Social distance as ‘the gift’ in the #Covid-19 response?

I wrote the below on Tuesday night, so it’s a bit out-of-date now.

Social distancing has flown into my vocabulary this year, as a tangible way I can contribute to not making the current pandemic worse in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. However, it has had me questioning what existing structures provide us with options for acting on and thinking about things, and how problematic these may be.

Leaders in press conferences and images shared on social media by my friends point out that social distancing is not about protecting me, or those ‘close’ to me, but about avoiding the health system in my country getting overwhelmed. This has often been illustrated with a graph of two curves of different gradients, with a steep short one rushing over a horizontal dotted line of the health system capacity and a flatter one remaining under or just poking over. While the science of ‘modelling’ is clearly evoked for authorisation, I knew now was not the time to question it based on this seemingly flimsy dotted line of health system capacity when I saw @amdar1ing’s #CATteningthecurve. catteningthecurve

Memes, like #CATteningthecurve, share information and play on sources of amusement. It’s hardly surprising that they not only play a part in shaping the pandemic, but can help bring some comic relief too. In settings like Australia, I think there’s momentum in anything true enough to joke about. The idea with momentum here is that we owe society to stay home.

‘The gift’ offers a way of thinking about what is owed in society, as many of us learnt through encountering Mauss’s framing in first year anthropology. The gift is not only about what you give, but also what you receive. Receiving creates debt to be repaid through further giving, but this is forging relationships and so society. It is easy to see in formal cycles of ritualised exchange, like the Kula. Whether formally required in tutorials, or informally over drinks, the logic of the gift has also be found in many of the cultural scripts we rely on for not only indicating that we care about and value others but perpetuating social institutions (e.g. who is paying for dinner).

Have the culturally recognised ways of building relationships through reciprocity been interrupted by things changing?

Here in Australia, usually we are called to be better members of society through getting out more. The ‘older persons’ that I spent time with as part of my PhD fieldwork in the suburb of Port Melbourne were often called to participate in social events as part of taking on the responsibility of avoiding that terrible situation of days or weeks passing before your body is found alone at home. Even when the novel coronavirus came on the scene, of course we were called to address the awful xenophobia by going to a ‘local Chinese restaurant’.

Not anymore?

Unless you are a healthcare worker, perhaps social distancing is sort of the only gift worth giving at the moment. This is a bit of a flip. [Sure, there’s the need for the other essential workers and whoever is making, delivering and restocking the toilet paper amongst other things.]

Staying home seems like a manageable activity for most of us, but we know it is not always the case. Family violence and depression risks can go up. Homelessness can include people not housed at all, but also those couch surfing or in overcrowded dwellings. These reminders are not absent from media I have seen, although I cannot name a single policy response I have seen being put forward. I suppose these experiences of violence, suffering and the impossibility of following ‘normality’ are ones we are used to in society; they are already part of the structural violence our society provides the scripts to live with.

Being able to fund staying home has seen some policy response… if you are staying home for certain reasons treated as valid. There is a waiving of waiting times for those who need to be quarantined because of this virus and who meet the social security payment requirements. As campaigners have pointed out, it hardly seems like a fair deal if you cannot afford to keep your home if you are ordered to stay there for [what has been defined as relevant to] the good of the community.

One thing that has been said by the government of Australia is that the response to this pandemic is not going to be used to get the rise in the rate of the payment for those who are unemployed that many have been campaigning on for years.

Maybe there’s not that much change… yet.

Mauss’s work on ‘the gift’ ends on a clearly Keynesian note, and it was used two decades ago by Hage (2000) to reflect on the impoverished conceptualisation of mutual obligation in Australia. Hage (2000: 35) points out that to say ‘you don’t get something for nothing’ to justify those who receive social security payments being required to comply with activities and a particular attitude it misses an important ethical component. Rather, as society we have an ethical obligation to each person; ‘giving to any human other is always giving back since we would have received the gift of their presence the very moment we encountered them.’ The gift has already been given, and we are called into this relationship that demands we see that person as having a life that should be liveable.

Okay, so perhaps the physical connotations of ‘encountering’ are problematic here when we should be at home #CATteningthecurve, but life is messy.

I want to do my bit not to make things worse. I think that means being part of thinking about how new practices come into our existing cultural scripts, as we might not agree with the ethical parameters of what we gain or lose.

We can also think about how we want things to be. What can be done differently from those hegemonic cultural scripts that are part of our world where something like staying home is unsafe or impossible for many people? Maybe @lilacisms is right that it’s two weeks from the 14 March 2020 for academics to be ‘writing “queering the quarantine: towards radical forms of queer isolation”’, but I’m sure that it is already being put into practice.

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Talk at the Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society

I am filling the speaker spot for the July meeting of the Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society, on 22 July 2019.

I think that preserving what people love about Port Melbourne is not only a battle against destructive change, but also a process that makes ‘locals’. Members of the Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society (PMHPS) have been part of this process through sharing fascinating images and amazing stories. Of course working together with other people is the way that Port Melbourne community has long been forged. However, there are times that sharing drawings or photographs and stories not only brings people together and keeps memories alive, but can also make a difference to what is or is not built.

Perhaps, with so much change that has already occurred in Port Melbourne, it may seem like I am trying too hard to find a silver lining or really only clutching at straws. Still, in this talk, I offer my own telling of some of the old Port stories I learnt during fieldwork about Nora the gown maker in Garden City, Allan Whittaker fatally shot on Princes Pier, the legendary shelves of Faram Brother’s hardware, and maybe even the Port Melbourne Football Club. By pointing out how I think the stories have been put to work more recently, I also argue why I think that they really are powerful.

My interest in this topic comes from what I learnt during my 2010-2012 fieldwork in the Port Melbourne community. The research was the basis for my PhD thesis, and I carried it out primarily through joining in with groups and activities, while paying attention to what was happening in the suburb (participant observation). However, through trying to follow what was happening in the present, I could not help but learn some of the stories of the past. Learning these stories changed not only how I saw not only Port Melbourne, but also my understanding of how people can shape what happens in the world (i.e. politics).

The speaker spot is preceded by a meeting, but visitors can attend. See the website for more information.

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Understanding Port Melbourne, now available online

The electronic, open access copy of my dissertation, Understanding Port Melbourne: Accounting for and interrupting social order in a suburb, is now available online at

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Offering a hand as flirting with social order

I look down at my drink; I do not want to look too eager. Would she have initiated this conversation if she did not want me to come back to her place? Would it be too ‘forward’ of me if I make a direct offer? Is there an invitation to be taken up or am I intruding?

In this moment, I am aware that I would like to further develop my relationship with this woman. Is this why I am so acutely sensitive to rejection? I am encouraged to push it a little as the vibe I am catching from the other two people at the table is that it would be a mutual beneficial match.

I am not sure if it would be easier or harder to negotiate if this was not my first visit to this group. Yet the timing is perfect, as I have not booked in anything else that afternoon. Well, it would mean missing out on grabbing some lunch and I would not mind a stronger dose of caffeine than the very weak tea I am drinking at the moment. However, the freedom to overlap types of encounters with people who live in this suburb is exactly what I want for my fieldwork.

This was some of the hand-wringing I found myself engaging in when we were chatting about Jan’s dilemma for the afternoon. Jan had a steam-cleaning contractor coming to clean some of her carpets, but she had things on the floor that needed to be moved. With my heart in my throat, I did end up offering assistance and, with the mediation of one of the other volunteers, it was agreed that I could visit in the afternoon to help move things before the carpet cleaners came.

I perceived Jan to need help because she did not have certain physical capacities. To me, positioning somebody as needing help implies an ordering of capacity. I wanted to be careful about not treating Jan as ‘an object of care’, which suggests that I had the power in the situation to assign object status in the first place. It was not just that moving things for the steam cleaner was going to take up time that she could spend doing something else.

The others present at the table exclaimed out loud that it would be a way for Jan to assist me with my research. In doing this, they represented it as a mutually beneficial situation. I could provide some menial assistance literally in the form of my two hands but Jan would help me with my project.

That Jan would be extending help to me was only named after it was already agreed I could go over to help. In other words, if she declined my offer of help it was not that she would not have been refusing to help me because that had not been named yet. Once I was going over anyway, the situation was represented [re-presented] as one where I was being helped rather than being the helper.

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Another account of my dissertation

I am at that stage in my PhD project of setting the administrative wheels in processes for submitting my dissertation. This is what I say my thesis is:

Understanding Port Melbourne: Accounting for, and interrupting, social order in an Australian suburb
Any account of a place or people relies on the imposition of order.  I present an ethnographic account of Port Melbourne configured in three parts, using the work of Jacques Rancière. First, the material and social geography demonstrate that spatial orders are always underpinned by social order. Second, stories and characters from the suburb reveal such order to only ever be imposed, not inherent. Third, the imposition of order, even when underpinned by the most principled policy commitments, imposes inequality.

In thinking about my title and the little bit of back and forth with my primary supervisor as to what needs to get fitted into the 80 word description (turns out they want quite a clear picture), I have been painfully aware of how much I learnt in Port Melbourne is not in my dissertation. I never expected to say everything, but I still have this imagined ‘final work through’ of the chapters in which countless little stories and observations will be able to be squeezed in, along with many references to the academic literature.

A Port Melbourne sunrise 2015

A Port Melbourne sunrise 2015

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A little story about a walk[er]

For our weekly volunteer shift, a few times I happened to arrive at the building at the same time as this particular volunteer. Even before she had her walker, this volunteer would use the ramp that snaked back and forward, rather than the handful of stairs to the side of the ramp, to enter the building. Sometimes we would exchange a greeting and she would start on her slow, winding ascent while I removed my helmet, locked up my bicycle, found my water bottle and disconnected my pannier bags. I could then dash up the stairs and meet her in the corridor, where she would often hold the internal lift for me so we could travel up the one floor together.

One week, just after she got her walker, I was walking back with her to her house, as she was going to give me an interview. This time, there was no ambiguity that she was kindly helping me out and I insisted on paying for the very inexpensive lunch she was using her walker to carry back from the Chinese Takeaway [yes, named that] shop we had called into to pick up something for lunch. On the walk, this volunteer named what I had noticed; she moved a lot faster with her walker.

However, a single step into a shop or up or down a kerb was annoying. We chose our path to minimise obstacles and part of my general chatter was that she would get good at knowing where the kerb cuts were. As I have suggested above, using a walker did have an impact on what paths were suitable for travel. However, we were able to find a path through.

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Caring about an instance of ‘care for’: I took a man to get his toenails cut and I got a keyring

This is not a story from fieldwork in Port Melbourne, but it does get at some of the themes I look at in my research.

I used to get to see Arthur when he came to visit where I worked. His carefully spoken and polite English, along with with his careful presentation (complete with a hat that would be removed on entering the building), might be captured by a description of him as like many of those newsreaders of years ago. Arthur would waiver between coming infrequently or more regularly. During the last period he was coming quite regularly, he gave me a keyring as a gift. You might already know this; I am sure I have spoken, and perhaps even written about, him before.

Keyring I was gifted

Keyring I was gifted

My worksite at the time was one of those community sector organisations that had been there ‘a long time’ by colonial-Australia standards: they must now be up to a few decades in that same building and the organisation’s existence goes back further than that.

Arthur always explained his visits were to rest his feet. In many ways they were for this purpose. He would enquire after staff, volunteers and other regular visitors and, thinking back on it now, I could imagine his self-talk as he rang the doorbell as, ‘I will call in to rest my feet, but also I have the purpose in mind of enquiring about Steve and Ray.’

Other opportunities would arise alongside the chance to sit down and to have a conversation. I do not know whether the first time his visit overlapped with the podiatrist being onsite was a coincidence, planned by him or carefully orchestrated by my manager. However, he was able to have his toenails done and he was very grateful.

I started wanting to spend more time at the kitchen table during Arthur’ visits not only because I found it interesting to listen to him, but he would accept a carefully offered drink or meal. As his face appeared more drawn, I felt the beverages and food were significant for his wellbeing. Arthur did not seem to ‘have a GP’ – a doctor he would go and see.

When it had been a long time since he had seen the podiatrist, but also being aware of Arthur appearing increasingly frail, I wondered if he would attend the health centre. Not only would he get to have his feet attended to, he might become familiar with the service and that could make it easier to encourage him to have other health issues address in the future. I understood that I was skirting a patronising position: I was seeking professional ways to extend care to him. However, I was fine with my selfish enthusiasm for Arthur to continue to be able to walk over to visit: extreme pain in his feet or a potential future infection left unchecked would impact on my experience of sociality around the table at work. I was used to pushing men into accepting medical care and familiar with the cascading and always ‘interested’ justifications for doing so: the presence of that particular person in the world matters, and more acute care would entail more physical suffering for that individual, greater cost to the health system and would prevent resources (e.g. an intensive care bed) being available for another person. I do not think there is much that is benevolent about care.

A comment from Arthur about his feet was used by me to broach the topic of podiatrists. Almost holding my breath with fear I would snap our relationship by trampling his autonomy, I let him know about where he could once again get his feet attended to. Before too long, we made arrangements for him to call in during a Monday morning – when the health centre had their walk in clinic. As Arthur’ approach to scheduling was a complete mystery to me, I did not expect our appointment to be kept. However, he did arrive on the agreed Monday. I walked down with him to the nearby health centre and helped him navigate his way to the reception counter, through the forms and onto the list for the podiatrist that morning.

I had given him a hand, or at least that is what I like to think. That building such relationships and helping people access services fell within the scope of my job seemed to make it even more fraught than when I make such offers to friends: “This is what I do at work so I could help with making the calls to find out what you need to do.” That Arthur gave me a gift was a little uncomfortable, but I was also relieved that I had been able to maintain my relationship with him. I know it was not under my control, but I still felt proud that my ‘giving him a hand’ was treated as the sort of favour that might be acknowledged with a little present rather than an oppressive assertion of my power as a worker.

This is already a very long post, but I do want to turn my attention to fieldwork. My involvement in relationships of care in fieldwork fell in between how I experienced being a worker and a friend. As an employee, or even a volunteer, there is a very particular formal institution I need to function within. With my friends, these people are part of how I see myself in the world and it is not unusual to move a strong friendship across into different domains with the friendship being the linking thread rather than the particular activities or spaces you find yourselves in. In fieldwork, I was capturing the happenings I observed and trying to observe my own experiences of engaging in the sociality of a suburb.

However, here I have ended up writing about Arthur instead of somebody from Port Melbourne. Am I violating the relationship I had with Arthur all those years ago? Is the fact that I am writing from memory rather than returning to the confidential archives of the organisation I used to work for or the health service any more or less ethical? What about if, instead of a blog post, this was an email I sent a friend either now or back on the very day Arthur and I walked to the health centre? Surely the passing of time renders the telling of my story less accurate, but maybe the distance from the moment allows this [re]telling of the story to be less constrained by a boastful humility.

This post is not trying to smuggle in a convincing theoretical analysis. It is ultimately a bunch of words I was prompted to write by some memories. Arthur is one of those people that I remember often and, when I see this keyring, I do feel sad that I am ‘just’ remembering him rather than answering the door to him as he explains that he would like to rest his feet. I suggested above that I do not think of care as being all that benevolent. I suspect the same is true for caring.

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A new project for PMHPS

Life stories of Port Melbourne Historical and Preservation Society members are being collected. I first joined PMHPS when I was signing up to be part of lots of different groups in Port Melbourne as part of my PhD project fieldwork on the social side of the suburb. Below is part of my contribution.

My earliest memories of Port Melbourne are sitting in the back seat of the car as we went through the area that is now Beacon Cove. Although I was born in Melbourne, for seven years I lived interstate with my nuclear family. At that time, all my grandparents lived in Melbourne, with those on my paternal side in one of Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs and those on my maternal side in one of Melbourne’s western suburbs.

When we came to Melbourne to visit, we generally traversed Port Melbourne as we travelled by car between the two ‘sides’. On these car trips, I saw the area change: roads were closed and constructed and the Beacon Cove estate was built around our modified route. This continued to be the favoured route to visit our maternal grandparents when my nuclear family ‘moved back’ and settled in the south east of Melbourne.

My family never referred to this area we travelled through as Beacon Cove but, rather, as Noddyville — a name with which one of my sister’s friends had furnished us, and one we will still use on occasion to describe a suggested route.

Sometimes researchers change the name and some identifying information about the places they study. But I always told people I was conducting research in Port Melbourne, and I do not use another name for the suburb when I write or talk about the place. I justify my decision on the basis of empirical rigour because if I tried to protect the identity of the suburb it would be more problematic to cite relevant publications, utilise census data or make explicit reference to public debates concerning the area.

Usually people in, or who identify with, Port Melbourne seem pleased that I am writing about ‘their’ suburb. Port Melbourne is an interesting place and a lot has been written about it. My work is just one more voice.

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I guess I am still reflecting on the Liardet Street and Bay Street intersection because people are still negotiating it

The Liardet Street and Bay Street intersection never seems to leave the Port Melbourne policy agenda. The commentary in Port Melbourne on this intersection seems to express fatigue and/or surprise that what to do about this intersection is still being negotiated. It was even noteworthy that there was not a clear record of the number of times this issue has been reported to council, as this message from the current local councillor for the area expresses.  Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 12.48.49 PM

One night in December 2014, I found myself reflecting on the sheer volume of conversations (and blog posts) that have been turned towards this intersection when I happened to be riding my bicycle along Bay Street. Suddenly my reflection and cadence were brought to an abrupt stop as I slammed on my breaks to avoid being run over by a car that had shot through the intersection in violation of the road rules.

I myself have reflected on this intersection before on this blog. In way of summary, during my field work, the council installed pedestrian crossing on Liardet Street. While pedestrians already had right of way when it came to the cars turning into Liardet Street from Bay Street, the pedestrian crossing made more visible this right, and also extended it so that cars travelling along Liardet Street would also be required to give way. Negotiation amongst individuals and was set aside in favour of making visible clearer rules for travelling through the area. However, just like human rights only need to be evoked when people do not have the rights they are supposed to already have (see Rancière 2004), this shows that the fact that pedestrians already had right of way was not adequate. In other words, the written rules were not necessarily the taken for granted order through which people negotiated the intersection.

As I said in my other post, as somebody who crossed Liardet Street frequently, I was impressed with the amount of time I saved as a result of the pedestrian crossing. However, not everybody found the white lines painted on the road as helpful. After the pedestrian crossing was installed I started to hear people complain about trying to walk across the intersection. Perhaps the intersection became visible as an object of reflection when it had been altered and signs were erected? There were difficulties with negotiating movement through the space. I observed the occasional car still failing to give way to pedestrians, but I also saw many pedestrians waiting for a gap in the traffic to cross. This did not demonstrate ignorance of the rules. Many people, including people who do not own cars, spoke about how they tried to minimise the inconvenience the pedestrian crossing caused for cars as they made their way across Liardet Street. In other words, the intersection was still being negotiated.

There seemed to be frustration that the space still needs to be negotiated, both in planning and in passing through the space.

Rancière, J., 2004. Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man? South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2/3), pp.297–310.

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An instance of temporal qualifications for intervening in policy implementation

A little side story that ended up in my Port Melbourne field notes was about Nancy having returned from holidays to find a notification letter that the process had been initiated for the sell off of part of a lane way. The sell of would have blocked the connection to the street of the laneway Nancy’s back gate opened out onto. Nancy used her back gate for taking her rubbish bins out to the street. As she lived in a row house, if Nancy was to continue storing her rubbish bins in her backyard, the only way to take them out to the street would be through her house. Nancy did not find such a prospect appealing and, as the letter stated, she could object to the sell off.

Nancy was annoyed to find the notice, but relieved that she had arrived with a working day to spare before the temporal window for registering an objection closed. Following the instructions included in her letter, Nancy called Council to speak to a relevant council officer. Nancy reported being referred to as a silly old person who did not understand. The person Nancy spoke with treated Nancy as if she did not have a right to speak on this matter. However, as the owner of her particular house, Nancy did have a right. This was an inaccurate and inappropriate comment made by the council staff member.

A councillor who heard this story said, “It should never have happened.” Dismissing Nancy as ‘a silly old person who did not understand’ was not sensible. Anyway, the laneway in question never should have been considered for sale because, being of use to other residents, this particular lane did not meet the criteria to be sold. Nancy’s situation would not have arisen if the policy had been adequately implemented.

Yet, with the way the policy was implemented in this case, if Nancy’s return from holiday or her attention to her mail had been detained for an extra day, the sale might have gone ahead whatever the person on the other end of the phone thought of Nancy. Objections to the sale were to be taken seriously, according to the policy, if they are made by particular people and within a particular time. Policies operate with qualifications.

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