Roads and Roadsides: Towards an Understanding of Appropriation and Creativity as Seen from the African Long-Distance Road

Our project inquiresinto the emerging regimes of the African long-distance road in Ghana and the Sudan by examining roadside and travel communities and the socio-technological orders created by their interaction in a state of interpretive flexibility of imported technologies. The project departs from the insight that motor roads, together with their rules and conventions for using them, are quite literally cultural constructions. In this sense, the road regime in large parts of the African continent is still under construction. Road-making and road use draw from North Atlantic models, but our previous research makes clear that beyond the surface of adaptation to North Atlantic modelslie large spaces of creative reinterpretations and modifications. The findings of our project thus challenge established theories about a global ‘automobility’ and the ‘internationalisation of American road culture’. As a guiding concept, the project uses the previously developed notion of appropriation, which implies that technologies and their significations are open to significant modifications in the process of their transfer. Our project thus contributes to the main aims of the Priority Programme (PP) to understand the capacity and modalities for adaptation and creativity in Africa with regard to the technology of the road and its various users. Findings from the first phase show that African road regimesdiffer from North Atlantic models by low regulation capacities on the side of planners and highway authorities, with correspondingly high degrees of freedom for local creativity on the side of its everyday users. But we also find modernised road spaces, especially since, at the turn of the millennium, African states started to develop and reconfigure their transport sector and road regimes. In the second phase, weshiftedtowards cases where we assumedlower degrees of freedom for local appropriation. By introducing controlled comparisons into our inquiry, we thus searched for scenarios in which limits of local agency and conditions for localcreativity could be tested. Findings from that second phaseare instrumental for determining thecircumstances, scopesand thus types of appropriative processes with a view to further explore the modalities of adaptation and creativity.Mid-level concepts for further generating theory that have emerged as helpful include the notions of‘technological drama’ and ‘productive friction’. Also the concepts of ‘fact-establishing power’ (‘datensetzende Macht’),‘technological zoning’and‘technological quarantine’ have been found meaningfulin relation to planners’ and state institutions’ efforts at control and excluding specific populations from access. In conceptualising thediversity of African roads, ourconcept of specific ‘regimes of the road’ (in contradistinction to the one autopoietic ‘system’ globally) has been found fruitful.The logical next stepsconsist in (1) consolidating and safeguarding our research results, thereby (2) generating substantive theory on the making of the African road, (3) comparingof our cases and concepts with those of thematically related projects within the PP, and (4) generating primarily formal theory on adaptation and creativity on the PPlevel. Thus, for the third and last phase, we do not intend to conduct additional empirical research. Instead, we intend to consolidate our findings from the first two phases andfurther develop a systematic contribution to the leading analytical concepts of the Priority Programme. Central to this conceptual work will be to progressively saturateour findings in the form of the above-mentioned mid-level concepts and, further, to substantiate these and the PP’s superordinate concepts by way of theoretical sampling. We thus expect to contribute to the main objectives of the PP as well as to the reformulation of established theories of automobility from an African perspective.

Starting date


Research areas

Ghana (Accra und Nsawam)
Sudan (North and West)
See interactive map

Project Workshops

Workshop "Technologies of control and the limits of social creativity", Bayreuth, June 18-20, 2015

International Workshop "The Makings and Uses of Motor Roads", Thurnau, 7-9 June 2012. (Flyer)

Young Scholars Workshop "Ethnologie der Straße in Afrika", Wallenfels, 8-9 February 2013.

Editing workshop for book project "The Makings of African Roads", Lisbon, 30 June 2013.