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


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.


The jacket

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…


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!

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…


Modern Milestones: Part One – Parenting and Childhood

Old Milestones New Milestones

Get pregnant Check fertility window with ‘Maybe Baby’
Prenatal classes: breathing No breathing; problem solve crying doll in class
No drugs Pain relief or still no drugs
Stirrups Stirrups
Medicalised birth Birth plan in Birth Centre (with medical backup)
Sleep baby on front Sleep baby on back
Sleep baby in drawer Sleep baby in approved bassinet
Tummy time Tummy time
First smile First smile
Baby photo Hard copy personalised photo book every 6 months
Parents read books to baby Parents turn on ABC TV for kids
Sits up, stands, walks, talks, says ‘Dada’ Sits up, stands, walks, talks, says ‘Dada’
Music Toy First Ipod
Activity Centre toy Own email account from birth
Duplo Lego First Ipad
Colouring in book and crayons Drawing app with artist’s palette
Dress ups First set of headphones
Play Telephone First IPhone
Play at home Read reports on extending activities at childcare
Plays in dirt Plays on astro turf and soft fall playground
Washes hands Disinfects hands
Learn from experience Protect self-esteem at all costs
Give honest appraisal Tell them how fantastic everything they do is
Ignore them while they fight and play Spend every waking moment entertaining them
First racquet and ball First internet server game
First bunch of playmates First Clash of Clan island leadership
Keep quiet Explore feelings
“She stole my ball” “She griefed me”
“I’m bored” – looks for activity “I’m bored” – is given an activity
Rock, paper, scissors Origami app
Share room with siblings Own room by high school
Take book bag to library Harass parents for ITunes card for App Store
First record/tape/CD Opens own ITunes account
First birthday party at home First birthday party at themed play centre
Pass the parcel with one gift Pass the parcel with gifts on every layer
Neighbourhood Facebook group
Diary Blog
Borrow a cup of sugar from neighbour Share horror renovation stories
Attend local school Compete for place in public school further away
Walk to school Driven to school in 4 wheel drive
“Could do better” “Performs well within peer related activities”
One phone at home 2 Ipods, 3 IPads, four phone extensions, 4 mobiles
Phone always rings Phone never rings
Kids TV only on from 3pm – 5pm Restrict screen time to two hours daily
Phone call to school once in six years Helicopter parenting
Holiday down the coast Overseas family holidays
Privilege life experience Privilege life experiences overseas
Home-made Organic
Hunger Satiation
Rose coloured glasses Living in the present moment

“What advice would you give your younger self?”

Recently here in Sydney there’s been a competition on public radio that was very popular. Listeners were asked to phone in and respond to the question, “What advice would you give your 16 year-old self?” The theme of talking to your younger self has been popular recently, with media, competitions, social media and even interest from the arts.

At a modern art exhibition that I attended a few years ago, kids were given pencils and activity cards to complete as they went around and participated/created/viewed the exhibits on show. This was partly to engage and partly to amuse them as the exhibits were aimed at differential levels of engagement from gallery visitors. Some of the exhibits and installations had post-apocalyptic themes which I found very disturbing as an adult. But at this point of the exhibition on the activity cards my kids were asked a similar question: Imagine your future self. What advice would you give your younger self? Having just viewed the exhibit my kids were being asked to reflect on their own lives, on what really mattered as the exercise was aimed at getting to a truth, a reality about what was important in life and this truth needed to be conveyed from a future post-apocalyptic place to a current, younger self. My little one responded with, “I would tell myself to have more sleepovers”. The older one said, “I would say, don’t worry so much”.

Some of the responses to the radio competition have been predictably amusing, “Buy stocks in Apple”, or “Buy Sydney real-estate”, while other responses, indeed the winning response, was more thought provoking as the answer included thoughts on body shape, sexuality, tolerance, acceptance and relationships. What’s going on with these kinds of activities? On the one hand we’re giving sagely advice to our younger selves often about the very things that have bothered us extensively throughout our lives. This is the insight that we’ve developed through maturity. On the other hand, we’re seeking to recreate, or rescript our lives with our new knowledge of these essential truths, “If only I’d known that..”

One woman said to her younger self something along the lines of, “If you think you’re fat now, well let me tell you that you’re not!” But the experience for this woman, and many like her would have been that she’d lived her life imagining herself as fat. In comparison as an older woman looking back, she could now see that objectively, she wasn’t fat as a teenager. But her lived experience as a young woman was that of someone who was fat.

Medical anthropologists talk about the shaping of illness and this includes our perceptions and lived experience of our bodily states. In constructing ourselves as fat, (or skinny, or moody…) we construct our lives accordingly. We view our lives through our prism, through our identity of ‘fat’ and include or exclude ourselves from a variety of activities, pursuits, relationships or situations because of this.

Should we be sharing essential truths based on our own experiences of life with young people now? Would they listen? Would they be insightful into the conditions, dilemmas, lies and unrealities of their own lives?

I always get a sense that there is a feeling of wistfulness attached to competitions like the one on the radio. There is an aspect of truth-telling that we all adore, as with the jester in the medieval court who was the only person who could speak the truth to the Court. We love listening to people list the truths that we all wish we’d known when we were younger. It’s a bit like reality TV only across time spans and generations, “wake up younger me and look at what’s really going on”. There is that ‘aha’ experience from the development of insight and wisdom about the human condition attached to our very personal and individual experiences of growing up. Our youthful naivety is crushed by the release of the contents of our mature time-capsules which seek to convey more real truths than the ones we actually experienced.

However, while the radio competition was fun and insight provoking, I find the art gallery experience with my children more disturbing. At what age can children conceptualise a future self who has feelings, intentions and regrets? Can these really be passed back through a game of imaginative construction, or reconstruction? What are we to do with the knowledge that children gain through this technique? By this I mean that we could ask children directly what they would like to change about their lives right now and they may not be able to answer because they don’t want to admit to the truth of their experience or simply cannot articulate this directly. But through this imaginative form of play and participation in art they are asked to do this.

A similar projective technique is used in Gestalt therapy where subjects are asked to pick up an object from around the house, bring it in and talk about themselves as if they were that object within the Gestalt group session . When you’re one step removed from talking about yourself, it’s much easier to talk about intention, desire, wishes, wants, needs, fears and hopes than it is to do so directly. This is a type of projective identification that we undertake in order to identify a truth about ourselves that we would not ordinarily be able to see, or admit to. I participated in this activity. What did I pick? Why a light globe of course.

As a light bulb, I have a bright future, but may suddenly become dim and die suddenly. I have the ability to light the way for others but rely on a constant and very powerful other worldly source of energy for which I need a constant supply in order to fulfil my role. When I’m on, people may take me for granted, often not noticing my presence until they no longer have a need for me. I’m constructed of a material that makes me extremely fragile, and before I’m put into use I exist in a safe box, the same sort of box that I’ll probably be put into when my light goes out. Inside, I have delicate structures that form my core and allow me to perform my illuminating function.  I’m very useful when I’m switched on, allowing ongoing activity well into the night. Without me, it would be difficult for a lot of things to happen and I literally light up people’s lives. Unfortunately my life is black and white as I only have two states: on and off. However, as a light globe I realise that I’m part of a continuum, that I’m not so unique and that were I to go out, there would be many more who could replace me.

So what advice would I give my younger self?  I’d probably say, “… count yourself in”


Multifaceted, multiple forms of, idealised, theorised about, sustained, rejected, government supported, imposed upon, threatened, painfully recalled, unknown, fragmented, rejoiced in, pretend, genetic, abandoned, migrated, ruined or cherished. You can be a family of one or have a family tree so large and convoluted that it threatens to form a small village and in some countries, often does.

Families – their relationships, organisation, patterns, links of obligation, meanings, structures and activities form the basis of the study of kinship in anthropology, but the fleshed out, lived experience of family life is so much more than anything a genogram can suggest. How do you really represent a relationship between a child and their aunties and uncles in Australian Indigenous communities, a link that may not be close blood, but is based on longstanding tradition and complex webs of understanding and reciprocity? How do the links of families withstand the pressures of enforced migration? And when you visit a cemetery to leave flowers and shed tears for deceased love ones, the office staff will tell you quite plainly that families only come to pay respects for a maximum of three generations, so what does this tell us about families?

Your perspective on families changes as you grow. As a baby, you’re totally dependent, as a child you see other families and wonder, and as you get older you realise that families can be totally individual in their makeup, responses and experiences. Families are the EPITOME OF CHANGE. They change as we change, and as we age our role and place marker in our own families changes too. In middle age, I’m now an orphan, but still remain the daughter of my now recently deceased mother and long dead (and long gone) father.

Do you love your family? All of them? Or hate them? Or hate some of them? We can truly only personally love and hate those we know and this points to the heightened tensions associated with intense personal relationships, their formation, existence and endings. Life is a journey and those related by blood, or spiritual kin or friends who form the nexus of your family life, these people are the ones who accompany us, sometimes only for a time, through our life. It’s often this reality that eludes us, that puzzles us as we often seek permanence, seek concreteness in our existence when none really exists. The bonds of blood (or the spirit if you’re a church goer) often constitute the closest that we really experience of that which is permanent in life. Nothing is permanent though, because even family come and go.

It is with this knowledge that I sometimes look at the faces of my children and yearn to forget that truth of life: that life is temporary, that even while our bonds are strong, resolute, unbreakable, based on the act, spirit and corporeal reality of love, that even these bonds are not strong enough to maintain an unending life. ‘This too shall pass’ I told my daughter today as she worried about going away with the school, worried about going to sleep at night away from her bed, her home, her pet, her routines and her people. ‘This too shall pass’ reminds us of the transience of life, and of the necessity for us to grab it now and live it, whatever that reality is, knowing that its shimmer of impermanence will fade too, and that much like old photos age we too shall fade…

Families can have divergent meanings for us, a truth we recognise as we move through the roles ascribed to us from when we joined them. Individual members may provide the source of much angst at various times, however, we all have a commonality that we share in our families of origin, whether they’re known or not. What is your story? What is your family? How do you epitomise your journey through life with these people? Would you even like them if they weren’t related to you? And what do you make of traditions, of family traditions? Are they part of your life? Do you continue these or remake them afresh? What are your thoughts about continuity and change? What are the values that your family and you uphold, maintain or even reject?
And what about my family? Well, I make it up as I go along – partnering, parenting, being a ‘role model’ and all that, mostly because I didn’t have any of the normal ones when I grew up. My role as a mother and wife I can create, I can carve out that story, inscribe my kind of experiences on that. But my family of origin? That’s a mixed bag; that story is coloured with migration, madness, separation, divorce, extended family life, highly problematic relations and trauma. Hence the blog.

This blog entry has come about partly in response to the lovely Blacklight Candelabra’s ongoing and very entertaining attempts at roping people in to write about themes (a much admired effort I have to say), and partly because I received a message on my phone today that said: “Family Picnic in one month’s time at a park near the city. BYO everything. We’ll have a BBQ, see you then”. My heart sank as I began to envisage excuses to not go. We may go, but why bother? I feel that by attending I’m only really there to provide completeness to my extended family’s version of that which constitutes ‘our family’. If I’m not there, and my husband and children aren’t there, there’ll be a gap. OK, only a gap of four, but a gap nevertheless that, like all family stories if not inscribed by truth will have to made up, imagined, alluded to, supposed about and decided on in my absence because it will have to be filled one way or another. This is because of the nature of families: families are fulsome things and cannot tolerate a void.

Families also don’t get mobile technology: the message came through from someone who had clearly forgotten that all the text messages that I’d received from her over the past few years were still on my phone (and probably a trail of these not-so-cute messages in clouds existed on her phone too). All it takes is a little scroll to remember the recent past, remember the last time we’d had contact and all that was said, or written. Oh, families can make your blood boil.

But that’s only when you look backwards. It’s true that it can also happen when you look forwards, but when you look to your own partner, your own children and your life in your own family, in your own (or at least the bank’s) home, you get to have a lot more say about what happens, where you go, who you see, what you do, and what happens to your own body. You can invent, create and carve out your own future in a way that the nearly dead, asphyxiating, hardened, gossiping, entrenched attitudes that came into existence and killed off your opportunities in life before you even entered the room can never do. Families can be a source of love, but they can also be a million other things that affect who you are and how you live right into the future. However one thing remains the same, the word remains loaded and while common meanings may attach themselves t the word, our experiences of families depends on our place in the queue, our perspective and our experiences.

A real mismatch at work

I do not fit my paid job [but I really fit my unpaid job, doing this (blogging, social media and volunteering) and I love it to boot]. My paid job is DRIVING ME MAD.  I spent the WHOLE DAY attending to forms.  I mean eight hours.  I had a template and I had to run off about a dozen individual FORMS.  Work calls them PROFORMAS.  Why ask me?  Brain the size of a planet and I’m doing PROFORMAS?  I have a PhD  [I’m not trying to be a jerk, just saying]  They know it’s only a matter of time before I throw down the gauntlet and ANNOUNCE that this job is no longer fit for me.  I’m MENTALLY DYING HERE.  Can’t they see the pool of incredible thought blood on the floor in my office?  It’s running from my mind, down my back and onto the ground between the desk and the door.  That’s MY CREATIVITY dying right there.  Leaking out without  stopper.  It’s trying to get out the door.  Maybe I should too…

Maybe I have to be BRAVE and just chuck in the towel and say ‘goodbye’ to the day job and just go.  Who DOES that?  Chucks in the waitressing, the clerical work, the bar job to pursue their dream?  I did it once before, before when I was younger and childless and doing my PhD.  I was going to become an ANTHROPOLOGIST (I DID THAT)!  But do you know how many jobs there are for anthropologists in any medium sized city?  Probably about a dozen.  All in universities, prestigious or otherwise.  If you’re over 40 and doing a mid-career change you don’t stand a chance (someone actually whispered that in my ear once).

The day job has its perks: it pays me.  And having worked on the fringes of academia as a casual for four years, believe me, a regular pay check is unbelievable.  And they pay you over Christmas, and for public holidays.  It just gets better.  This is really SIGNIFICANT.  If you don’t have any work at all, you will really, really appreciate this.

Working at something you love and getting so little reward (financially) because you only work as a casual (ie six months of the year) is SOUL DESTROYING. You can’t pay off a mortgage, buy food and live like an adult.  Maybe I should WANT different things, but I don’t because I too am a product of my environment and seek these things: security, sustenance, pleasure and challenges in my life.  If you continue with insecure work, you’re condemned to living like a teenager.  I HAD to get a REAL JOB.

So what’s a little tedium with the proformas and forms?  I can put up with that.  But it’s a bit like being CINDERELLA, no one really appreciates your cleaning and they just don’t see that inner beauty.  It’s all wasted really.  And that’s not to mention the managers/ugly sisters…

Last year I worked at the same place, but a bit less.  I could ‘value add’ to my work and it was so pleasing.  A little extra to make us think about why we did what we did [and we did good].  A little look at the bourgeoning literature.  A few people talking about their passion and discussing this with each other.  A few extra social functions.  Now, with workplace restructures, industrial amalgamations and following mass resignations and ‘redundancies’ I’m overwhelmed and drowning.  Modern management practices leave me cold.

This might seem like middle class whingeing, after all, what am I complaining about?  I actually HAVE a mortgage, where not a lot of people can do this in my city the way prices are right now.  And I have a GOOD JOB and health care and car insurance blah blah blah.  You kind of do get those things (along with the conservatism that goes into protecting your ownership and things) once you hit middle age.  And I’m so there [but].

I was a teenage rebel, but that’s another post.  Now I’m this.  This is what the road to redemption looks like, but now I don’t care about being redeemed by those whose opinions used to really matter to me once.

I love to fantasise: give up the DAY JOB.  Watch the kids wonder about why they can’t go overseas on school excursions (did you do that when you were at school?  I mean, come on!).  Try to live off what I earn writing, teaching even.  It’s only a germ of an idea, but one I yearn to fulfill.  I’m so weak… BUT one can only continue in a mismatched job for a while.  After a time it becomes so OBVIOUS.  There’s no room to LIE ANYMORE.  The truth always OUTS ITSELF.  And telling the TRUTH is so freeing.  Let’s play a bit:

“I’m off to work in a soup kitchen”

“I’m going to volunteer for an NGO”

“I’m going set up a branch of the CWA ”

“That book is just pouring out of me”

“I’m going to set my house up as cat rescue centre”

“I’m volunteering in the offices of Medicins sans Frontieres

“I’m fostering a young person”

“I’m painting the house black”

“I borrowed that book, you know the one, ‘Teach Yourself Watercolours in a Week‘.  Then I’m going to exhibit”

“I’ve enrolled in a MOOC”

“You’re speaking to the new Neighbourhood Watch Coordinator”

“I’m going to start a blog – wait, I’ve done that”

It’s Friday.  I’ve done my PROFORMAS.  Over the weekend I have more paper meddling to complete.  I think that my mismatch goes deeper: perhaps the managers and bureaucrats were right: you really DO need to have a good fit with your organisation’s VISION STATEMENT or some such thing.  My CAPABILITIES (I mean really, do they know what people are really capable of?) need to fit in with their aims.  Maybe it’s just time to move on…


Desire, change and shopping


Capitalism makes you want things, it’s all about desire.  We all kind of know this.  Buddhists totally understand this.  I secretly succumb to the allure of advertising, much as I try to avoid it.  Glossy ads in the letter box for the local supermarket special on chicken breasts, screaming ads on TV for imported Italian furniture, pop-up ads online promising that I really have won a chance to win an Apple iPhone, the seductiveness of goods displayed behind shopping centre windows so artfully designed and executed that I want to move in and live in the window, even the radio ads that I encounter as I channel surf that gently challenge me to consider my lifestyle options as I age.  They all secretly scream “BUY ME!”  “I AM THE PROMISE OF THE LIFE YOU WANT TO LIVE!”  “I WILL FULFILL YOU!”  But perhaps it’s also just about change, our constant human companion.  I look around my house and I too want things; I especially want things changed around the house.  I want nice things (you define it) and I crave order even though I live in everyday chaos.  And there are also things that I don’t want.  These of course are the antithesis of the things I crave.  I don’t want threadbare carpet, a fence that’s falling over, serious cracks in the walls, leaking toilets (fixed those); I don’t want weeds that have taken over the garden and started growing half way up the house like triffids, missing internal doors, peeling paint, a rotting deck, stained curtains or dirty windows.  But more than just change, I want to self-actualise through my ownership and use of things.  I want the essence of those things to improve me, improve my life and all my relationships. I can see myself in the ads for home improvements, confidently smiling out from the brochure, TV ad and online side ad totally living the life.  Isn’t this the promise of things?  I’m sure it’s the promise of the advertisers.

You can especially see the life cycle of a thing through the desires and satisfactions of children’s wants.  A thing is massively craved, yearnfully longed for and the parental units are harassed interminably until the thing is finally located in situ within the family home.  Days, weeks and even months pass until finally the thing has saturated the deep well-pool of desire that drew it into the household.  We can count cute battery operated guinea pigs, electronic calendar and address books, the computerised drawing pen and pad, friendship bracelet/necklace/BFF kits, ANY board game, a massive amount of craft gear and even 62 coloured Derwent pencils.  But we can’t simply blame children for this, as adults we too are guilty, so very guilty.  One of the latest whizzy blender things sits barely used under the sink in a cupboard as most of the time I can’t be bothered getting it out to use it, and once it’s out it’s a pain to clean it.  And I prefer to do my slicing and dicing with a knife anyway, as I’ve done for years.  But I HAD to have one, because I didn’t have one and I desperately wanted what I thought it offered: salvation through blending, chopping, dicing, whipping, slicing, grating and pulverising.  And I’m not even talking Thermomix here, just a plain old food processor.  Did this turn me into Nigella, Jamie, or either the Good or Bad Cook in the kitchen?  No.  It looked so full of promise in the shop, but once home and out of the box I saw it for the cheap plastic and sharp metal that it really was.  An industrial revolution promise of a more leisured life for the modern woman.  But more than that, it also harked to a permanence, a permanent presence of industrial strength, professional slicing and dicing, Scientific Industrial Man standing by my side as I created grated carrot for my coleslaw.  But that permanence, that solidity, even with a quad-head chopping blade was a myth.  Nothing lasts forever.  And the Buddhists were right about that too.

I’ve come to terms with my stuff more recently and have begun circulating it more frequently.  Anthropologists talk of the hau of a thing, the spirit of an object, in that a gift may be given but the essence of the gift always seeks return, or at least recirculation and eventual return to its original owner.  It’s true then, gift-givers are always seeking something in return.  But this is not a parody or simple imitation of the circulation of the regifted foot spa.  And so the recriminations of the uninitiated begin, “Mum, can’t we please keep these chocolates?  You never let us keep any of the chocolates that are given to us by people when they come over.  Why do you always have to give them away?”  Actually, the last lot of chocolates that we regifted, we didn’t even unwrap to find out what they were…   We hope you enjoyed them (you know who you are).  Through recent need with my family in tow we shop at charity stores, often finding new and novel things to purchase that satisfy the expression of the purchasing gene that we all inherited, and through whose use we of course we attempt to recreate ourselves.  Through circumstance we now buy less, spend less, succumb less to the advertisers and challenge the price tags of new items because of our thrifty shopping.  But more than anything we participate in the circulation of things by taking in a bag of things to donate before we go into the shop to buy.  Well, most of the time.  We always have a bag of clothes, books, CDs, DVDs, kitchen appliances and other stuff we’ve fallen out of love with to pass on.  It’s not gift-giving in the classical sense, but it’s an acknowledgement that things circulate based on desire and need.  If we don’t need or want it anymore, that’s not to say that someone else might need or want it.  And so it goes.  The hau is on its way back.