researching in my own home country and get to know about the messy details of the planning process? What should be my response upon the realisation that what could have been a transformative planning initiative for communities is turned into a self- and rent-seeking activity that in the end leaves the community impoverished. How do I for example reconcile the emotional disappointment and academic excitement that I face when interviewees responds “correctly” to my questions on the planning process but I wish those “correct” answers were not the reality. I wish the reality was that the planning process was being fully utilised for the betterment of the community and the country and not being circumvented. How do I reconcile these feelings upon realising that although the data I have gathered is ‘very good’ for writing my thesis, that same data points to how the future development of my country is in deep trouble – seeing as the planning system is not working as it ought to.

While I reflected on this situation I become curious to know if other researchers working in their own countries encounter such dilemmas and emotional rollercoasters. Importantly I am curious to know about the emotional state of researchers working outside their home country – say a British researcher focused on India, China, Indonesia, Egypt, Ghana, Uganda or South Africa. How do they feel when their research analysis while ‘awesome’ for publication shows how the planning system in that particular non-home country is severely constrained and not serving intended objectives? What do you dear researcher feel when it is obvious what needs to be done but this is not being done? How do such researchers reconcile their emotions – if any? Should planners engage more in participatory action research like the Westfield Action Research Project being carried out in our department? Maybe more planning researchers and scholars need to become ‘activist researchers’ so that we can put our money where our research is to help make better places. Alternatively, maybe ours is just to study, understand, explain and make recommendations and then leave the messy details to the political and bureaucratic system. What do you reckon?

[1] This second fieldwork visit to Ghana was made possible through the award of a research enhancement fund from the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID)

*   This post was first published with the title “RESEARCHER REFLEXIVITY IN PLANNING RESEARCH: A VIEW FROM THE ELMINA, GHANA”on the FOReTHOUGHT blog based at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield, UK.

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