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Working the Field: Kumasi Central Market as Community, Employer, and Home

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Abstract

The huge Central Market in Kumasi, Ghana is a prized workplace for more than 20,000 traders. Being physically present is a primary work method for market traders, and also for an ethnographer. Lending a hand in various trading tasks clarified the decisions and intentions associated with them, their physical demands, and the politics of the market. The market also made intellectual demands; it immediately challenged the assumptions of homogeneity and boundedness still then rarely problematized for residential communities. Different traders had different relationships to it; that difference was what constituted the market and bound them to it. Translocal ethnography is now beginning to explain how members dispersed over geography and social structure can create a more committed and resilient community. Market commodity groups commanded loyalty precisely because they bridged the most significant conflicts of interest, incorporating the retailers, wholesalers and traveling buyers most likely to quarrel over a sale as buyer and meaning its social institutions as much as its territory. This new perspective on difference also makes a place for the ethnographer, as one more woman making her living from the market. Gender, age, ethnicity, education and class significantly affect the symbolic and material public resources available to traders. Is it so very perverse that they also inflect ethnography?

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