For anthropologists, is interdisciplinarity ever truly a meeting of equals?

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I recently read a Twitter post which asserted that interdisciplinarity was never a meeting of equals. As an anthropologist working outside of an academic department I met this statement with some unease. Currently, my working relationships are built on a premise of difference, of working with others from bounded, clearly demarcated professions and of thinking critically about if not directly challenging the taken for granted world views in the industry in which I work. I have written elsewhere about the role, function and value of anthropologists in workplaces, but in doing so I wrote from the basis of anthropologists as different but equal.

However, thinking more critically about this has led me to problematize this idea. I don’t believe I’ve adequately taken into account the importance of boundaries, of professions and their knowledges, and the challenges that anthropological thinking may represent for work practices. This is especially true for working in business contexts when we bring anthropological understandings of persons in the world and our armoury of social and culturally based research skills that recognise, situate and give voice to difference into business contexts. Can work environments which may value and seek unifying concepts and ideas tolerate diversity in conceptualisation, in approaches, in performance, in views and at the end of the day, in business practices themselves?

In working across traditional disciplines, we hope to inform and build something greater than the sum of parts. While this is a hackneyed expression, it’s true in my work where my current project challenges and reinvents our products and services, situating what we would be seen to do traditionally in a postmodern context.

I can’t tell my workmates that we are intimately informed by post colonialism in formulating our practices, or that we’re in the process of radically deconstructing our beliefs in reconfiguring power relationships, or that our project is partially informed by cultural theory, whiteness studies or the centrality of thinking about the authority of the first world within globalisation in determining how our business will proceed and upon which specific decisions will be made. But this is in fact, what we are currently doing. And I do try to tell them.

How have we created a space where these practices are okay, more than okay in business? Is this the armoury that partly informs the anthropologist at work outside of the academy? Or am I on my own here??? And how does this and other knowledge affect the decisions made in my workplace? I still ask myself: what does it mean to work with professionals in bounded disciplines?

While we hope that it isn’t so, in fact what I have termed ‘hierarchies of relevance’ do exist when working across disciplines. And this is part of the reflection on power that demarcates one professional group from another. By this I mean that each professional group maintains the boundaries of its knowledge base, its practices, its rules for conduct and less overtly protects the prestige and culture surrounding its existence within the community. Professionals also maintain control over entry, exit and rule breaking within the profession as well as maintaining controls over the education and transmission of the education that helps to create professionals. In this, professional groups control the knowledge base, language, practice and boundaries that form the basis of their professional identity. As anthropologists, we do this too.

So what happens when professional groups collide? I’m not master (or mistress) of the theories behind interdisciplinary thinking, but I do work within an interdisciplinary context and so am familiar with its practices, if not the theories that underpin it.

So in discussions, working on projects, working both internally and externally the issue of relevance often raises its head. If as the anthropologist I am identified as not having the ‘relevant’ expert knowledge, then my contributions are marginalised, often identified as contributing knowledge in some other, exotic way that runs counter to the usual core practices of knowledge acquisition within the business itself. My contributions are ‘interesting’, ‘quirky’, ‘outside the box’ and, paradoxically sometimes also ‘right on target’. In this way I am relevant, but not as relevant as those practitioners who are seen to belong to the core groups, our consultants, experts and the ultimate targets: the consumers of our products and services. Sometimes, I just feel so not-relevant, it’s just not funny.

As an outsider I will never automatically gain entry into the professional groups with which I work. However, if I hang around long enough maybe they’ll give me an honourary membership after toiling away looking at, investigating, updating, improving, teaching on and training people within their disciplines for so long. As an anthropologist I maintain that little bit of professional paranoia that harks back to Anthropology 101 and studies of ritual, sacrifice, demonization and scapegoating, which not so surprisingly still exist and speak to modern day work practices and contexts quite succinctly, especially for those anthropologists working outside of research in business settings where it’s all too easy to take on the identity of the Other.

It would be so much easier to talk frankly about exactly what I do and where I work, but unfortunately that’s not a luxury that I’m allowed right now, due to an array of policies that police my behaviour both publicly and in private, so suffice to say this is the best that I can do. This form of writing however forces me to think ‘bigger’ about what I do, and so while not completely honest is not dishonest and offers food for thought for many anthropologists (I hope) who work outside the academy as I do.

So are we different but equal? Or just different? As the project I’m currently working on gains pace, I find myself central to the think tanks at work, consulted over and beyond my current job title specifications and have access and input into arenas of work that I wouldn’t ordinarily warrant based on my position alone. I went from fear about this project and its implications, to neutrality, to feeling positive, to being involved by responding to requests for inputs, to embracing and now championing this project.

Now, whenever I’m asked I always come to the party and by that I mean that I complete tasks and contribute over and above whatever’s asked. If I’m asked for an opinion, I give it. If a project needs appraisal, I take time to read, review, comment and advise on it. If a vox pop is required to test the feeling and views of staff on an issue pertaining to the change, I’m already all over it (by nature a chatterbox and also keen to find out how my co-workers are going with things generally). Through my silences and non-attendance, I also make clear my views on some work practices, which in less industrialised and unionised times it is difficult for workers to address directly.

Informally I’ve identified myself not so much as a manager in the workplace – my anthropological training and background would definitely preclude this I think – but definitely as a leader. As there are about a thousand theories on leadership, there’s one that fits the kind of work that I undertake in the workplace, that I inspire and the work that I envision as well. And none of this is on my job description per se, but is alluded to as a potentiality, much the same as the potential or capability of any number of workers with contemporary CVs.

So mostly I find that I’m different but equal and have given my peers, co-workers and management a taste of what the social sciences and anthropology specifically can offer to contemporary work settings, both private and public sector organisations. I still believe that the greatest benefit of having an anthropological background lies not so much in trying to attain a position within the academy, positions which are few and far between and not so easily available to women over forty, but in taking up the challenge of flexibly applying our body of knowledge in diverse contexts, of making the theories, theorists, knowledge and practices real.

Do we lose our specialness, our anthropological know-how, our unique identity as globe trotters seeking to document the life of the Other when we’re not surrounded by like-minded, similarly trained professionals like ourselves? Is our knowledge base and are our practices corrupted and diluted because of our work in interdisciplinary settings? I don’t think so. In contrast I believe that we are strengthened by our ability to work across boundaries as anthropologists continue to fight for relevance in contemporary work place settings. We can only make ourselves relevant by, well being relevant. And this is the challenge that I rise to meet when I go to work every day, carrying the identity of the ‘anthropologist’ through all that I do.

And as I’m always blathering on about anthropology I like to think that I’m also educating people who may still think that my satchel secretly holds a pith helmet, notebook and safari suit. But please see my last post for an update on what to wear to work as an anthropologist.

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The jacket

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I’m trying a new strategy at work to raise my oomph and improve my legit appeal. I’m no slouch when it comes to sparring about ideas, concepts and ways of working – in fact I count myself among the innovators and strategists at work. However, my latest theory is that if you’re partnered up at work with a manager who is always – and I mean always wearing suits, including a tie and jacket that never comes off – then as a woman you’re at a disadvantage when you’re not similarly attired. This is probably true for more casually attired men as well, although because of the gendered inflection at work I don’t think so. Not wearing a suit – and I speak here more of the jacket which holds the greatest symbolic value – creates an inequality, a space that is instantly calculated in black and white terms through our cultural understanding of what it means to be influential, respected and in command at work. And if you’re not wearing a jacket, if you’re not suited up you run the risk of being calculated out.

I’ve taken to jacketing up, especially at meetings and workshops where I’m on show and so too are my opinions, perspectives, assertions, theories, explanations, innovations, insights and recommendations. I’m packaging these all up and wrapping them to be presented by what I imagine my audience seeks, or at least seeks to be reassured of: a confident, authoritative, thought leader who will inspire and transform the meeting or workshop in a way that won’t happen (can’t happen) in my very conservative industry if I was in a T shirt and jeans.

I’m finding that jacketing up lends me the kind of authority – and yes, I’ll say it: power – that paradoxically I have challenged in men, as they embodied a workplace subjectivity of which I was not a part, but am finding that I need to borrow and appropriate through this code of dress in order to exert that same legitimacy and authority. After all, I’m not the one judging and evaluating my performance: others are. We all exist within cultural worlds, and I too have to respond to the cues, norms and expectations of workplace cultures as well. And, as I’ve said before, don’t let anyone fool you by saying, “Oh this is informal, don’t worry too much about your speech/PowerPoint/presentation/evaluation” because you’re always being evaluated in the workplace and this is true of how you present yourself in your manner, attitudes and presentation as well as through the products and efforts of your work. It’s not left to the time of year alone when you drag out the PDR form at your workstation to complete for your manager …

We like to imagine that we live and work in enlightened times, but this is simply not true. Articles and blogs appear on social media and in the press with monotonous regularity with the central theme of how the hell are women supposed to manage in the workplace: the glass ceiling, problems for women within business cultures, managing work/life balance, the impossibility of a career structure and managing fertility, then advice aimed at mums on school lunches, childcare and parenting. This is not part of our overt work cultures, their policies, corporate logos or identities but certainly exist in the everyday practices that are inscribed within our everyday work worlds. Just check out who wipes down sinks at work, cleans fridges and organises catering…

Not all these problems will be resolved by simply donning a jacket and I’m certainly not arguing for that. I’m just painting a picture here….

I’m starting to pay attention to the advice on covering your shoulders, suiting up, opting for plain and not patterned office wear and basically wearing the business uniform. Shirts, (mostly) sensible shoes and even pantihose. I can’t come at flesh coloured hose because that’s just too much of a lie: at least black or smoke coloured hose make a statement. But I’m not sure what I’m trying to do here, and will admit that the motivations that may still be inspiring me may not emanate from ‘How To’ women in business handbooks, or the latest thinking on creative leadership, but may exist in the realms of my unconscious, in which case I don’t really know what’s motivating me and may be using this blog piece to explore these themes. Am I trying to make myself invisible? Am I defeminising myself? Have I failed to remake the workplace in a way that I could own by stamping it with my own style? Am I trying to turn into my male counterparts?

This got me thinking: what are uniforms all about? Clearly they are about conformity. But they’re also about letting the work shine through irrespective of the package that produced it. So the thinking goes. This is the line we push at schools here in Australia when we’re arguing with children about hemlines and not subverting the principle of uniformity when they’re trying to wear Doc Martens instead of approved footwear. “It balances out differences!” we argue. “Everyone’s equal!” we rail. “No one’s at a disadvantage!” we spruik.

Uniformity has its advantages: it’s cheaper than buying a huge wardrobe. It’s easier to mix and match. You tend to buy some things that are better quality and hence less affordable, but probably last longer that your usual top and bottom ensembles. Unless you work in the fashion industry or somewhere in the arts (I wish), or outdoors, if you want to be taken seriously you have to dress the part. I should qualify that by asserting that you have to dress the part whatever that means in your industry. Uniformity promotes a teamwork approach and a sense of belonging (I’m told). We’re all wearing the ‘company logo’ or the ‘badge’ by suiting up. At least you signify that you belong in the business world with a suit anyway.

Uniforms mean that you belong in a place because you don’t stand out like a peacock. You also fade into obscurity a bit, which can have its advantages in providing a bit of a level playing field in the gendered sphere of the workplace. You’re heading towards being asexual. Let’s face it, you’re less likely to be taken seriously in that cute floral number with the red and green pattern teemed with a matching cardigan and high heeled black Bo peep shoes… Having said that, I have worked with CEO’s on projects who were indeed dressed like that. As the CEO, there is the opportunity to be the peacock and let’s see anyone tell her otherwise…

Conversely, uniforms do not necessarily mean uniformity. There are issues of gender, class and ethnicity that inflect business wear, its meanings, intentions and embodiment. Not all suits are the same and if you’ve got money you can wear them well. Probably lots of them. I don’t own many suits, but do have a variety of well-fitting jackets and trouser-style pants to match. As I’m not at the high-spending end I have less to invest but the most to lose if I get it wrong. And considering everything I wear to work (almost everything) is second-hand, from Op Shops, Charity Stores, Bargain Basement Sales and NGOs, I certainly face some challenges in getting it together for work. This is a choice that I have made BTW.

Uniformity also dulls individuality, but like many things, if you have enough money to throw at it, I’m sure your individuality will shine through. Me? I make do with a scarf in Winter, but Summer is challenging as the desire to turn up in less, for example thongs (the flip flop kind, not the G String), a short skirt and a singlet top is really strong most mornings. I have come to accept that much like the mask and the role studied extensively in undergraduate anthropology, the insights about the loss of the subject while putting on masks or fulfilling roles still pertain as we as adults morph into the workforce and attempt to fit in, making use of and attempting to fit into whatever the jacket signifies within your particular industry.

Uniforms are also like wearing armour. I can invoke a whole range of metaphors that invoke the compliance required and symbolised by uniforms and uniformity in military settings, and can admit that this too forms part of the reluctance – and paradoxically the desire – to wear the jacket and join my one force with the many to produce something greater, and be part of the victorious, not losing team at work. Amour is made of precious materials, much too like the fine fibres of a well-fitting, tailor-made suit, increasing the magnetism and appeal of that signified by joining the forces and symbolically shedding my individuality to comply with the command structures and personnel in my workgroup, my battalion.

Like all rules, uniformity in attire is merely an external mirroring of the uniformity required elsewhere both in our schools and in the workforce. It is this symbolic statement that I make by donning the jacket at work as I wordlessly tell my colleagues, my managers and directors and clients that I too am knowledgeable of, can understand and interpret and clearly follow the rules. Bodily adornment is a way in which social codes are embodied and enacted. Think pearl earrings and a matching necklace. Bodily adornment too is also a way of challenging authority, but inscriptions on the body must usually be hidden, because once seen, like the knowledge attained through the biting of the apple in the Garden of Eden, cannot be unseen or unknown ever again, marking the individual for symbolic banishment for, like Eve and Adam, their loss of purity in breaking the rules.

In suiting up, I am implicitly making a statement that while I may come from a different background, may have different methods and approaches, use different theoretical perspectives and offer ‘out of the box’ thinking, I can acknowledge my place in the hierarchy, in the workforce, in the culture of both my own workplace and the industry in which I work at large through my allegiance, through my donning of the jacket and all the associations that form a line through history that have informed and modulated modern business sensibilities in the culmination of my putting it on in the morning.  And I wear it well. Sometimes with accessories…

One day I will dump the jacket.  That day will come when I find myself in a workplace culture where the work is paramount, not so much the appearance of the person.  The kind of work culture that I inhabit now can force your compliance in many unspoken ways, of which subtly policing dress codes is one.  However this doesn’t account for everyone, for other people’s responses to me.  While appearances are still so important at work I will continue to show my proficiency in self-presentation through my allegiance to the code.

Until the day it doesn’t suit me anymore…

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How does an Anthropologist add value in the workplace?

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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 phased 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.

 

References:

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

 

Photo credit:

http://undsci.berkeley.edu/images/us101/diversity_problemsolving.gif

An article! An article!

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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.

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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.

Photo credit: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/image/4605466-4×3-340×255.jpg

Ph

Happy reading!

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: http://mq.edu.au/newsroom/2014/11/21/mgsm-announces-major-investment-into-womens-management-education/

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…

Photo credit: https://slayingevil.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/crossroads-sign.jpg

Speaking truth to patriarchal power in the workplace.

When is a staff meeting not a staff meeting? When it turns into a platform for management to simply present their news, their ideas, policies, ‘successes’ and works in progress to a passive audience.

When staff are too scared, or too intimidated by extremely poorly managed restructures and amalgamations and dare not open their mouths in public forums, that’s when you know it’s not a real staff meeting.

When staff are no longer able to question, to query, to contradict or to simply state that they’re overworked and that management should not impose impossible work demands, that’s when you know it’s not a staff meeting anymore.

When the staff who are left are those who desperately rely on a regular pay cheque because they have children, mortgages and rent to pay and may be the only breadwinner in the household and are frightened that they may be marginalised or reprimanded for speaking their views, that’s when you know it’s not a staff meeting.

Just because all the chairs are placed in a circle implying that we’re all on equal ground, this doesn’t make it a staff meeting.

Just because there’s no formal paperwork in the form of a written agenda, giving the impression of informality doesn’t mean that there isn’t an implicit agenda at work. And it’s still not a staff meeting.

Just because there’s a morning tea afterwards with rostered staff having to provide food and drink, in a poor imitation of breaking bread together, it’s still not a staff meeting.

When the only people presenting any items for discussion are the managers, and when asked, “Does anyone want to add anything?” or “Does anyone have anything they want to say?” and you can cut the air with a knife as absolutely no one responds, no one even makes eye contact, you know it’s not a staff meeting. Staff are then reprimanded for not participating in ‘voluntary’ surveys of workplace policies and practices. How can we understand the workplace lament the managers, if we don’t know what people think? This should be evident to managers from the non-response rate, but there’s just no telling people, now is there?

And when a brave solo voice in the wilderness, aka an unhappy female staff member seeks support in her work following two years of workplace struggle shared by everyone is told essentially to “suck it up”, you known that’s not a staff meeting. And my own voice, cut off as I sanitise this post for fear of reprisals is another casualty of poor workplace communications and management. And this is still not a staff meeting.

I’m not going next time, I’m just going to read the email.

These forums should be renamed, “Meet the workers” or “News from the CEO’s desk” or “How to break morale by undermining mid-level professional women at work” or “Policy: the CEOs mandate” It would have been far more instructive to watch reruns of the IT Crowd. At least their management style was amusing.

‘Culture at work’ is the new buzz phrase with human resources and management consultants wanting to own this terrain. They want to define it, to own it, to show you how to modify and change it. They think that they know about this stuff, but we’ve had consultants come and go and we still have a workplace culture, but perhaps not the intended culture imagined by the consultants and management. And it’s clear to see that the culture of this workplace is toxic, where management govern through fear. No one wants to contribute, no one wants to offer an opinion, and anyone who does offer up a view or contradicts the dominant discourse is made an example of.

There is a management culture here that sets itself up as transformational, as being part of progress, of positive change. They hope to usher in a revolution in business practice, in management and in the business of the company itself. But they have failed to ignite the workplace. Most of them have no idea about the business of the company. Few of them have worked at the coalface and are therefore seen as illegitimate in running the company. This is most clearly evident at the staff meetings, where staff are left to wonder if management really know anything at all except how to balance budgets and construct flow charts.

Whatever these meetings purport to be, they are NOT staff meetings. Yes, they are a group of staff who meet, but that’s where the similarity ends. Any implication of staff contributing, except as an afterthought, only in response, only to question, or ask and never as setting the agenda indicates that the process has been set up as one-way communication. Any real suffering can you please leave that at the door as you come in?

And when you sit back and observe what’s going on, you begin to see patterns. It’s the same men who have a go at the women who bravely put up their hands to comment, or to propose an alternate view. And it’s the same men that scurry into these women’s’ offices afterwards to apologise, of course privately apologise after publicly humiliating them. And they always hang their heads in shame and apologise for this behaviour. But then they do it again. They darken women’s doors after meetings just to check the emotional temperature and see if they’ve committed a professional offence again. And it’s the same management structures that support these men because these men provide legitimacy for the work of management, these men provide the police work in hunting out the outspoken women who dare to voice an opinion, who dare to challenge the prevailing views of management, arresting them through public confrontation.

Have I made a contribution through this post to feminist understandings and experiences of the workplace? Is this too a part of what’s known as the glass ceiling? Maybe the glass podium? The glass lectern? The glass microphone? Perhaps not, but it still harks to the construction of women as fragile, as illegitimate in voicing their views and that’s even outspoken women who sometimes draw out the worst in men who oppose and are threatened by them.

And last of all, this example of meetings serves to remind us that it’s a rallying call for all women to speak truth to the power of those men who seek to shatter women’s voices in the workplace.

Photo credit: http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/wiredscience/2011/09/voice.jpg