How does an Anthropologist add value in the workplace?

At work I’m not employed as an anthropologist. Not directly anyway; my skills in research and higher education certainly helped me gain my position, but it was mostly the fact that I had a higher education degree that mattered, not that it was in anthropology. But I’ve used my anthropology doctorate to value-add anthropological knowledge and practices within my current work and this has had benefits for me, for the projects in which I’m involved and for the organisation that I work for. It’s sad that this is indirect, not formally acknowledged and certainly not paid as such. And this has not been due to any lack of my constantly pointing out to my managers the benefits of an anthropological perspective and having an anthropologist on tap within the mix of staff.

I’d like to make a claim for a new position at work taking into account how I add worth over and above my job description and to do so I need to put together some sort of business case. In reference to my recent post on how anthropologists are needed in your workplace which you can access here, I think that in the current climate where we’re talking about the contributions of anthropology in applied domains that it’s timely to highlight what I see as the significance of my own contributions to that end in the work that I do.  In this I’m totally partial, but this is a blog and not a research paper.

The following comments allude to my sociocultural training, and while my education was in a specific (and major) sub-disciplinary area of anthropology I feel that there are commonalities within the sociocultural field that apply to anthropological work irrespective of your sub-disciplinary training (let’s not get too separated here). Here’s what I see that I do:

I contribute a cultural perspective to all my work

At work my contribution lies in not discussing culture per se, but taking a cultural approach to understandings of people, including but not limited to ethnicity, work, work practices, perspectives and approaches. The word ‘culture’ often gets people anxious, getting them bogged down in unclear definitions, fears and concerns that they may or may not be getting it right. So ‘cultural’ offers a more dynamic approach to understanding culture, especially when its coupled with ‘belief’, ‘practice’ ‘perspective’ or whatever. I take the approach of embedding culture within everyday praxis, and this seems to reduce the misunderstandings around what culture means and returns ownership of the word back to anthropologists when we embed it within people’s beliefs and behaviours. This can be useful when strategizing over missions, values and sorting out core business plans.

I take the ‘big view’ providing context and a broader perspective to projects

Evans-Pritchard (1950) reminds us that we cannot understand culture without the perspective of history. Along with many of my contemporaries I would go further and bring to the fore the contextual arguments of situating work praxis within social, economic and political contexts as well. I’m fond of saying that all our workplace behaviour has broader, often unacknowledged contexts and have acculturated my workmates to begin to think more broadly about positioning themselves and what they do against the backdrop of a larger canvass. We all need to think critically about what we do at work in the context of larger movements and this helps to make our work more relevant.

I often ask the dumb questions

Maintaining the naiveté of the new fieldworker to ensure that everyone is on the ‘same page’, that we’re all working from the same understanding is an important contribution. This is not new, and has been written about before extensively, especially in anthropological fieldwork ‘how to’s’.  This is done consciously too as a way of asserting for those at work not comfortable with appearing ‘dumb’ (I don’t mind this at all and instead see this as a position of strength, not weakness).

I encourage a critical approach

… even if that means incorporating opposing or contentious views into projects even to just show that my organisation acknowledges these and has taken the perspective into account. This is important to counteract opposition but mostly to show that staff have accounted for the totality of an issue to the best of our knowledge and that nothing is hidden. Critical approaches teach the utility of validating knowledge, of learning to not take at face value everything that is presented to you but to ensure that people are skilled in undertaking quality review or whatever the language in your industry is that represents this skill.

I love to problematize issues

It’s important to get people to think critically about tensions inherent in our work and ways towards resolving or improving our work with this in mind. Let’s turn everything into a problem, or at least that’s how it feels sometimes. This is done with the purpose of open scrutiny, of providing frank appraisal of an issue from every which way, leaving nothing unturned or unexamined.

I raise questions constantly

I’m often aware that I cannot and have no hope at all of providing all the answers, as anthropologists have pointed out that our discipline is known to be fond of creating more questions than it answers. This is an essential part of, and constitutive of our skill as anthropologists in identifying the cultural worlds that we inhabit – and we need to find out about all of them.

I check taken-for-grantedness

The questioning of taken-for-granted knowledge is a given for anthropologists as these understandings form the basis of the obvious, assumed, common sense that binds people within and forms culture. But people can get very upset when you do this as you really sound like you’re off your rocker if you start questioning the contents of the cultural vault that they’ve spent a lifetime learning and getting right – until they’ve learned why. I ask people to take a fresh approach through questioning their taken-for-granted assumptions about individuals, groups of people, stereotypes, accepted ways of thinking, perspectives, use of products or services and other ways that people are engaged with culture.

Anthropologists provide an independent point of view

I’m professionally ‘free’ to talk across disciplinary boundaries, without being stymied by the boundary tensions that can stall or limit consideration of some issues – important in planning and conceptualising projects within industries where your disciplinary alliance and allegiance is extremely important. When you’re positioned outside these structures you can be more open in providing a fresh perspective to old problems. I have ‘free’ in inverted commas because as with language barriers in traditional fieldwork, you may not be as free as you’d like to be in applied contexts in workplaces for reasons just as important as not having the right language to communicate, or some other barrier.

I promote the Laura Nader effect

Anthropologists can work ‘up’ and ‘down’ engaging in authentic interactions at all levels of an organisation. As participant-observers within societies we are less fazed by and can speak truth to the power relations that constitute workspaces. However, as an employee reliant on a pay cheque I might not be able to do anything much about some issues, but that doesn’t stop me from working with this perspective about the benefits of understanding the spaces of power and who inhabits these and how they interact and and exert influence within the workplace. In reality, following my original extensive and confronting fieldwork many years ago, I now find it impossible not to work towards holistic understanding of cultural beliefs and practices – including relations of power – especially in workplaces.

I seek unity in diversity                                                                                                                                                    At work I’m all for looking to strengthen areas of commonality and mutual interest.  There are often multiple areas of difference that exist on a range of measures but as an anthropologist I’m interested in identifying workplace culture and shared aspects and strengthening areas of mutuality.  This makes us all feel more connected in what we do and how we do it.  This doesn’t always work as intended but can have unintended unifying consequences in the longer term.

While all of the above sounds rosy and, at times just too good to be true there is also (always) a downside to working across and outside of your discipline with other professionals. Much as I love collaborative efforts and interdisciplinary energies, the position of the anthropologist as different, as a disciplinary outsider and often as a newbie means that anthropologists are often targets and can be scapegoated when there are problems within organisations. There can exist a slight air of suspicion around you and your work, especially if your foundations and methodology stemming from the social sciences falls outside the business practices in which your work is situated.

This is not dissimilar to fieldwork experiences that abound in the literature in which the lone anthropologist is an easy target for vilification, demonization and all manner of bone pointing and eventual expulsion from field sites. It’s easy to blame outsiders and this is a risk that we run in taking on the role of the inquisitive, critical thinker who loves to point out cultural truths.

We have to remember: like court jesters we too can be replaced.  But at least court jesters were authentic in working in their enterprise.



E.E. Evans-Prichard (1950) Anthropology and History, The Marett Lecture

Laura Nader (1972) Up the anthropologist: perspectives gained from studying up.

The Anxious Anthropologist blog on WordPress (2015) Why You Need an Anthropologist in Your Organisation



An open letter to Prime Minister Turnbull: What would research and work look like if I was in charge?

Dear Mr Turnbull,
If I was in charge of research I would always include children on the research team. Instead of talking about fresh perspectives, I would build this in to the brief. I would always have the unfettered, hopeful perspective of young people in any activity that involved innovation and future planning for the knowledge, products and services needed for the coming ages.

I would also staff my research team with at least two retired, ‘older’ or aged persons as active members of the team. We need the long view, the depth perception, the historical strength that is provided by people with a long experience of living, especially of living through different eras of challenge as well as innovation and change.

I would ALWAYS have a representative of the group, for whom the research or work is intended in the team. This would occur at the dangerous time right at the start before all the creative work was done and awaiting a comment or ‘input’ from the target persons. If it’s going to work in the real world, it has to be created by people in and from that world.

I would build in the non eight hour day as a standard for creative, innovative work. While this does to work for everyone, the alternative of hard slog for eight hours in a row certainly doesn’t work either. We have busy time, mindless time, thinking time, creative spikes and nothing time. This can be followed by periods of intensely focussed, highly productive work, and this is not necessarily recognised by current work place practices.

I would gather like-minded people to work together in organic ways. Sometimes the most productive ideas and new ways of working are generated through unscheduled meetings, through conversations that lead off in new directions between people not necessarily professionally aligned, or who may even be opposed in some way, yet who can work together to generate new solutions to the petrified thinking that prevents true innovation.

Research structures need a shakeup in a way that the social sciences can offer. New ways of thinking are needed to inject fresh perspectives into age old dilemmas, problems and situations. I would bring together new teams of people to work together and not just in tokenistic ways but in a meaningful manner that worked with the best that disciplinary knowledge has to offer.

I would head up my team with non traditional leaders who often quietly have a vision for change, a vision for the future that has not been accessed or brought to life because of stigma, insecurity and the self doubt that comes from an inability to sell oneself and one’s ideas in the way that is taken for granted by others who seem to always effortlessly succeed.

I would take a standpoint perspective and include extra women at all levels of research to redress the imbalance of productive work based inputs that women have been traditionally able to provide because of the demands of biology in bearing and raising children. There never seems to be a right time to have children as a working woman, unless you have an army of unpaid service providers to assist you or lots of money.

If I was in charge I would ensure that social scientists always had access to any institutions that house people. I would also shake our thinking up even further for example through the inclusion of poets, artists and philosophers in engineering, science and medical research. The centre often only changes because of the activities on the periphery, by the people whose work is literally edgy. That is how change comes to the centre, how the offbeat activity of twenty years ago becomes mainstream practice now. It is from the edge where new ideas are generated.

Traditional ways of working and research need to change, we have to incorporate the schisms, the criticisms and make newer, better research and work practices. What will work even look like in fifty years from now?

I have more ideas up my sleeve, but I want to give you a taster of my thinking ‘outside the box’ to show you how a really new talent pool can potentially offer truly new and fruitful ways of thinking. We can’t live in a world where it’s just jobs for the (same old) boys. Just by reading this you’ve already opened up your eyes to new ways of thinking about how to do things. And much of what I’ve said is probably not even new.

Please let me know where to send my brief.

Sincerely yours,

The Anxious Anthropologist


An article! An article!

If there’s one thing that helps to ground you when you’ve felt voiceless or powerless in the past, it’s when you see the writing equivalent of your name up in lights, that is to say, in print, as a solo author in a peer-reviewed professional journal article. That is about to happen – just give it days and I CAN’T WAIT. This is not skiting, as immersion within the process of imagining, thinking, articulating, writing, editing and preparing your thoughts on a topic and submitting this for peer review (and resubmitting or even ignoring for a long time and then resubmitting) is a whole thing in itself. I feel reborn as a gen-you-ine author.

But as we all know, the anticipation of a thing, it’s near reality, the near-completion, the not-quite-there- yet is more important than the actual publication itself. While it is still a potential, it is powerful because it has not yet come to be, has not yet come to be known. Those ideas, put together and uniquely fashioned by me in my own way with my own references and turn of phrase have not yet been picked up, consumed, digested, regurgitated and spat out yet. It’s still in the future, even though it’s the imminent future. And while it is still becoming, it (the article) and me (it’s author/mother/father) also reside in the zone of potentiality. I can’t be dated by my last work because it’s still a work in progress and hasn’t come to be. Beautiful logic, isn’t it?

This reminds me of the difficulty faced by researchers in gaining grant monies. No sooner do they apply for and receive monies, there is no time between this event and the anxiety riven process of putting together the next application. There is no time to rest on your laurels, to be known for the last piece of research published and it is clear to me that the anticipation and expectation is better than the event itself. It’s all downhill afterwards… Academia is really about what’s coming, rather than what is.

But more than this, it’s not just me and my voice alone in the article. When I talk about having a successful journal article publication I’m joining in the stream of conversation about the topic that I wrote about. I’ve drawn in the great words of like-minded and opposite-minded thinkers to position myself within the tensions of these opposing arguments. I’ve had to take a position myself and position myself I certainly did. This is challenging, because you have to align yourself one way or the other. No fence sitting. You take a position and align yourself with like-minded authors who’ve been there before. That’s one way of writing.

There are other ways too, but the important point is that I’ve joined the conversation. I’ve made my observations and put forward my contribution. I’ve drawn on the expertise of those who came before me, but I’ve put my thoughts together to say something and it seems to be of merit. I’m not voiceless anymore, or just banging on about something and getting sick of hearing my own voice. I’ve taken the next step, and it started at least a year and a half ago, even though it’s coming to fruition now. So, what are you waiting for? Dust off those manuscripts sitting in the drawer, locate those rejection slips and get editing.


Routines of everyday life

It is a classic observation of anthropologists that we seek to document the everyday activities of people within various cultural contexts in order to provide evidence for making meaning and sensible observations about cultural life. We especially look to the routine activities, that taken for granted ordinariness of life that to those involved seems particularly unremarkable. This gives anthropologists our greatest jollies. And you may well ask, “why?”

Many of the activities that are documented, the structures that are associated with supporting them point to well, nothing particularly groundbreaking at all. In reality, much of what we examine often elicits the response, “well, so what?”

But what people fail to account for in critiquing anthropology, is that it is one of the only disciplines that pays attention to ordinary life in this way, taking routines, taken for granted responses and behaviours and attitudes as the stuff of analysis and critical investigation and reflection. And most of what is examined are the routines that comprise people’s daily lives, the kinds of routines that would not ordinarily create a meme, hold social media attention or be unusual in any way other than for expressing difference within ordinariness among diverse human populations.

Humans love to create structure and order the world in particular ways. We create rules, norms and mores around everything that we do, sometimes calling this culture, tradition or just the way we do things around here. In doing so, we routinise our responses to the challenges that face us in our everyday lives, constantly remaking routines and traditions as the need arises.

We love to master a task, show that we can do it or even submit ourselves for examination to prove that we have a level of mastery. In doing so we routinise and create normative knowledge sets and behaviours as well as the forms that indicate competency.

Routines provide stability, predictability and a level of comfort and certainty in our daily lives. We are reassured of ourselves and our roles through our actions and activities and routines provide the behavioural response, the body memory, the actions that partner with the thoughts and anticipation of a thing.

We often attach a feeling of accomplishment to the satisfactory completion of routine tasks and this relationship to routine tasks forms the basis of our behaviour within rituals as well. This is a blog and not an academic piece so I will not reference the extensive and enjoyable literature on rituals, but suffice to say that rituals are a form of participatory action that provide meaning in our lives at a symbolic level as we make sense of aspects of life that are unknowable or uncontrollable.

And aside from the extraordinary nature of ritual behaviour, it is the ordinariness of everyday life that is of greatest interest because this forms the basis of cultural comparison within diverse cultural contexts. This appreciation of the ordinariness of routinised and familiar behaviours makes them more like us and is the way of bridging the gap of cultural difference. Is it so surprising that the way we often meet a new culture is through food? We eat our way in through familiar rituals and routines associated with the production of nutrients for consumption through more or less familiar social avenues. Ottolenghi, Stein and a host of others are the latest media chefs doing the cultural work of making the strange familiar through their presentations of the cultural and ethnic diversity of the world of food preparation, sale and consumption on the world stage. Not that I’m suggesting that they are anthropologists, but the point about presenting routines cross culturally in popular culture has to be made.

Routines are often the most unremarkable aspect of our daily lives that could be imagined. They may be private and personal and attached to the body and bodily maintenance. Routines provide the cycles of everyday life and a level of certainty and predictability around our movements and actions within a day, a week, a month or a year. In the face of uncertainly, we stamp our movements and reign in the unpredictability through normalising expectations and responses. Routines point to the ultimate cyclicality of the body, of nature and potentially of the universe itself.

So next time you catch yourself hating the thought of an approaching task, chore or routine challenge just remember that your actions are part of a greater whole in which you are exemplifying, embodying, enacting and creating your version of that particular task within all of the possible expressions of that task within humanity. And an anthropologist is interested in that.


September 19th: International “Talk like a Pirate Day” – Who Knew?

Our calendars are full of special weeks and days to memorialise, commemorate and bring attention to the plight of people with special needs, those underserved, forgotten, marginalised and needy. Think of the ‘Decade of the Brain’, ‘International Women’s Year, ‘Mental Health Week’ and ‘RUOK Day’. We celebrate the child, the volunteer, peace, the critic, the deaf – even prayer and fasting. We have days dedicated to mourning the dead, national days of surgery, international happiness and kissing days.

But who knew about the ‘International Talk like a Pirate Day?

It’s not just a day dedicated to pirates, to remembering and celebrating piratehood, to the achievements of pirates, to remembering poor, suffering and displaced pirates, the seafaring adventures and booty quests, but a specific day emphasising a particular aspect of piratedom that warrants international attention for a full day each year: talking like a pirate.

Who knew?

I wake up and thank God that the announcer on public radio has made mention of this special day. I would hate to be the only person at the water cooler at work today not speaking pirate. I imagine what my work day will look like, more specifically what it will sound like. I will open meetings with an Acknowledgement of Country in a pirate accent, subtly altering it to commence with “Me hearties”. There will be a swashbuckling flourish in the tone of my emails and lunch at the local will be ordered, eaten and savoured in pirate tones. Hushed asides in afternoon meetings will be highlighted by note taking made in map form, accompanied by hearty, rib tickling laughter.

I turn on the TV to listen to the news, wondering what the events of the day and finance reports will sound like in Pirate Speak. Will I be able to take seriously the stock market report delivered in Pirate? Or will the accent merely point to the inequities of Capitalism, highlighting the fact that poor old Pirates might have missed out on letting their stockbroker know to purchase the latest share offering and hope that there isn’t a margin call that will leave them reeling, “to be sure, to be sure”? I’m disappointed that the national broadcaster has not seen fit to remind their newsreader to talk Pirate.

What’s on the news right now? A by-election, the international Rugby, local Real Estate sentiment, bush fires, car racing and the horrible usual assortment of human suffering and tragedy. Will Pirate Speak soften the blow of these harsh news stories, bring some perspective to the sometime excesses of sport and racing and bring to the level of ridiculous any reports within the finance sector?

I wonder what school will be like today – will the day be Pirate themed? Will all the lessons be given in Pirate? Will this be a big ask in Advanced Maths which might as well be spoken in Welsh, or Pirate for all the understanding I have of high school maths? Geography, Economics and Textiles would be my choice of subjects for Pirate-Inflected teaching today. I reckon there’ll be a few Johnny Depp inspired costumes on display too, something you can’t really get away with at work, although a well-placed scarf with some silver coin trim would do the trick…

I wonder what the Parliaments at national and state level will sound like? Will the important issues of the day be delivered in Pirate speak? There seems to be an opportunity here for the Australian Parliament who are currently discussing the position of the Speaker of the House at this very moment. It would be very sage and show great leadership if this position was given permission to speak in Pirate, at least for the day. Make them all look like potential plundering sea-faring robbers.

Of course the day seems to trivialise the reality of Pirates. The day seems to be a celebration of the fictitious, of the Pirates that populate legend, children’s stories, the imagination and movies. Think of the horrifying Long John Silver from Treasure Island, or The Pirates of Penzance or the Pirates of the Caribbean, moving into production of a fifth film.

However, Pirates are REAL. Famous pirates of history have included Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, who came from England and worked the Caribbean in the 1700’s, romanticised in the modern era. Wikipedia lists historical pirates, their dates, a chronicle of their lives and deeds right near put entries on the famous pirates of literature and the cinema. These include the Barbarossa Brothers, Captain Kidd, Henry Morgan, Calico Jack and Madam Cheng. With it being “Talk like Pirate Day” today and all, I want to devote at least part of my day to the cause by looking up Pirate histories and biographies and being moved by these as I reflect on their historical, economic and social realities.

It’s not all swashbuckling and scurvy, after all. I’m not a historian and cannot do justice to the history of pirates and piracy here. There is a modern context to piracy of course that has absolutely nothing to do with accents but everything to do with power and resources and their inequitable distribution around the world – actually just like it always has. But the modern day pirates are not characterised so much by their romanticised and stereotypical accents and aged wind-powered sailing ships, but by high tech and high speed. Everything keeps up with the times and so too does piracy as swords and cannon are replaced with guns and grenades…

But back to The Day: there is a Wikipedia entry for the day, with a history (painful reading, much like this entry), a logo and a category called ‘Linguistic Background’ (pertinent here, so of course), References, Further Reading and External Links:

My work here is done…


Imploding Families

Arriving at work today I was met by my coworker who wanted to talk. We’ve worked together for about three years and I see her when she comes in once weekly for a project that we work on together. Aside from the project sometimes we need to be present for each other as fellow sufferers as the circumstances of misfortune and illness that accompany our everyday lives make themselves felt.

As I entered the office and before I’d even put down my bags I could see that she was already at work going through her emails but she looked up expectantly when she saw me.

After very brief “Hi, how are you’s” I asked the queston, “How’s it all going with your father?”

Her elderly father who lives in another city, in another state recently suffered from an acute illness that led to heart failure, and he was hospitalised and treated for over three weeks before being sent home. My coworker had been up to visit and stay, to oversee his treatment, to meet with family, to cook, to clean and run around, to plan, to discuss, to pray, to jolly along, to look at scenarios, to argue, to investigate, to look at residences and to confront and manage the familial interactions that accompany a parents sudden illness.  But living a distance away means ones  authority is weakened as you strive to assert your knowledge of the medical system in an unfamiliar setting and this was true for her.

There’s not much laughing at these familial get-togethers though, and at the end of the day families forced together to deal with sudden illness or trauma often implode as differences and problems tolerated throughout life, and as adults fortunately from a distance, suddenly come to a head and force family members into positions that are often polarised, full of pain, are heated and have long term consequences.

I still recall standing outside a nurses station in a private hospital holding the ear piece of the nurses telephone about thirty centimetres from my ear as a relative hurled abuse, horrible abuse down the receiver at me. The nurses were non plussed and I bemusedly thought to myself that they were probably accustomed to this appalling scene.  This behaviour too was the results of parental illness, surgery, ongoing care needs and everything had come to the boil and the anger spilled out, it just spat out of everyone as decisions were made.

My family relationships fell apart too, but that is a story for later.

My coworker is a health professional.  But as a daughter, with an ill parent she – and they – revert as many of us do to the primal relationships that characterised our early lives. She and her siblings are like satellites around their father, living one to twelve hours drive from him. In early retirement as mums and dads sell up the family home and move to the coast to live the kind of life they’ve always dreamed about, this situation seems perfect. It gives parents a bit of space from their grown up children and at the same time offers family an opportunity to have a destination as they clamber in a tightly packed vehicles with scooters, sleeping bags and DVDs on board as they head north to see their parents and grandparents.

While it sounds grand, it may not always be so, but these are the good days. Remember this.

But, like their stellar counterparts, satellites can collide causing the destruction and demise of worlds, in this case our familial worlds of sociality, support and meaning.

As parents’ health deteriorates, as with my coworker’s family, one parent becomes ill and dies.  Her mother died a year ago; it was the one year anniversary yesterday. He and she had planned a cruise around Australia, but in the end it was my coworker who took the cruise with her father. But the dream was still sound and the family recovered and readjusted to the new reality as they now dealt with one parent in retirement.

Now, as dad is ill, the adult children are all fighting. There are some who aren’t talking to each other, planning on how to avoid seeing each other, warning of the approach of each other and rummaging through each other’s and their fathers things when the opportunity arises, seeking knowledge to gain some advantage.

One wonders about the parental bank account, another about the option of an enduring power of attorney and suddenly guardianship becomes a meaningful term. There are allegations of parental abuse, of favouritism, of money going astray and the resurgence of past, unresolved hurts, of longtime simmering wounds.

There are medical conversations that have to be had, conversations that only some family will understand.  Suddenly everyone’s trying to become conversant with the technical aspects of medical specialties that take years to master. We all want to be knowing and knowledgeable about drugs, body systems, body physiology and the effects and interactions of complex chemicals, both natural and artificial. We live in an age of access to and understanding information outside of our own realms, but this is normal.

Suddenly one sibling is putting in plans to council for an extension on their house to accomodate their aged and now dependent parent, something the other siblings strongly disagree with. There are disagreements and fights about where dad will go after hospital. As he can barely breathe and stand at the same time, it does seem as though he’ll need some support services after he leaves hospital but one sibling has refused, wanting to do all this himself with his wife, an unlikely and improbable situation according to my coworker.

While the actors in all these dramas are different the circumstances, pressures and outcomes are not dissimilar to other families. Flying allegations, differences of opinion, threats to the way things have been, fear of the unknown and the ultimate unknowable all point to the fear that we all hold about death, and the demise of a parent moves us all a bit closer to the edge of the perch, and with the generation before us no longer taking up space on the perch, is it any wonder that families come to loggerheads at times of intense fear, change and stress?

The telling of my coworkers tale of woe takes some time and strongly resonates  with others’ familial tales as people drift in and bear witness to the new, current, updated version of familial illness, suffering and power struggles but we all stay to hear, to share, to offer sympathy and advice wondering at the back of our minds how we too will fare when we face this crossroad, and what form our own stories will take.


Reading fiction as therapy

Recently I found a website that offers fiction as therapy. You have a consultation of sorts and they send you away with a list of novels to read over the next twelve months. The problems sound like the concerns of everyday life, not serious psychiatric disturbance and the list given to people to read sounds like a prescription of sorts, specifically for you to heal yourself through reading a list of novels, selected specially for you.

Having just rediscovered fiction after almost a lifetime of hardly reading any at all, I now wonder about the idea of fiction as therapy and think that this idea needs to be interrogated. What goes on? What is read? What is the psychic shift that occurs – or that the prescriber hopes will occur – in the reader? Does everyone get the message, get affected in the same way by the same works? Do classics work better than other forms of writing? Does your age make a difference? And more of course…

As I work my way through ‘Missus’, a classic of Australian fiction written by Ruth Park sometime in the 1950’s about the characters who will feature in her later classic, ‘The Harp in the South’ I cringe painfully as I start to recognise character traits in myself, in people I know, in people I live and work with including members of my own family. I recognise modern versions of the same dilemmas faced by the characters in the novel and wonder how I would resolve them in my own life. You always balk at the reality of insight as it hits you and it is this realisation that I have come to about fiction.

Fiction gives us the opportunity to share in the stories of our own times, in the taken for granted understandings and insights about the human condition. Novels may be thinly veiled fact, or completely imagined, but the characters, situations and tensions are all drawn from something in real life. Everything’s a story one way or another and in reading fiction we all seek to get to the point of the work, and there is always a point, a message, a reason for the storyteller to put pen to paper in the first place. This is the novel that we all have inside us, the tale that we all wish to tell.

I am not a scholar of fiction, literary or otherwise and can only offer opinions on having rediscovered both being a writer and a reader. My writing takes the form of everyday administrative rubbish, occasional scholarly work and more regular blogs while the reading now takes the form of a delicious immersion in fiction.

I feel like I have rediscovered a secret world, an open secret held by everyone but me, a world of tales unique and common, imagined and real populated with characters who I both love and hate, easily identify with and ponder the reasons why some author bothered to characterise, draw and write about some of them at all. And some of the people I’ve read about, well, there are characters that I really dislike. I’ve been reading and writing non-fiction for so long, I have wondered what the point of fiction was? Ridiculous really for someone whose bread and butter is people’s stories of everyday life…

So if the point of therapy is to cure, and novels are being recast as therapeutic tools, then what is happening when people read in a curative fashion? Are novels taking the place of elders in the community? Are they taking the place of the lessons we learn from parents, friends and others in our social worlds? Are they providing the ah ha experience that is lacking in our friendships, in our social relationships? Are they replacing the GP, other people within society in whom we put our trust, share our fears and seek guidance from?

So let’s get back to the real and away from the conjecturing – what have I learned since I returned to the novel?

I’m finding out about women, about the conditions of life that we have lived in and continue to live in. A feminist autobiography rather than a novel really, but it rekindled and reaffirmed my belief in feminism and reminded me of the real challenges that women continue to face.

I’m finding out about the stories that circulate about parenting. Reading fiction about families has taught me about what some of the taken for granted understandings are that parents across generations, across ethnicities and across time have shared. Not all children are perfect and so too, neither are parents. And we all have varieties of children, and these tales too have already been told.

There used to be more privacy and respect for privacy too. Sharing on the scale that we encounter in the modern day just never existed. People had private lives, private thoughts, private desires and others didn’t necessarily participate in these the way we all do now in our voyeuristic and observing societies in which nothing cannot be written in response to ‘how are you feeling now?’

I’ve learned about relationships, about the kinds of things we strive for, about self-disclosure within relationships, about needs, both met and unmet and about the different ways that people come together through varied circumstances. I try to fit my own narrative in there somewhere too…

Intangible elements such as the joy of following one’s nose, following one’s passion and becoming a leader in your field despite obstacles get portrayed in fiction. I love this and find it inspiring. We all need to be inspired and find this through different ways in our lives.

There are stories to guide you in your quest for self-improvement and enlightenment (help me please, I can’t stand some of this), but it does teach you something about your own limits as well. Do I put down a story I’m hating by page 33, or do I persevere? Is this a metaphor for my bad relationships too? Should I just learn to let go earlier? But, like in relationships, there’s always something that just keeps you on the page…

I’m finding that I’m drawn more and more to biographies, even to autobiographies, which if you’re writing these mid-life are really a form of memoir. While claiming to be factual, they can only ever be a perspective, even if it’s your own perspective on your own life. Everything is contextual, isn’t it? How do people account for themselves? How do people account for the horrors of their upbringing? How do they account for the marvellous circumstances in which they found themselves? Or how do they account for the striving in their lives that brought them to the place in which they can sit and reflect now? I love people’s stories.

So can fiction help you? I think that it can, in that fiction exposes you to characters, situations, dilemmas, the possible and the impossible and shows you how someone else has conceptualised a dilemma, a person, a situation, a feeling and how they’ve dealt with this. In doing so, fiction can help us know more of the world in ways that we hadn’t accounted for, and that brings a richness into our own lives and the way we live and share our lives.

So am I ill for needing fiction? Am I cured through reading fiction? Both and neither at the same time. It really depends on your perspective… I’m loathe to succumb to the further medicalisation of everyday life, but perhaps the reading of fiction allows us the opportunity in much the same way that tales always have of fixing that within us that needs mending through the knowing and knowledgeable words of others.

Happy reading!

The Workshop

The traffic was unusually terrible making my arrival at work 40 minutes later than anticipated. On my mind were familial concerns as they always are when you leave the household for the day, and on the radio I was listening to an audio e-book about a fragmented group of kindy parents dealing with children’s issues, school socialisation, a Trivia Night, domestic abuse and murder. As I drove in I found a park right out the front, grabbed my briefcase and handbag and raced for the door. I was hosting a workshop for professionals and it would be unseemly to arrive late.

As I walked in the door I could see them, their faces calm, pleasant and anticipatory. This was all still new, no one knew each other yet, no one had a personality, nothing marked anyone out as separate or different from each other. No complaints, no requests, no dissension, just a group of professionals. They could be from your field. As a group, they were formless and bland. They were all still a mass to be trained, formed and created anew.

I touched base with my nervous administrator who had frantically rung me on my mobile just ten minutes before we were due to start. “I’m just around the corner” I’d replied, “there was an incident on the freeway”. “Right” she said in the abrupt but efficient manner that I’d come to associate with her working style, “I’ll see you soon then”. We had an ambivalent relationship as her attitude and comments towards me always raised the spectre of the moral of the story of The Emperors New Clothes in my mind as I constantly self scrutinised my ability and performance in light of the perceived expectations of others and my cringing inability to see that I did indeed have great professional self worth.

Leaving the venue to race upstairs to turn on my computer, dump my briefcase, grab my name badge – the permanent one that had been handed to me on Day One all those years ago when I first started here seemingly cementing my new identity in this place of higher learning – I momentarily reflected on my appearance because as we all know, first impressions always count, I pondered on what sort of group experience this would be. Would this group gel? Would they be cohesive? Would they be needy, fragmented and disruptive? Or would they be grateful, committed and looking for personal and professional growth? At the end of the day, the ultimate question was, would they buy what we were selling?

I took to the stage, saw that my introductory presentation was already up on the screen and checked that the equipment was working as I awkwardly moved the slides backwards and forwards. I like performing, I like talking in front of a crowd, and I’m not in the least bit fazed by a microphone or a stage. People are spongelike at this stage, taking in whatever you offer them and you try to make it match their expectations. Just a couple of questions which I deal with easily, pleasantly and with a smile.

As I stand at the front of the room I make mental notes about where people are sitting, whether they’re sitting with someone or alone, not in the empty front row but towards the back, and I really try hard not to judge people by their own appearances but we all know that this is a game that we all play, as they too are judging me in the same way. It’s how we make sense of things in our world, as along with the visuals they silently ask, “ Can we trust you to hold us while we learn?” “Will you lead us, host us and care for us while we are learning?” “Will this learning change us!” “Are we safe here?”

I sadly note that my administrator, who, after all does have a degree in the social sciences has set up the room with rows of chairs all facing the presenter. Normally a workshop is set up so that all of the participants face each other, because the learning takes place in the form of interactions and small group experiences between the participants. Make mental note to self to raise this with her later. Be careful not to say to her that this reflects how she thinks learning takes place…

I’ve introduced the first speaker who will take them through until afternoon tea. That is a long session on one topic, but that level of input is needed for this complex area. The speaker is experienced, knowledgeable and an expert in her area. She and I meet annually at this event and, as women often do, we measure the elapsed time through a recitation of our fertility status as we recount that the first time we met she had to express milk behind a screen during the morning tea break, and that the following year she was pregnant but not showing and that last year she was about to pop as she took this very same workshop…

She gets to do the fun bit where you go around the room and ask everyone to introduce themselves. I notice that she leaves this in their control, as many introductory sessions such as these often play games with truth telling, getting people to speak with and then introduce each other, a much harder, more concentrated form of getting to know someone that always essentialises aspects of the others life. Worse still are the dreaded trust building exercises that force you into bodily contact with strangers…

As this process happens you can feel the mild anxiety in the room as people try to calculate when their turn will come: will she go in straight rows? Will she start at the back or from the front? And in relation to the content what will people reveal of themselves to what is really a group of strangers at this point? Where they work, what particulars differentiate their workplace from similar ones, how long they’ve been there, what their interest in the workshop is and what they hope to do with their new found knowledge and skills in future seem to be the norm…

A couple of people come in late, sharing what all people who can’t run to time share, stealthily entering, heading straight to the back of the room, delicately sitting down, painfully slowly taking off jackets and scarves as they try to be invisible and not upset the proceedings while at the same time trying to catch up and pick up on the key concepts being discussed. They hold the gaze of the presenter but don’t look sideways at all. Another person enters much later still, and pries off a chair from the back room where they’re stacked high against the back wall. Later still I see that he too is now incorporated into the group as he’s moved forward now and sits with the others, adding to the conversations with pertinent comments on topics being addressed.

They’re talking about miracles now, about miracle questions that get people to change their perception of what’s happening in their lives. And how would you describe your perfect day? Great perceptions on the self and the self in the world. I’m loving where this discussion is taking my thoughts as I sit at the back of the room and see the backs of heads, wonder what is going through their heads as they think about all this.

There are peals of laughter emanating form the room, always a good sign that strangers can come together and find a commonality, a humorous and even hilarious one that unites them in friendly laughter that reduces any tensions from not knowing each other as the newness of being here starts to wane. Everyone starts to recreate the familiar within the room, like laughing at common jokes. We all begin to see each other, we normalise our surroundings, as we notice things and make them part of this cultural milieu.

Now there’s the guy who is questioning the suppositions of the presenter, another one who wants to take the intellectual high ground, the woman who embeds everything she says in her own experience and through Those experiences that are relevant from her workplace. The clown marks himself as the one who will provide the emotional valve that allows everyone to reduce their emotional tension as he breaks the bubble with a gag. Now we’re starting to see who’s who, starting to see the differences that mark us, and it’s interesting.

The caterer arrives and the admin assistant is nowhere to be seen. I leave the room to attend to invoices, arrangements for today, tomorrow and the next day’s nutritional requirements. Where is she? I walk back into the main building and she’s at her desk upstairs on the phone about some other business. I stand and wait but she’s in no hurry to hurry. I write a note: “The caterer is here and wants to speak with you”. Who is in charge here I ask myself, where is the power in my standing around like this? This is my low self esteem, my sense of my own illegitimacy and a pointer to the problems of attending to the domestic in the workplace. I have Imposter Syndrome. And I feel like a bitch because this woman has done a fantastic job in making the arrangements for this workshop to happen.

When I return to the workshop I see that the geography has changed, that everyone has moved into small groups now and they’re chatting, talking earnestly, problem solving issues, and doing the work that they’ve paid to do. The chairs, with the little table built in, the kind that swings over so that you can write or sleep on it, have all been rearranged. Suddenly all the backs of heads are reduced and it looks like dodgem cars as everyone’s facing each other, not going in the one direction anymore and ideas and talk are colliding. A creative process is taking place.

The facilitator signals that it’s time to break for morning tea, but no one can hear her as the buzz in the room is palpable and the work of the workshop becomes evident. And people continue to do the work rather than move to the sociability of the morning tea session.

Let’s not pretend that the breaks are anything other than less formalised aspects of the workshop. Anthropologists love the ‘foot in the door’ syndrome, and I think that just because a session involves less formality doesn’t mean that it’s not part of the experience of the workshop that must also be addressed. We don’t ignore sociality as being invisible to the work of the workshop, after all, this is the crux of the issue when it comes to identifying cultural praxis. Culture is all that we do, and if we’re in a workshop, then all of the experiences are part of that workshop, those on the timetable, and those that aren’t.

So what happened at morning tea? A few people refused to go, staying put where they were, happy to sit and chat unrefreshed. Everyone else headed out and I directed them towards the two platters, one filled with cut up sweet cakes and the other offering an array of fruit slices. Both were bright, colourful and appealing. One was better for you than the other, but they disappeared equally as participants grabbed a small plastic plate, a too – large napkin and a plastic fork.  They headed outside for the warmth of both some informal interaction and some sunlight. Groups of two stood, chatting, eating and drinking. One man stood apart yelling into his mobile phone in a language other than English. Some headed for toilets and I stood and chatted again with the presenter.

What am I doing here I asked myself for the hundredth time? I am the perfect woman as I move around the room making contact with strangers, small talk and work talk and industry talk and workshop and education talk. I make eye contact, I make them feel at home, and I check to see if there’s anything they need. I find out where they’ve come from, how far they had to travel, what experience they’ve had of this content before? Are there any commonalities that we share? We make small talk about the surroundings, about the history of the place, about services, about the industry about the state and the nation. I usher people towards the food and drink and make sure they’re fed and watered. I sigh to myself thinking about the next research project that I want to undertake, about the theoretical framework of the work that I could do and the academic arguments that I could contribute to, even the wellbeing of people that the potential results of my work could affect. “Another lamington” I ask?

Workshops are not cheap. Time and money. They have to be thought about, you need to check that the industry wants or needs this and you have to find out what else is out there that might already be addressing the issues that you want to teach about or train people in. There may be reference groups whose needs must be addressed, whose memberships may have to be included, along with industry experts whose time and expertise you need to identify, access and appropriately pay for. There’s the content of the workshop which needs to be developed, and may need to be accredited and/or certified by organisations that have authority in these areas. These may all take a bit of time. And training, staffing, advertising and marketing too. And resources on site need to be addressed here too, the kind that you take for granted like a room, the chairs, heating and cooling, IT resources, catering, pens and paper and name tags.

We’re all back to facing the front again. People are talking for longer now as they reprise the findings of their group work. It’s working. It’s happening. I’m thrilled.

As I’ve had experience of being in a group and the dynamics associated with groups I’m always on the alert to identify who will inhabit some of the key aspects of group dynamics. It’s not an experiential psychodynamic form of group therapy though, so these may not be so evident. Groups are great because they mirror the bigger world as people are true to form and begin to inhabit their familiar roles, taking up familiar positions and delivering familiar responses to familiar stimuli. That’s why groups are so great.

I sneak out to get into the good books of my admin assistant by helping with lunch preparations but find that this is the worst thing that I could do because unwittingly I’m somehow giving her the message that she is incapable of successfully completing this task. So I back off after a curt, “It’s OK, I can do that”. I need to learn my place in the workplace too, and that is inside with the participants, assisting, mediating, supervising, contributing, sharing, being authoritative, organising resources and working the room. So back I go, only emerging when the first presenter says, “Let’s break for lunch now…” There is not enough lunch for the appearance of generosity, and my admin decides to contact the caterer and get catering for an extra four, wrily noting that “There’s more men here than I thought there would be…”

A break for lunch is needed as there’s been a few people sneaking out and going to the toilet before the break. They need air, and they also need food. The workshop has become intense as the participants work on scenarios that reflect real life and some may be seeing aspects of themselves in some of the cases being discussed. Examples, case studies and evidence drawn from real life is always problematic in this way. They are supposed to serve as a means to illustrate change processes, but end up becoming instructive as individuals draw from them to point to needed changes that should be made in their own lives.

As the afternoon arrives the energy changes. We’re all tiring as the shadows start to lengthen. The reality of the hard conversations that have been had, the examples discussed, the reading and preparations undertaken beforehand and the work yet to be completed starts to be realised by all those in the room. We are tiring, flagging in spirit.

The presenter is starting to wind up, and as she’s returning in two days, we all know that anything not completed today will be taken up and addressed then. We all slightly envy her as she starts her preparations to wind up the topic, formalise the final formalities, and manage her exit as she moves to leave. The high note on which we all started is now satiated as we bid her farewell.

… And now for the next speaker…

Change jobs, return to research or enrol in further higher ed?

You get to a point in your life where you start to reflect on your skill set and your current responsibilities and you wonder whether these match up with your desired, wanted skill set and the kinds of things that you want to be doing with your time. We all have an imperative to work, to be productive, to contribute to the social good, whether that be through our paid work or otherwise.

I’m sitting here with my CV in hand, wondering about taking the next step, what that should be, where that will take me and whether I’ll be skilled and experienced enough to do whatever it is that’s calling me away from where I am now, which was after all, a once highly favoured position, or so I perceived it.

I’m faced with questions: what happens when we get to the end of our current jobs, when we’re no longer as useful as we once were, when we dread getting up in the morning to face the same old, same old?

I’ve come to this way of thinking because of a number of changes at my workplace, where the imperatives of the business world are moulding our work practices and I’m not sure that I can honestly contribute to this new pathway. If I have to work in this kind of setting, I’d be better off working somewhere that included an anthropologist, not one working on the margins as I’ve been trying to do for the past three years.

It is not easy being a trailblazer. You have to work twice as hard: work to get the job done, and then work over and above that to promote this new discipline in your current workplace. I feel professionally isolated, and marginalised and coupled with changing business practices, I honestly feel like it’s time to meet new challenges.

Phrases from the new age and career counsellors come to mind: ‘this is an opportunity’ I hear, or ‘failure is a great teacher’ [it hasn’t quite come to that…], or ‘there’s something perfect waiting for you out there’, or similar phrases that preface the entries that come into my Inbox from SEEK, Indeed, UniJobs or any number of other ‘alerts’ that I’ve set up in my quest to find a new position.

University opportunities appear to have closed doors to me before I’ve even attempted to grasp the handle. Am I too old? Am I too long past the completion of my PhD [did I even know that there was a use by date for applications for Postdocs]? How would I mould my area of research into the proposed Postdocs advertised anyway? Seems like there’s little mentoring or assistance for those of us who aren’t assertive enough to be ‘flagrant self-promoters’ which, after all, you do need to be, indeed MUST BE in order to progress in the academic sphere. No space for the shy or retiring.

What other area involves such a critique of one’s performance as academia does? Your thoughts, your ideas, your arguments, your evidence, your appraisals, your plans, your applications, your ethics, your methodology – even your choice of supervisor – all these are critiqued as part of one’s performance as an academic. There are definitely more anonymous jobs around than working in the thought industries and producing new evidence with pats on the back from your peer-reviewers….

But if I’m honest with myself, the happiest times that I experienced in my working life was when I was doing my fieldwork for my doctoral studies. Everything was fresh and new, every experience was significant, all my reading added to my fledgling and emerging thesis, and all I could talk about was my very interesting fieldwork. Added to this were copious notes and a methodology that I took to like a duck to water. The hardest thing was writing up and coming to terms with some of the angst produced through, well the production of something new that made a statement about people and society. That is thrilling and the process of appraisal and review, while daunting is rewarding.

But what now?

If you move sideways and don’t follow through on your own work, your own ideas, your own area of expertise, well that area of expertise gets taken up by other people. You do not become the authority or have anything much to say about the area at all. Working sideways means that you’re devoting your efforts to the completion and fulfilment of other people’s ideas, of other people’s work, which may be aligned with yours or, more realistically, may serve to pay the bills until you can stand on your own two professional feet.

And that may, or may not happen.

Self-doubt is a crippling experience. Once you succumb to this, it’s hard to feel that you can contribute meaningfully to your discipline at all. One way to alleviate this though is to contribute where you can: attend a conference, write about and present what you know, what you’re currently involved in. One thing that anthropologists do well is problematize a set of social circumstances, then pull them apart minutely to examine them critically, then, applying an informed theoretical perspective, put it all back together with the new evidence to make sense of the thing.

This is the seed of opportunity, and if you find yourself floundering where you are, “make a virtue of it” as my Honours supervisor, recently deceased once told me. An outrageous intellectual, he was full of advice about proceeding with one’s ideas that I find I’m still passing on to students who come my way.

So maybe I should do that: take the problems that I’m presented with at work, problematize them as something worth investigating, turn this into a research project, apply for funding and set out to find out something new to share with the discipline.

Or find a Postdoc

Go somewhere else, not in the higher education sector. What the hell would I do? Would I, indeed could I be useful anywhere outside the public sector? Would anyone value my skills enough to want to pay me to work in their company? I’m starting to get the heebie jeebies thinking about this.

What about returning to studies myself? My supervisor at uni encouraged me to go straight from an Honours degree to Doctoral studies, claiming that many women often progressed through to a Masters but were daunted by the thought of taking on a PhD, so I should go straight for the higher qualification. What I didn’t realise was that a Masters was useful in a work sense as it gave some structure through coursework and a minor thesis to areas that were immediately applicable in a work environment.
I should have done an MBA instead of a PhD.

One university in Sydney is currently touting MBA’s for women who are currently vastly underrepresented in this area, offering a pathway with shared costs and sponsorship by employers to assist women in completing this higher level qualification. Here’s the story:

But is that me?

This is the issue: if you’re planning on taking up higher degree studies as an adult, then you have to be highly motivated, and above all, really WANT to study the subjects in order to qualify for that degree. If you honestly can’t see yourself majoring in any of the strands offered, then maybe you don’t really want that qualification, or don’t really want to qualify in that area. Further studies in research similarly mean that you MUST WANT to investigate the research topic or idea that’s burning away in the back of your consciousness.

So here I sit, procrastinating as I write this blog instead of reframing my CV and attending to my Inbox. Wait, I hear the ‘ding’ telling me something’s come in…  All offers will be given serious consideration…


A photo fell out of a book…

My book group (I say with inner pleasure at finally belonging to one) usually decide on books to read for the coming months by asking for suggestions from the group. Being completely illiterate in fiction since about 1979, I leave it to the rest of the group to offer suggestions, which are usually made up of lists gleaned from recent prize winning works allocated literary awards. In this way, for this month we had decided on The Road from Coorain, by Jill Kerr Conway, reviewed inspiringly on the front cover as “The internationally best-selling memoir of an Australian childhood”, something we all probably guiltily felt we should read. I didn’t have a copy, wasn’t planning on buying one and ended up getting an interlibrary loan for the bargain price of $1.00 and picked it up from my obligingly helpful local library.

The book had come across from the other side of the city, nowhere where anyone from my book group lives, so I wasn’t taking up a copy that would live on my bedside unread for two weeks, then extended for another week on loan and finally returned half read… If the truth be told, my heart has not been in my book group. That is, not until I discovered audible ebooks and this has CHANGED MY LIFE.

The Road from Coorain, however was definitely not an audible ebook, but a good old fashioned plastic covered, paperback waiting for me to find time to sit and be with it. Not so easy in modernity when life is so much about multitasking, and it’s so very hard to actually sit and just be with a book, without any other call on your time. Audible ebooks? I keep company with them while I’m driving, while I’m hanging out the clothes, cooking in the kitchen, putting away the laundry, cleaning the house and even after setting it to ‘Sleep’ for 10 minutes, just before going to sleep myself. My hairstyle doesn’t matter anymore because it can’t be seen below the headphones permanently attached to my ears.

As I left the library with my copy of our new ‘must read’, I checked out the book, turning it over in my hands: it was a Vintage Publication from 1998. Only a couple of hundred pages and nine chapters. Lots of descriptive bits and not much dialogue and it looked a bit old fashioned. Hardly a perceptive appraisal fit for a book group … I was so hooked on the audible books, on the ease with which I could incorporate reading this way into my life I was loathe to have nothing on my IPad, no audible file to tap into, I was resentful and didn’t really feel like reading an actual hard copy, a real book, so I did borrow something audible to keep me going.

But I digress: I decided that if I actually sat down and read about a chapter a day I could finish the book in less than a fortnight, return it to the library on time as it couldn’t be extended, and actually be ready for discussion at my next book group meeting towards the end of the month. That would be a first. I had been treating the book group as a social club after having been told that there were two types of book groups: those that drink and those that read the books. Well, this one did both. Clearly I need to make more of an effort with my social life, but like anything in midlife, there’s such a lot of effort involved, isn’t there?

I opened the book. It instantly flicked open to somewhere in the middle, somewhere in the middle of a chapter called ‘The Nardoo Stones’ [what the hell are Nardoo Stones, I asked myself]? It had flicked open as if destined to by a returning reader who had bookmarked the page. I was not that reader, but I instantly got a glimpse of the someone who might have been. The book had flicked open because inside it were a series of six – not the old traditional four – colour passport-sized photos all in one piece, uncut falling out of the book and on to the seat of the car.

I picked up the photos and looked surprisingly at them. I instantly smiled inwardly to myself, thinking that this was probably a series of photos of the last person who’d borrowed this book from their local library across the other side of the city. I imagined that they, as we all do when we have to be practical had had the photographs taken somewhere, possibly in a photo booth at a local shopping centre, and, when they were ready in order to not damage them had slipped them into something that would protect them, something that was handy, something that would slip open easily and be accessible when they got home, something that had recently also been picked up perhaps, that had a reason to be opened again soon as it had a ‘due date’ attached to it, and was still sitting in a handbag: the book from the library.

The photos were colour and were of good quality, but perhaps not from a photographic studio, who would most likely deliver the photographs to customers affixed to some sort of protective card or board that would also include a logo for the store, as you wouldn’t miss a marketing opportunity if you were in business, would you? Out from the white frames looked a face, scrutinising me with no affective tone at all. Yes, these were definitely passport style or identity photos, but for what purpose?

The face looking out of the photos at me was that of a woman. She was middle-aged, a bit older, judging from the jowly neckline. Her hair was neat, short, and a white grey. It wasn’t particularly styled or coiffured, but neatly combed with a left-sided part. Her skin was creamy and pale and had that soft-looking texture associated with age that contrasts so much with the firmness of younger skin. Her skin, slightly darkened around the eyes, and falling as women of a particular age’s faces do, between the eyes, around the mouth, crashing on the neckline betraying or supplying us with a history of having lived, depending on your perspective.

Her eyes were blue, a dark grey blue, contrasting with the makeup that she wore: some foundation possibly some eyeshadow and bright red lipstick that filled her lips, but inappropriately glossy for a photo such as this. The lipstick matched the little bit of her garments that could be seen, telling the viewer something of the way this woman presented herself to the world, especially on this occasion, an important occasion where identity was being captured in a frame, that would be inserted into documentation, stamped and sealed and kept as a standing record of one’s ‘who-ness’.

In the photo she’s wearing a collarless shirt; it looks like a T-shirt, and somehow far too casual for this sort of photograph. There’s too much skin exposed around the neckline, it’s too summery a shot for such a formal requirement, as if the capture of summer didn’t qualify as a ‘real’ photo of the self. The T-shirt is red, with horizontal white stripes which can just be seen around the top of the shoulder line. This tells me something of the woman, who wouldn’t be fat, because we all know what a mortal enemy horizontal stripes are to the obese. And vertical stripes stretch too…

She looked straight ahead, straight into the lens of the camera, as we’re all instructed to do when taking identity photographs. On the production line and on the authority of asserting, depicting, supplying, confirming and assuring of one’s identity you must NOT SMILE.

One’s identity must be neutral, even if you’re always smiling, laughing and animated in your normal everyday life, or conversely a morose, sad, anxious or angry person, your essential identity for capture in this form must comply with that of a living corpse: eyes open and the one bit of your whole body that communicates so much to be held hostage so that not a bit of feeling animates your face at all, as if a smile or frown would somehow invalidate who you ‘really’ were.

So while she’s not wearing a collar on her shirt, she is wearing ear rings [how come they let those through, you wonder], the style that sit close on your ears and look like clip-ons. I have to squint up close to get a good look at them. They’re gold and look like they’ve got three rows of small dark stones on them, rows that run down vertically angled from the outer part of the earlobe to the inner part. Where are these from? The local jewellery store? Seen and then bought because of a sale brochure for a jewellery chain that was found in the mailbox? Mock ups from the local department store? Or something of beauty, and great cost that the woman couldn’t part with wearing, something that spoke of an essential ‘look’ that she inwardly held about herself and that included the framing and adornment and the signs of wealth that these pieces of jewellery held for her. It’s an attractive look, but one that coupled with the lipstick and makeup seem to sit in contrast with the casual attire she’s wearing.

I try to imagine how she’s standing or sitting while having the photograph taken. Is she worried about her trousers creasing? Is she wearing a skirt with the red and white striped T shirt? Did she, as so many women do, fold her skirt underneath her legs as she sat down? Behind her is the starkness of a white background and I wonder if it’s a wall, or more likely a pull-down screen that shields the subject from any hint of the context of everyday life that might be occurring in the background. Identity is not contextual, that is the clear message that we’re being given and that we give when we have these photos taken and supply them on demand to various authorities that seek them. NO CONTEXT they scream, as if it’s even an affront for people to show anything of adornment or individuality, for photos that are supposed to well, differentiate us from each other through capturing some sense of well, individuality…

It must have been taken on a warm day as her neck was so bare, and there weren’t any cardigans, scarves, jumpers or jackets to be seen anywhere. It’s the end of Winter here in Sydney now, so if the photos had been taken and then put inside the novel, they must have been sitting in the library and on the shelves for at least a season, or perhaps more. Had the woman lost them? Had she – as we often do – had the photos taken and then forgotten about them? Had her plans changed and she no longer needed them, and hadn’t thought about them before the book had had to be returned to the library? Had she turned the house, the car and her handbag upside down, reassuring and convincing herself that she had had the photographs taken, she really had as she searched through her bedside drawer and handbag again for the umpteenth time?

Photos such as these are very stark. Taken as they usually for a specific purpose they exist counter to the nature of photography in the modern era with its spontaneous selfies and unlimited digital imaging. This is reminiscent of finding black and white film undeveloped but still sitting in a box brownie. While ID photos serve to differentiate persons from one another in a quantitative sense, they are not animated in a qualitative sense by the very thing that makes us human: the richness of our expressiveness and our emotional life. Devoid of such, identity photos depict us as products, as citizens of a state machine, to be numbered and differentiated from each other by the barest of markers: our hair and facial features, the ultimate determinants of our modern day personal identity.

Was she going on holiday? Updating her passport photos? Using them for membership of a new organisation? Where are photos required that our current forms of identity do not suffice? Most agencies accept our state driver’s licenses as adequate forms of identity, simply because they too have a photo and your signature, that other means that serves to tell the world that you have certified this to be you.

The woman’s photos now serve as my own bookmark and my reading of ‘The Road from Coorain’ will always be inextricably linked with the face of this woman. I have to think and link the two things together in my own mind now too. Why did she choose this book? Was it foisted on her as it had been on me? Was she indeed an Australian trying to find out something of the white history of the country in which she’d been born? Or was she a traveller, or a migrant who was reading this on the recommendation of someone who thought that the book was a great insight into life on the land? As I’d found the photos part way through the book, I wondered if indeed she’d got past where I’m up to now, and had she finished it? The book had clearly been returned to the library, but the photos hadn’t found their way to their own destiny.

What if something had happened to the woman before she’d used the photos for their purpose? What if she’d become ill, had an accident or suddenly – God forbid – what if she’d died? Who knew? In any of these circumstances the book would have eventually been returned to the library, it would have taken its rightful place on the shelves, been marked as returned and back in the fold of the repository of knowledge administered locally through the care of the local librarians. The book, Jill Kerr Conway, she was taken care of, but what of the woman in the photograph? What had happened to her?

I look at her face and think that like Jill Kerr Conway, this woman too may have been born around the same time. I’m googling ‘Jill Kerr Conway date of birth’ and come up with October 9th, 1934. I closely look at the woman in the photo and don’t think that she’s 80 years old yet. But there are age spots on her neck which might also be on her face, covered and well minimised with an application of foundation as it is. Was she reading a story about a contemporaneous woman her own age? Even her own era? Was this a reading of ‘if only…?” Was she reading to fill in the gaps of history? Was she an avid biography reader? Had she travelled to the places mentioned in the book? Or was she wanting to go there at all?

Now I looked at her and wondered. What happened when the equanimity and Buddha-like serenity we all express in these photos was suddenly broken? How would this woman’s features re arrange themselves on her face? What have her years of living, of sociality, of being in the world and belonging tell us as she returns to animate her features to interact with people? Will she slip into an easy smile? Or is her nature that of the grouch who is always irritable and in a hurry? Is she graceful, elegant and aloof? Or an intellectual critic? Gentle, loving, mean, angry, a victim, a hoarder, an angel, a great neighbour, a grieving widow, a woman of the night, a blogger, a secretary, a CEO, a chef, a beautician, hairdresser or a housewife?

She looks like she’s taken the time to care for herself, to present this face to us, so what then would she sound like? Is she empathic, motherly, even grandmotherly and caring? Is she mean-spirited? Would she laugh about having lost the photos and chide herself for her thoughtlessness and prepare to have the photos redone, or would she berate herself and others for losing them and despise the fact that she had to respend money on something again?

I suddenly realise that I haven’t looked at the back of the photos. This tells me something: the photos are printed upside down on Kodak Xtralife Paper. The paper is thin and as I look at the edge I realise that it looks like it’s been cut unevenly, probably with a pair of scissors. Have the photos been taken and printed up at home? And then taken for their purpose slipped in between the pages of ‘The Road to Coorain’?

I’m weary now of thinking about her, of wondering about this woman in the photo with her red lips, her red and white striped top, her bare neck, what these all indicate; her life and her fate. But both of these are about identity, about a woman’s portrayal of herself through a set of images that determine her identity, while the other too is about the identity of Jill Kerr Conway herself. The Road to Coorain is the first of three books that address her life. In one form we have a stark visual form, a shorthand form for confirmation of oneself while the other presents us with hours of reading forming image and meaning in our mind that deepen as we read.

The woman in the photo fell out of a page of Jill Kerr Conway’s biography, and, while I don’t really think that the photo and the author or the place are intertwined, in postmodernity that doesn’t mean to say that they’re not linked, and thinking about all this has taught me that I won’t ever find out the truth and since that is the case, in my own mind they always will be.