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.

Photo credit: https://www.newton.ac.uk/files/covers/968387_0.jpg

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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.

Photo credit: https://lib2.csusm.edu/guides/photos/photos/original/AAA_journal_article_in_ref_cited_list__labeled.png?1297109935AAA_journal_article_in_ref_cited_list__labeled.png

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

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Happy reading!

Identity on the Internet


Identity it seems, is fluid and changeable and depends on a lot of things. How do you see yourself? How do you WANT to see yourself? Where is your family of origin?  What sort of groups do you belong to? And what about the family you’ve created for yourself? Who do you hang out with? What sort of work do you do? What are you studying? What are you learning to become? Or even, what hand has fate dealt you, if that’s what you believe? And the most important question, and one that no one really asks outright, but clearly this forms the basis of what we really want to know about each other these days – how do you choose to present yourself?

If the Rachel Dolezal saga has taught us anything, it is certainly that her identity dilemma is not a symptom of the present age, but has been radically transformed by it. The immediate dissemination of the knowledge shared by her parents about her original(?) identity created the kind of transference of knowledge that anthropologists used to call diffusion, very characteristic of knowledge exchange in the era of the internet where everyone, everywhere finds out at once. It seemed that the whole world was shocked, horrified, and in disbelief that someone who was white would seek to represent themselves as black.  Alternatively, there was also support for this position.

Aside from the inherent racism that these sentiments contain, Rachel Dolezal’s choice of identity and how she chose to present herself in her daily life highlights the fluidity of identity through time, space and culture. Is black still black and white still white? Or has this case pointed to the social and cultural categorisation that identity represents?  What about the essential reality asociated with identity (if there is such a thing) and can this be transformed by culture, by an adoption or appropriation of culture?  Is Rachel Dolezal the first person to adopt another identity in the way that she did? I don’t think that, as we all transform and change ourselves throughout our lives. Clearly the issue at stake here related to the tensions inherent in the power relations between black and white in America and indeed point to the same tensions globally.

I am not a scholar of whiteness studies and cannot offer more of a comment than this, but I am intrigued about the ability of Rachel Dolezal to ‘choose’ blackness, much as we choose a partner, a city to live in, a career, a job and a set of values represented through our social, political and economic choices.

Dolezal herself raises the issue of identity construction as reported here: ‘She admits that the controversy, especially the timing of it, caught her off guard. But her hope is that some good comes out of it, if it changes how some people think about identity. “The discussion is really about what it is to be human,” Dolezal said. “And I hope that that really can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”’ http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/16/us/washington-rachel-dolezal-naacp/

All of this debate is intriguing especially when held alongside contemporary social movements, such as the training associated with modern leadership that make claims about authenticity.  Authenticity stands as the leadership sine que non, at least at the moment, to which all knowledge about how to be a good leader is subsumed. To be authentic, to be real, even to be flawed carries with it the badge of the honest, real, leader. To be found out somehow as false within this, is to fail. So if authenticity is at stake as a value, how do we deal with the dilemma of authenticity that Rachel Dolezal represents? Did she not also have a leadership role in her work as a tutor/lecturer at university?  Do we believe what she claims about her identification with black culture and feeling that she too is black as evidence of authenticity? Or is this far too much of a stretch and a betrayal to the lived experience of blacks in America?  Alternatively, understanding the fluid nature of groups, identity and belonging, do we accept her claim of sharedness?

This is a dilemma that I cannot resolve. However it points me to issues of representation that people experience within their everyday lives, and about how identity can be adopted, modified, reworked, even invented and then presented. If the complaint of the modern era is disengagement, is this not partly due to the compartmentalisation of one’s identity? Is a work persona different to the authentic self that you live in your home and everyday life? Can an identity be authentic and be hidden?

We all carry truths about ourselves that may be shared or disclosed but only within certain sets of circumstances, or with certain groups of people with whom we make claims of having a shared history, a set of shared experiences, a shared sense of belonging and hence a shared identity. The ability to keep aspects of one’s self private in this way does not necessarily point to a problem with one’s identity or an inauthenticity, but may instead be part of a lifeplan to care for oneself. I think here of twelve step programs and Alchoholics Anonymous, or other programs where full names and full identities are not necessary for belonging. A shared culture of dependence, of shame, of falling, hitting rock bottom and redemption through a program of shared stories leads to the development of these strength-based communities who rely on the private identity of dependence and the shared journey of recovery for membership.

But what about our identity on the internet? The recent murder in Melbourne of a high profile AFL football coach allegedly by his son highlighted how identities are created, or rather manufactured from fractured pieces of information available electronically. Journalists attempting to create a picture of the alleged murderer highlighted parts of his prolific online diarising, online videos, his world travels and search for an authentic identity, and it seems most importantly details could be gleaned from his now publicised Amazon wish list,

“His Amazon reading wish list fluctuates from titles like Man’s Search for Meaning, to Building Wealth One Step at a Time, and Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help you Find – and Keep – Love”
http://www.smh.com.au/national/walshs-nomad-son-spoke-of-fathers-iron-will-20150703-gi4q9b.html

… when we think about how wish lists are constructed, by hitting the ‘add to wish list’ button available on many online bookstores, can we really suggest that the titles contained there tell us anything very much, anything meaningful at all about the identity of the person who clicked the ‘add’ button? What would any of us look like if our identity were attached to our wish lists? I’m pretty sure that mine would look very expensive, as my wish lists contain only the outrageously priced books that I will never be able to afford to own, but will anyone really pick up on that?

The internet also offers the construction of new identities for authors in much the same way that ‘Anonymous’ or pseudonyms used to function in the print era to protect the identity of both the famous and infamous, or even the sex of the writer. In the same vein, we can now present ourselves as ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’, The [insert adjective] [insert noun]’ or a cute reduced handle on Twitter, or as an anonymised group or page on Facebook, or Tumblr, or with a pseudonym to protect our identity on Instagram and many other forms of social media, not even counting the ones where people try to hook up.

If I could rebaptise myself, would I call myself ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’? Probably not, but would you even find my work if I didn’t tell you something about who I was, what I was trying to write about and what existential state motivates me if I were to simply use my own name?

In academia you trade on your name, people search your work by your name, they quote you by name, attach theories to your name, copy practices ascribed to you and your name, hold discussions and tutorial groups to discuss your work undertaken in your name, and so it seems counter intuitive in many ways to adopt a pseudonym when representing oneself on the internet if you belong to, or aim to belong to and be read by an academic audience. Not everyone does this and there are plenty of websites and blogs set up by people who have become the personification of their product: geography, history, politics, anthropology, writing, all the isms… However, some people do trade on their own name, and I would suggest that this is because they are probably secure enough in their positions, in their disciplines and in their writing to do so. I’m sure that plenty of examples to the contrary exist though as well, which points to the irony of the internet: that both can and do exist at the same time.

So, what does this all come back to? Where can you represent yourself as whole, as complete, as the sum of all your parts? Where can you present yourself, your ideas, thoughts and writings to an audience who will accept the disparate parts that make up your identity? Is personhood a salvo of competing selves? How can we be complete, whole and real in the age of the internet? Or is it silly to imagine that this is what’s required at all, when really, if I’m reading your thesis on gender relations, do I really care about your personal history of alcoholism? Or would this knowledge of your personal history add a depth to your writing and hence my understanding of your perspectives were this public? This is true of so many ‘selves’ that we probably all hold within us.

How to reconcile all of this still remains a mystery to me. Comments welcome please.

Photo credit: http://img.wonderhowto.com/img/14/96/63458281265816/0/remove-your-online-identity-ultimate-guide-anonymity-and-security-internet.1280×600.jpg

Community spaces

We arrived in the next suburb just after the appointed time after parking the car in the main street and walking through a children’s playground, past a mother who was clearly desperate to be out of the house and taking advantage of the last light to let her young children run free on the play equipment before the chill of the early winter evening took hold. We walked along the path towards a gate which had been left ajar with a big cheery handmade sign reading, ‘Music Concert’. Beyond the gate we could see the old bowling green, a great expanse of green space up against an encroaching and overhanging suburbia, where the new developments that overlooked the children’s playground that backed on to the Bowling Green could be seen. Housing, both old and new, like the population of people that dwelled within could be seen nestled up against each other pointing to the density of the area with its mix of double-fronted Federation housing, stylish period semi-detached dwellings, newer houses in the style of a questionable desired modernity and the now more common low rise that was slightly more affordable for this inner circle part of the city, still less than ten kilometres from the GPO as people used to say.

We walked along the path abutted on one side by the old Bowling Green and on the other by the low building that had hosted a thousand darts games, singles winners in the bowling events as well as doubles for both darts and bowls and all that went with the comradery of playing in these friendly events. Inside we found that the timber champions boards and darts cabinet still carried the names of that year’s winners, emblazoned in gold lettering, at least for the years 1969 – 1975. Seems like no one was interested in the darts and bowls winners after that.

As we walked along the side of the building we came to a small set of steps that took us inside. At the top of the stairs a young girl smiled and gave us a program for the afternoon’s event, listing all the names of the performers for the afternoon. We thanked her and walked in, musing that she was a friend or family member of the young music teacher who’s students were performing for us this afternoon to give them experience and exposure to the vagaries and loyalties of audiences, most of whom consisted of their devoted parents and siblings.

The performers disappeared to the little room that could be accessed from the side of the stage, a backroom for the musicians yet still clearly visible to the audience. Here the performers for the afternoon could practice and ready themselves in ‘their space’, even though the intimacy of this space was broken by its visual proximity to the audience outside. This didn’t matter at all. We could hear and see them as they took out their instruments and checked their  sound, offering up a beautiful, warm, audible richness in contrast to the visually stark surroundings of the bowlo.

The bowlo is what this place is affectionately called. Like many other bowlo’s it has a lot in common with the spaces in which people congregate within their local community. It shares characteristics with the pub because it serves alcohol and sells cigarettes; it shares a commonality with the large RSL up the road because it has rules and membership and offers gambling products and the highs and lows of gambling experiences; it shares something with the old community or town hall, mostly evident in smaller townships, not suburban Sydney as the city gobbles up these spaces demanded by communities for hosting and enjoying shared experiences. Many kinds of meetings and community events were held in these spaces and the event today shared a history with this too. It even shared a history with the music teacher and her home, because past concerts were hosted in her front room, with seating in rows, tables outside laden with ‘bring a plate’ offerings and groups of people brought together for a common purpose to create and share in a community event.

We went to take our seats, noticing that the front two rows were vacant, mistakenly believing that this was evidence of the reticence that folk have to taking up seats too close to the front of an event, much like the empty space around the lecturer at the front of an auditorium. “You can’t sit there, they’ve been reserved for the performers” said a woman sitting in the third row. I recognised her as one of the mothers from the local school. After the concert we had a long talk about music, practice, performance and its importance, the calls upon women’s time at home on Saturday’s and how she wanted to return to work, but wasn’t confident about taking up her former occupation in high finance and was thinking now that she might as well be paid for what she does do now for free, which is working as a teacher’s aide. Her children are the opposite sex to my children, so as is the way of these things, we don’t get to get together very much at all. I always get a sense of yearning though, something that rises from within me and that I sense from mums like her that it would be good to have more opportunities to socialise, to talk, to drink, to share stories and perhaps intertwine our lives a little bit more.

We walked around the front and down the side and took up seats behind a couple we recognised from primary school. Our children had clamped eyes on each other in kindergarten and decided that they were going to be firm friends and could hardly be separated the whole year. Of course it only lasted a year and then the differences set in, and then it all fell apart. Still, we knew about maintaining our social graces and said “hello” and sat behind them. We moved along a few seats though so that our family could sit together and commenced the ritual that all modern people swear allegiance to in the ‘in between times’ and all pulled out devices: two phones and an IPod touch and consumed ourselves and our time with the apps on the devices as we ‘checked things’ waiting for the performance to start.

As I looked around I marvelled at how things used to be, at how architects and builders used to know exactly what people needed when they wanted to gather together in a space. I mentally decided that I had to find out what it cost to rent or hire this space, as with life in any city, spaces are hard to come by. “It’s a bit daggy” commented my partner, “and a bit sad”. But while I acknowledge this, I was surprised that someone with historical sensibilities would run a place like this down when it was clear that it had served communities in many ways over the years and continued to do so. These exact places are threatened in modernity, threatened by developers, by public authorities who seek to claim and exploit them and not necessarily for the benefit of the community in which they exist. Spaces like these are rezoned by councils, who promise that the community needs will still be met but that development offers the promise of something more, something less tangible and less ordinary than the taken-for-granted services and spaces offered by the old bowlo.

The timber walls are a pale blue colour, contrasting with the lovely timber champion boards and their gold inked names. The ceiling paint is peeling and the fluorescent lights, while bright and glaring, eventually disappear from consciousness as you become more aware of what is highlighted by them rather than the lights themselves. The room has multipurpose tables along two sides, where one side serves as a repository for the instrument cases and associated paraphernalia that accompany musicianship. Along the opposite wall all the ‘bring a plate’ offerings sit under their shiny alfoil or reflective cling wrap coverings. People are generous, offering chocolate slices with coconut or brightly coloured hundreds and thousands toppings, water crackers and hard cheddars, fruit cheeses or soft camembert, fruit platters with contrasting mandarin segments, strawberries and green seedless grapes, rolls stuffed with chicken, fish and salad that force people to queue again because they’re so moreish, any number of dips and crudités, mini frittatas, an array of juices and water but no one touches the pate sitting out there for too long probably to be safe to eat anymore. Some people just open up a tin of dolmades, but they are appreciated and disappear too, and those donating provided two tins.

As I look around I see the stage on which the children will perform, its small raised and enclosed. Above there are remnants of someone else’s party as brightly coloured streamers, made of crepe paper adorn the top, framing the picture in a medley of mad, slightly torn colour. On the stage itself are music stands purchased from ALDI, instantly recognisable to anyone trying to save a dollar who also purchased them the week they were on sale there. There is a piano, an old brown upright sitting on the left of the stage, but its lonely tonight as there is no accompaniment, no one to set the tone with the smooth sound that piano’s offer. On the wall at the back is the obligatory print, framed and taking centre stage depicting a scene of an Australian outback town, mythic in its representation of both the bush, the town, its isolation and symbolism of the human imprint on the landscape that cities provide at the same time. The hues of brown and ochre are in stark contrast to the shades of blue in the room in which we sit waiting.

We sit musing for a bit longer before the music teacher comes to the front and stands on the floor in front of the stage. By this stage the musicians have taken their seats unbeknownst to all of us with our heads in our laps who will never notice these movements. The children sit, chat with each other as they remake their acquaintances and squirm with their big instruments primed and at the ready for performance. Our hostess, the lovely music teacher with the high regard for our children, warm in her manner, gentle in her teachings, presides over the room and forsakes formalities, ignoring the mandatory welcome about why we’re all here and what we’re looking forward to, instead launching straight into introductions of performer number one who, as the performer to start is one of the youngest in age and experience.

The concert proceeds as children take their spot in the limelight and the instruments play their mournful, rich, mellow sound tortured in part by the learning abilities of those who play the keys. There are surprisingly only a couple of off notes, and only once where parents keen to show their appreciation launched into applause far too soon, actually before the song was completed, accompanied by a rousing “whoop” to boot. We all squirmed in the audience as the concert sounded like a music practice, but with the good grace and expansive love of parents and family applauded at the end like there was no tomorrow to encourage our young and the young of others in their musical endeavours.

The music improves as the young performers extend themselves, both in age and musicianship offering more complex music, more mellow sounds that carry the audience away to another place and time. For a few moments we transcend our dumpy environment as the music carries us away in our minds. The sounds bounce off the fixtures and bodies in the room we inhabit, and as we listen we too as the audience are participants in the creation of the musical experience.

The other people in the club are listening too. It’s unavoidable as the place is so small. It so small that you would use the word ‘intimate’ ironically. Afterwards our hostess thanks us all. She thanks the students for extending themselves, the parents for giving of themselves and presents the students with a gift and certificate to show that she can give back in a memorable way recognising the efforts of her students outside the confines of the monetary and payment regimes that determine relationships between tutors and students. This too is a cultural performance, drawing upon the diversity of cultures represented and the actions of everyone participating in giving of themselves, their talent, their food and offerings, their time and their appreciation.

And this all happens within the confines of the community bowlo. As we consume the food and soft drinks and reacquaint ourselves with parents and families that we haven’t seen for months, I notice that some mothers prefer to lubricate their sociality with a white wine. That would have been my preference too, except for the narrow confines of the stupid diet that I’m strictly adhering to at the moment. If I’d thought for a moment that I could imbibe in a wine, I would have accounted for that though…. And this is something that the space of the bowlo offers too, though not in the same way as the pub or the club up the road; we didn’t really come here to drink.

I try to imagine where this meeting, the afternoon’s concert might have taken place on a cold winter afternoon in lieu of where we were meeting. These halls offer up a space that is significant: it has walls, it has facilities (toilets, a stage), it has tables and chairs and a bar. There is a stage and a backroom, so there is room to stage a performance. It’s small enough to be intimate so that it counts as our space for the afternoon, our event, even if we’re not members here. It’s multipurpose allowing you to imagine creating and/or participating in other community events. It’s cheap to hire, and that is significant. And even though there were no people in the audience unrelated to those performing on stage, I bet that the organisers could have advertised it in the main street and drawn a small crowd in too. We created and were part of a community event. A community event is supported by communities. And that’s who we were.

Photo credit: https://mirrorsydney.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/h-p.jpg

Yearning for and a sense of community

We all need a group of people to belong to, a group with which we share common understandings, common experiences hopefully even a shared history. Once upon a time these groups were clear cut, we belonged to families, extended families, and communities whether geographically bound, or virtual due to our common links. But try as I might, I never feel that I really belong anywhere, and I suspect that I’m not so alone in my plight.

While my work offers me a sense of professional identity, do I want to hang out with work mates after hours? Not usually. I did the other night though because someone was getting married and we all participated in a hen’s night. That’s for another post. And while we have a body of knowledge and practices that bind us, challenge us, inspire us, give us cause to write, speak, teach and help, not everyone’s necessarily on the same page at work and disciplinary differences often rear their heads preventing companionship outside of work obligations.

My family of origin? I have no sense of connection with them anymore, indeed while I often wonder how they’re all doing and am happy to vicariously participate in their lives through what they choose to publicly share on Facebook, I have no desire to socialise with them at all. In fact, I actively seek to avoid them because of a history that I don’t wish to detail here. So my natal family may offer a sense of connectedness through blood, and name and kinship but community? No one was around when I had my children, and if there is a time in your life when you desperately need a community of support, this is that time. And they lived across the city and aside from coming around to see me once or twice, they left me to my own devices.

Except for my sister. As an adult I have found a sense of continuity through my relationship with my sister and her family. There is always someone. And she is this someone who provides my connection with my natal family. She’s good for news, good for gossip and makes good family.

I’ve mentioned children, so how about mother’s group? These women, younger and older were my lifeblood for the first five years of my first child’s life. They offered companionship, a weekly destination and a sense of belonging to a shared cause, that of brand new parenthood. We all stumbled as we learned and loved our weekly get-together as our babies played and we grew into parenthood accompanied by never-ending play dates, coffee and the occasional w(h)ine. But as with all groups, there is a period of coming together before differences force people apart, and now three out of ten of us meet up once every six months or so as our children approach their 15th birthdays.

My neighbourhood? Neighbourhood are funny places. You spend countless hours checking out properties, but not nearly as much time checking out your neighbourhood. We have a great neighbourhood, but neighbourhoods too are built on commonalities, and most of the people on the street either have grown up children who’ve moved out and married, or have toddlers of the opposite sex to my children. We move in parallel universes as the rhythms of life propel us in particular directions, in different time planes.

The school? Schoolyards are funny places too. I desperately wanted to meet parents when my eldest child started school. I was breaking my neck to chat, organise get-togethers, have coffee and meet up with people. I really tried to put on my best face. But some bonds are stronger than others and there was another mother’s group who had bonded strongly and their kids were just starting school… I eventually tired of being looked over, looked past and not included in activities. Or perhaps they just didn’t like me. But now that the children have finished primary school I hear that this mother’s group are still going away with all the family groups that belong to their group. That’s wonderful. That’s the sort of sense of community that I yearn for too, one that stretches across time through all the changes and challenges that living brings. I used to leave the school fighting back tears in the afternoons sometimes. People don’t intend to exclude you, but that’s just how it happens sometimes.

I did meet people from that school, and have made an effort to be close to the parents of my kids’ friends, especially where a connection is created. The unhappy part of this is now witnessing some of these families falling apart as partners grow, change and seek to move away from their partners and children as they recreate themselves anew, or seek to live in and acknowledge the truth of themselves, something that they were unable to do within the confines of marriage. This turbulence makes these friendships turbulent. I’m there for them but they seek me out less and less as they don’t want to intrude.

I joined a community health group recently. I feel like we’re all on the same page, even though there are differences based on age. I share a common bond with this group and we don’t have to gild the lily when we speak. I get that sense of openness that you sometimes experience when you’re on a bus talking to a stranger. You’re not judged, you’re not criticised and you feel accepted. For the part of my life that relates to our health concerns, this group of people are wonderful. Yet even they are a little reticent and I suspect that this comes about because of cultural factors that relate to saving face within their broader community.

High school friends? The maintenance of friendships is a difficult task. This is especially true across time, and while one of my closest school friends and I found each other about ten years ago and realised that we’d both had similarities in how we’d spent our time and that we only lived about ten blocks from each other, we had changed because of the passage of time. We were no longer as close, even though we had spent time growing into ourselves in each other’s company over those fervent years through all our schooling and a little beyond. Joe Cocker helped too.  We both married late and had children about the same age who now attended the same school. Now we move into new paths of shared history making as we move into middle age together.

But everything looks different from the other side. I imagine that everyone else’s life is full, fuller than my own. I imagine you you’re all connected to work, families, mother’s groups, neighbourhoods, schools and groups that hold special interest for you. I’m forever standing in the backyard looking over the fence and imagining that your lives are better, more fun, more active, more social, full of less angst, happier, more fulfilling, more meaningful, full of trips away and fabulous get-together’s and greater opportunities than mine. I’m sure that you all drink less, exercise more, have less fat and sugar in your diet, eat 40gms of fibre daily and don’t need to take Vitamin D supplements. I bet your calendars are full and that weeknight dinners with friends are a common thing and that you have fabulous Christmas’s and holiday abroad annually.

I have to work hard at being sociable these days, even though by nature I’m absolutely not anti-social. I love to talk, and to listen. I love a shared history. I love to grizzle too, and complain and not take any good fortune for granted either. But it’s hard to find a sense of community, a sense of belonging. I think that my inner grumpy self has taken hold and puts people off. I’m going to have my own TV show: grumpy old women – the early years.

But perhaps it’s more to do with my own psychology, my own personal limitations and my own inability to respond, to participate and to give of myself that prevents my full membership in any of the groups I yearn to belong to. Because in truth, in order to be part of something bigger than yourself, you have to be, well, bigger than yourself. Like everything in life, there is reciprocity involved here, both the giving and the getting.

In anthropology we talk a lot about communities. Groups and groupings are the mainstay of our work. We have theories that allow us to conceptualise, discuss, deconstruct and construct the social and cultural factors that allow us to create, sustain and live within communities. We look too at the destruction of communities and theorise about this, along with the factors that lead to successful reconstructions following crises. The way people come together and form, and re-form groups is endlessly fascinating and ever changing. It’s important because after all, groups and groupings constitute our very basis of identity and belonging. As part of this, anthropologists examine all the beliefs and rituals that accompany and dictate life in various communities. In this way we can see how our very identities are tied up with these same communities to which we belong or seek to connect with.

So, after having described some of the worlds in which I circulate, why do I feel so disengaged? Are the reasons social? Or are they personal? Are there structural barriers to my participation and belonging? Or is it merely my sense, my perception? Is Facebook and the creation of its virtual, eternal present community of ‘Friends’ in part to blame? Is it the fact that ‘likes’ are only momentary and not deep enough to be long lasting? Or is it an issue that pertains more to my perception of myself as having less in common with those around me and focusing too much on the differences between us and not the similarities? I imagine that family, church and village used to take care of a good deal of one’s identity in the past, but these structures have changed and we are sometimes left wondering about the replacements, and the void.

Did everyone get an invite to the party except me?  If you want to go to parties then you have to throw them too.