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Visual ethnography

The Unruly Project proposes a theoretical and methodological intervention within the fields of critical international relations, political science, anthropology and urban studies. It uses an ecclectic set of methods with the aim of producing a visual-ethnography of the emergence, functions, localization and agents of 'unruly spaces' ​in Kinshasa and Abidjan.


Via collaborative fieldwork, discussions and workshops, the Unruly team uses participatory mapping, GIS coordinates, photo-elicitation and autophotography, as well as short videos of neighborhood life and street scenes whenever possible. This is combined to more conventional qualitative and ethnographic methods, including semi-structured, elite and ethnographic interviews with ordinary citizens, street-level bureaucrats, high-level political figures and the commercial elite of both cities.


Combined, these methodolgical devices will help us draw the content and contours of what is meant by 'unruly spaces' in Abidjan and Kinshasa, and provide a kind of composite, multiylayered maps tracing out and localizing where these are, what they do and who they are forged by. 

This is designed in a bid to account for both the imaginary and material dimensions of ‘the public’ by documenting three main dimensions of ‘unruly spaces’:

The ‘offical city’, that is private and/or public endeavours that seek to transform and plan the city from the ‘top-down’, as well as the activities of street-level bureaucrats who seek to shape and control urban politics from the ground-up

The socio-material practices of ordinary citizens in creating or resisting specific spatial configurations, and finally

how these actors are all affected by the the material and infrastructural environments of urban spaces

Ultimately the goal is to capture the real-world politics of transforming 'the public' - both as spatial and mental spheres - from a southern urbanism theoretical and empirical viewpoint. ​You can browse a selection of the visuals we have (co-)produced below. The different categories we propose here are used mainly for analytical purposes since many visuals might interchangeably fall into one or another.

These photographs are the portraits of a variety of interlocutors in Côte d’Ivoire and the DRC, who work in the municipal administration, associations, or the local economy. The pictures were taken taken according to the wishes of the ‘subjects’: how, where, and when the pictures should be taken.

The individuals pictured on the photographs decide how they wishe to pose : their bodies, but also the space and objects surrounding them. By gazing ‘back’ at the researcher and at conformist social expectations, these capture the way people choreograph and stage themselves and unveil non-verbal practices that hint at their (self-)perceived role and status in politics and in society. The focus is on drawing out the places and objects of the immediate urban environment they deem especially important to their lives. As such, the processes through which the photographs are taken are as important as the pictures themselves.

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These visuals focus on the ways in which the material realm of public space is inextricably linked to the more abstract understanding of the public sphere as a terrain of political debate and civic engagement. Simply put: the ‘immaterial’ (social, cognitive, intersubjective, etc.) realms of politics are always entangled with the cultivation of ‘material’ public spaces in which those realms emerge.

They also seek to connect the fast-changing material configurations of cities like Kinshasa and Abidjan to the broader social structures and global collective imaginaries that delineate what ‘the urban’ is or should be.

This follows the idea that cities present a “dense ecology of presence” by which human interactions form, and are formed by, their urban physical and spatial environment, and that the politics of what is considered public or private spaces are shaped by the every day.

Urban daily life Kinshasa and Abidjan offer intricate “street scenes” that display mixed-use or ‘inside-out’ areas where sidewalks, doorsteps, railroad sides and street corners are construed differently from one actor to another, and from one moment in time to another.

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Participatory mapping and mental mapping exercises aim at bringing forward the collective dimensions of both researching and structuring urban spaces and serve the purpose of building a multi-layered ‘composite map’ towards the end of the project. As such, it will show how the unruly spaces thus produced in Abidjan and Kinshasa straddle the ‘prosaic geographies’ of ordinary urbanites and the top-down geographies of the ‘official city.’


That composite map will mobilize some of the project’s photographs, and will help us visualize and ‘localize’ the content and contours of ‘unruly’ spaces in both cities by featuring:

  1. Existing or projected infrastructural/urban planning endeavours

  2. The variety of actors that compose (or resist) ‘unruly’ spaces

  3. The different private, personal, collective, mixed or public usages, or modalities (depending on people’s own practices and representations)

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