If I was going to be interviewed about blogging by The Geek Anthropologist: 15 questions

 

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(… this is very informal…)

Why do I blog?

When you work outside academia and you’re not actively researching you still want to write, you still want to talk to anthropologists and share something of yourself, your experiences and your insights.  I like blogging because I can write about everyday practices, ‘fun’ blogging and also comment seriously on what’s happening in my workplace.  Of late I like writing about how I fit into an interdisciplinary space.

 

How does my blogging contribute to the production and dissemination of anthropological knowledge?

Well, in writing about everyday issues I bring an anthropological perspective to new audiences, especially when I write about buying second hand clothes, or women in the workplace, or participating in Enjo parties.  I like to think broadly and around everyday practices and I also like to see what they look like from an anthropological perspective.  In saying that though, I still hope to appeal to an anthropological audience, an audience who understand and appreciate the take that I have on viewing and participating in the world.  So that’s how I see how my blogging adds to the body of anthropological work.  It’s a bit like seed funding, so let’s see what it looks like and then decide whether we can grow it.

 

Does my blogging about anthropology affect anthropological practice?

Well, that’s hard to say and hard to know about.  Anthropological practice has some core praxes but these occur in such diverse contexts it’s sometimes really hard to have an anthropological sensibility about it all.  We’re so spread out among sub-disciplinary knowledge and praxis, among geographical, specialty – even virtual areas – and even spread between the arts and sciences, so who really knows?  If blogging is about sharing an anthropologically inspired viewpoint on an issue, on a practice, on something that involves people who are working on some project together, then yes, I do think that what I write about affects our practice.  I can show people both outside of and within the academy something about how I think and work, and hey, if you’re getting more than 10,000 hits for a blog, you must be making people think about something that they’re doing…

 

Who reads my anthropology blog?

Well, I really hope that anthropologists read it.  And those interested in anthropology.  But WordPress lets you tag your posts so you can use this to reach broader audiences, which is really important if you’re wanting to show that you’re ‘thinking outside the box’, and this is important for some audiences, not necessarily anthropologists, but other audiences who are looking to break with standard practices, standard ways of thinking about how people work together, how they provide services and how they move materials, services, people and objects around the globe.  But the analytics that come with the host site don’t necessarily tell you exactly where people come from, only what city and country.  You really have to guess at the rest.

 

Who is my target audience?

Well, if I had my preference I would want to write for an anthropological audience firstly, and because I have an interest in interdisciplinarity I also try to write for a broader, educated audience.  I can’t be too specific about my exact area of expertise and enterprise because I’d probably get the sack from work if they figured out that I was writing about work, work practices and work issues without official permission.  But that said, my target audience is both anthros and non-anthros.  It really depends on the post, on the topic and the issues though.  These change and this affects the audience.  One of the most pleasant experiences that I had recently was when other anthro blog sites picked up my posts, shared links and commented on them.  That’s blogging peer review as far as I’m concerned!

 

How do I separate out the personal from the professional?

Well, my first response to this question would be: do you have to?  If we write from a situated standpoint, a situated space and perspective, then the line between personal and professional becomes blurred doesn’t it?  Look at what’s happened since Writing Culture; we’re in every page we write, aren’t we?  And in the blogosphere, we aren’t restricted so much by the rules around writing that exist in publishing, in academic texts, in conference presentations and colloquia, are we?  This is a freer form that is still becoming, that isn’t set in concrete yet and never can be simply by definition.  So I don’t need to separate myself out from my work, from my perspective, from my comments and insights.  However, I don’t blog about my homelife, my family or my friends (if I can help it).

 

How do I know when I’ve been successful in blogging? 

This is hard to know about too.  If you pay attention to the bloggers, the big bloggers then you’re always going to feel like a failure.  They have hits in the millions.  Me?  I’m lucky to get into five figures occasionally.  I know that there are emerging rock star anthropologists and I believe that they serve a role in getting the anthropological message out there.  We need all sorts of writers, all sorts of anthropological practitioners, all sorts of social analysis going on so I’m not going to criticise anyone for their success outside of the academy.  If anything, I’m all for it.  We all get dragged up this way, all get caught in the upflow.

 

Does success matter?

Well, we all write for an audience so success is relative.  If you develop a readership, then you’re successful.  If no one reads what you write, you’re writing garbage.  I have garbage posts that hardly anyone has read.  I should dump these now.  If they’ve been sitting on the website for nearly a year and no one’s read them, then they’re not successful.  So it does matter.  Having said that, there are some excellent cooperative, academic anthropological blogs that mimic the production of texts in standard publishing, but are available on the web.  Peer review, calls for papers, high end production – and then you have the single bloggers like me, who are sometimes hard pressed to keep coming up with content.  This is a production issue for anyone publishing anything.  It’s not new here.

 

Is it all about the stats? 

Well, we naturally tend towards wanting to find out how much, how many, how often and then to doing some number crunching to make ‘sense’ out the data…. Even if you’re not particularly inclined towards number crunching, the medium – like much of social media – really lends itself to number crunching, so you can’t help yourself.  There are sites that can help you though…

 

But there aren’t always a lot of likes or comments, so how do I know if my blog is having any effect anywhere?

This is true.  While some blogs may have thousands of hits which translate as reads/downloads/views, you don’t always get a translation into discourse, into comments, or even into likes.  Occasionally people will comment, or even like a post, but that’s not often the case.  And I’ve noticed this with larger anthropological blogging sites too.  The issue for me here is: what do people really make of what’s written here?  How do they read/consume what’s said?  Who do they talk to about the content?  Who do they pass the blogs on to?  I find that you get people wanting to comment who are typically mildly upset about what’s said, or seeking further clarification, evidence, or research into assertions that may be made.  But overall, there’s little interaction, which is a shame.

 

Why don’t I use references? 

I have a crisis of legitimacy occasionally and insert references, even though other bloggers tell me I don’t need them.  You don’t need them in this format, but it depends on the blog post and the audience.  If you anticipate that your work may be taken up and translated (this has happened), or posted on a Learning Management System for a course (this too has happened), or disseminated on other anthropological websites that have an academic turn, then, as is the custom and the norm, we too as anthropological bloggers follow this norm.  If I’m not quoting anything knowingly, I won’t bother using references and my preference is for opinion pieces that don’t necessarily rely on the interpretation and translation of bodies of knowledge.  I save that kind of writing for academic discourse within the pages of academic journals.  To my way of thinking, you write for a specific audience, and in blogging I don’t think that everyone’s looking for reference materials.  By all means publish your essays online, and these will include references.  And after all, why demonise references?  References are an acknowledgement of your joining in conversations that have already occurred as you position your own views against these voices.  Always better to acknowledge them and join in.

 

Am I just writing for other anthropology bloggers, and even if I am, is that such a bad thing?

I write for anyone that happens to land on my blog from a search engine, or has happily signed up to receive updates from my website.  If its other bloggers, then that’s great too.  I read their blogs with great interest as bloggers often get opinion pieces out there long before academic articles have even hit peer review.  I support both old forms of writing in academic presses, especially when I manage to get an article in print, as well as new forms of publication through weblogs.  The evolving medium, it’s growing acceptance and the democratisation that blogging allows I watch with relish and interest.  Like all processes, the wheat will be sorted from the chaff…

 

Why am I hiding my identity behind a pseudonym? 

A workplace Code of Conduct prevents me from revealing my identity.  Writing behind a pseudonym is an old and valued practice that has allowed voices that would not otherwise be heard a platform to publish their views.  I see that writing as the Anxious Anthropologist allows me to participate in the same freedoms, paradoxically because of restrictions to publicising my voice, that my writerly ancestors had to contend with.  Elsewhere I use my name and identify myself as coming from a particular space and place, a discipline, a specialty, even a sub-speciality.  But there is a challenge in writing like this that takes you out of your comfort zone, out of the familiar terminology, the same arguments and the usual webs of significance that you weave around your worlds.  And this is fun.

 

Wouldn’t it be better to blog honestly? 

I would love to write under my own name, but as with many things to do so means that you have to be brave, knowledgeable and up to the personal critique that attaches to so many in the blogosphere.  It’s sometimes easier, and more freeing to write as I do.  And that doesn’t mean that I write dishonestly.  Anthropological endeavours can sometimes have the tendency of reporting back, reporting on and reporting about that shares something with the tools of the subterfuge.  Who hasn’t left the tape recorder run on sometimes without consent?  I’ve heard that this happens…

 

Where do I see blogs and blogging in future? 

I see that anthropological blogging, like blogging in many professional endeavours will become the norm, rather than the unusual.  Progressing through courses, moving into postgraduate studies and then into research and/or work will in future include the production of knowledge within spaces not evident now, in group blogs, personal blogs and workplace blogs.  We will all curate our knowledges in this way and make them available to anyone interested in our views, our analyses and our growing bodies of knowledge and practice.  I can’t imagine what blogs will look like, but it is such an accessible, powerful medium for communicating and sharing, I just know that it’s not if we should, but when we will.

Acknowledgements (and respect to): https://thegeekanthropologist.com/

Photo credit: http://vayzo.com/images/stories/designer-glass-frames-for-women-.jpg

 

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

The jacket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the day it doesn’t suit me anymore…

Photo Credit: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-qlHIhjpAv44/Uaz4yFIPSTI/AAAAAAAAAJY/-M7jcBYKTSQ/s1600/business-suit-women.jpg

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

The Placenta Burial

What do you do with a baby’s placenta? When I had my first child I needed an emergency caesarean. I had a blood infection and sepsis. The caesarean was preceded by an oxytocin drip. Then, as my temperature soared the Plan B spinal block was abandoned as a bad idea and I was fully anaesthetised and sent to theatre for an emergency caesarean. The first I saw of my baby was a photo. I still have that photo: she looks like a little alien. But I love and adore that photo. I don’t care how she got here, just that she got here.

Back to the placenta. Even though the birth was accompanied by extraordinary circumstances I still asked if I could take home my baby’s (my?) placenta. I live in a part of the city where this was becoming a more regular request at our local hospital as more women were feeling empowered and taking charge, seeking more input into all aspects of the birth process including taking home their baby’s placenta.

On the radio I’d heard broadcasts about placentas and what people did with them. I’d heard that by eating them you might reduce your chance of developing post natal depression, that you’d replace any missing nutrients that pregnancy had leached from your body, that you could stir fry your placenta with vegetables and serve it with rice, or simply slice off a little bit of the frozen lump and cook it and eat it like liver, Rosemary’s Baby style. Overall the impression that I got was that by keeping and eating it you’d be doing yourself some good. I’m still not convinced about all that I heard but it was interesting that the topic was on the agenda and being discussed publicly. We all want to find better ways of getting in touch with our bodies, our body’s needs and this was certainly part of that discourse, if an unusual part.

The other issue was the symbolism attached to the placenta. It was known in some places as the ‘other mother’ as all nutrition and waste were mediated by, were indeed delivered via the placenta. And it too has its own stage of birth as no birth is complete without full delivery of the placenta or the afterbirth. But the symbolic value of the placenta goes beyond its functionality.

People around the world ascribe various cultural meanings to the placenta, where it is spiritually revered.  Not meaning to oversimplify cultural beliefs, we understand that the Hmong call the placenta a jacket. Following birth, the placenta gets ritually buried in the home, in a central location known to all. The placenta is needed when a person dies as their spirit must locate the jacket and put it on for the journey into the spirit world in order to be reunited with spirit ancestors. This meaning clearly ascribes a sense of completeness to the afterbirth, with an added meaning attached to not only the journey into life, but the afterlife as well.

So, to the slightly bemused looks on the maternity ward’s staff on my request they dutifully packed my placenta in a bag and put it in the freezer ready for me to take home when I eventually left the hospital. My gorgeous little premmie baby and I had to stay in hospital to recover from the sepsis, she a bit longer than I as she had to learn to take my milk. It wasn’t fun to get discharged home without her, but the relief I felt when I went in to feed her six times a day offset all of that.

I had to fill in an official Department of Health form of course to take the placenta home. The form included instructions on disposal of human tissue, the legal requirements and local council regulations around this. Seems like 3 metres or so from a common boundary line were the key determining features of the document. It was scary contemplating burial of human remains, but that essentially was what might happen if it wasn’t all sautéed and stir fried.

In the trendy part of the city where I live, placenta burials were becoming popular. I went to one at a friend’s house, someone from my Mother’s Group. Not only was it a placenta burial, it was the baby’s Welcoming Ceremony. Partners and other children were there too. My kids donned their party dresses, grabbed the well-wrapped IKEA toy snake that we’d purchased as a gift for the baby and raced for the chips, fairy bread, popper drinks and home-made sausage rolls. As it was a placenta burial there were a lot of bad jokes about what was in the sausage rolls, but the best bit was our heavily pregnant friend’s speech about kids. “Children are arrows fired into the future”. There was a lump in my throat when I heard that. That was followed by watching a lump of stuff in a plastic supermarket bag being taken from the freezer and dutifully buried beneath a tree. Then we had more drinks followed by coffee and cake.

Back home at my place I lived with the placenta in the freezer for quite a while. Like nearly five years. My baby was practically starting school and my husband was nagging me about the placenta in the freezer. What was I going to do with it? “Don’t forget that you’ve got your placenta in the freezer” “What are you going to do with it?” “Maybe we could … You’re not going to, you’re not going to eat it?” He was a bit aghast about that. Even after I explained about the hormones and the nutritional balancing and all that. I think I would have made a better case if I’d had a couple of scientific papers to back me up but in my new mum state, up-to-date references weren’t really my thing at that moment. So it sat there, taking up space next to my frozen peas, frozen kid-friendly choc chip muffins and the ice cream from the local ice cream factory, a daily reminder that as an anthropologist interested in ritual I came up particularly short when it came to creating, enacting and participating in my own.

In the end, my little family had our own private ceremony. At that time we lived in a very small house that was very run down on a very busy road in a part of town that wasn’t so fashionable. I don’t think that our neighbours would really have understood or approved of what we were about to do. We buried the placenta in the back garden and said a few words thanking Mother Nature for her help in bringing the children into the world and then buried it and planted some sweet basil on top. I had been upset earlier at the thought of doing this, thinking that this burial somehow signified that a babyhood had really passed, but of course it had: my baby was due to start school in a few months.

So because of the placenta burial I’m now attached to that piece of land at that house in a way that I’m not attached to anywhere else in the world. This is an example of how I’ve formed part of the geographic turn so evident in the social and historical sciences as I imbue this place, this special place as part of my own and my daughter’s psyche. My baby who was now four stood looking at us while I spoke and she asked, “What’s that? What are you doing? What are you putting in there?” I managed to tell her a little something without telling her everything. I felt inadequately prepared for this moment and unusually short of words. Then she ran off to play with her older sister. My husband covered the earth with the soil he’d taken out and then topped it up with potting mix. He brought me the hose and I watered it well and then planted the basil. The little punnet was chock-a-block full of seedlings, and I didn’t have much space so I planted them out in two’s and threes for the little plants to keep each other company. On reflection it was like I was somehow trying to offset the solitary state that death represents. I watered them again and as I stood there, thought about the circle of life with the girls’ voices ringing in my ears as they ran around and played …

Families

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 https://blacklightcandelabra.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/divergent-meanings/ 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 experences.

Magic, medicine and the bathroom cabinet

This isn’t an original idea.  Many years ago I knew a medical anthropologist who investigated the contents of people’s bathroom cabinets to have a look at the kaleidoscopic range of medicines that these cupboards contained.  I won’t replicate her work which was focussed on kids and families, but this so intrigued me that I had to put pen to paper (metaphorically) to take up the challenge that the closed and mirrored doors of bathroom cabinets represent.

The mirrors on the doors are of course heavily symbolic: reflections of ourselves caught betwixt the real world and the world of possiblities that the bodily regimes inside encased in tubes, bottles, packets and single-dose usage containers represent, regimes whose ritual adherance promise both health and beauty to both the novice and the initiated.  And I haven’t even started on the semiotics of the branding and messaging that the advertisers have morphed with the products themselves in bright colours, with both familiar and exotic packaging to produce irresistable products full of promise with sensual scents, smooth applications and teasing ‘tastes’.  I cannot feed my body but I can feed my hair and my skin till they’re obese with product!

Bathroom cainets, bathroom vanities, bathroom storage, shaving cabinets – these are all euphemisms for the wanted and unwanted potions, tonics, creams, pills, ungents, deodorisers, scrubs, perfumes and old but serious left over medications that we all hang on to for fear of, for fear of, for fear of NEEDING these again. In hospitals there are routines, routines that involve checklists and signatures, routines that form part of QA checks that ensure that all the objects that live on a crash trolley (or similar) are necessary, up-to-date and fully available.  Nothing old and out of date here!  We probably need these for our homes as well, but as with much of what occurs at home, this mostly falls outside the purview of governmental regulation (so far).

But why do we hang on to the unnecessary stuff? Part of the answer to this is that we hate waste.  Better to hang onto that bottle of codeine syrup (???) even though we never used it for X, because you just never know when you might need to self-medicate with a powerful, constipating, highly potent and classified pain killing substance.  Who is really going to use this under normal (unprescribed) circumstances?  And that bottle of ear wax melting drops?  We needed those about eight years ago, didn’t we?  And you never know…

One of my favourites is the perennial bottle of wart killer.  That’s a dastardly substance at the best of times.  It takes such a commitment to really properly utilise it.  You need the bottle, an ear bud, some bandaids, Vaseline and about of month where walking around on your feet isn’t a high priority to properly treat warts.  And afterwards why not just chuck it?  Why keep half a bottle of skin burning, toxic liquid that ceases to give any joy once you’ve actually peeled the whole wart, root and all off the foot? I like to keep my secret, emergency meds in the bathroom cabinet.  It’s not the ‘official’ place where my family keep our regular, current pills, tabs and capsules (that’s in the kitchen, above the microwave in an old Christmas cookie tin that belonged to my grandmother in the ’70’s – it has the 3 wise men on it).  Oh no, after a secret binge on whatever has taken my fancy in the fridge/cupboard/lolly drawer at somewhere close to midnight, I sometimes have to head for the Mylanta antacid tabs (double strength), and where do I hide those?  On the top shelf of the bathroom cabinet of course!  No one looks there and I’m the only one in the family with this hideous, secret affliction/addiction.

I think that one of the reasons we hang on to old medicines is partly because of the witchcraft, the magic, the agent of change that these represent for us.  It’s modernity and magic rolled into one.  Even if we don’t need these right now, in the past they have represented a means to change ouselves, usually in the case of pills and potions from a state of ill health to one of health.  These medicines are potent forces, acting on nature in it’s demonic form where illness and injury are the results of its power.  Why return to a state of helpless powerlessness, when keeping the remnants of these substances gives us the immediate power to change the course of Nature?  This power, the power that medicines represent come from science, medicine and the results of research and experimentation over a huge number of years, and so who are we to just cavalierly chuck these down the sink or in the bin when we’ve (mostly) finished with them?  We want to hang on to a bit of that magic, that power, don’t we?

But bathroom cabinets don’t only hold medicine, they also hold the transformative substances that create wellbeing and beauty.  For wellbeing, think of bath salts, fragrant and soothing, filling your nostrils and easing your muscles.  How old is that bottle of hardened salts really? And what about the three cans of spray hair dye?  Even though they originated in a $2 shop and there are about four shades of the rainbow there and that party was, well YEARS AGO, they’re still peeking out of that second shelf aren’t they?  How likely is it that you’re going to use them again before, say Halloween next year???

Worse than that is the room deodoriser, the bottle of lavender spray that was a gift (what, did she think I was 70?), the half used tube of facial scrub and the unopened tubes of peeling facial mask.  Half used?  OK, we did get some use of out them, transformative and all that, but completely new and unused?  This holds another kind of potential, one that is not yet actualised.  In relation to beauty items: moisturisers, make-up, intensive treatments and similar we can only hope to marvel and admire the potential fullly self-actualised beautiful person that we may become through incorporation of these items into our selves.  What if we used it all?  What if we created new regimes of health and beauty that meant our ears were clean, that we smelled of lavender and the pointy wart on the end of our nose no longer signified us as a witch?  Well, in our newly enlived, healthful and beautiful state we could always head for the kitchen cupboards and start on their contents…