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 http://hdl.handle.net/11343/112445.

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I felt like I needed a drink after the anthropology conference

The space described in this post is not in Port Melbourne, but rather an academic conference.

This year I attended my first Australian Anthropological Society annual conference. What happened after the last panel for the conference resonated strongly with my experience across the days. I will warn you that, now I am back to working on my thesis after a couple of months off, it could just be that I am seeing social order everywhere.

Walking out of the building at the end of the conference, I was pleased to find myself walking alongside the familiar face of a once-upon-a-time fellow student who I had not had a chance to converse with for many months. Just as he started the first word of his response to my request for more information about his intriguing statement regarding the impression he had formed about ‘anthropologists’ over the course of the conference, a professor caught up to us and immediately interrupted. “Do you have any coins? Sorry. Do you have any coins?” the professor asked my interlocutor. All three of us stopped walking but, with the professor clearly not interrupting just to make that request, I felt my presence was not welcome. Wondering what the professor needed the money for, and to what extent it was a strategy to shoo me away, I continued walking.

After that, I was extra keen to engage in a ‘decompression’ activity to help manage my re-entrance to the world from the temporally bounded space of the conference; I went to find ‘a drink’.

There had been no announcement about ‘everybody’ being invited for post-conference drinks. There were going to be drinks, but what was communicated by the absence of an announcement was that students like me were not invited. I knew my place.

I also knew my way around the campus. I went to a different on-campus venue in the hope of purchasing a drink and maybe hearing about the conference experiences had by others, but the bar was booked out for the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences Christmas party. This more-financially-lucrative faculty had exclusive use of the bar and courtyard.

A few familiar faces from amongst the ‘low ranking types’ (students and graduates who do not have ongoing employment in a university) were also loitering around. We quickly settled on a nearby pub to direct people towards. Eventually we managed to engage in the familiar practice of consuming beers after an academic event consumption.

These were not the only instances of hierarchy being enacted during the conference and I found being ignored by people with whom I have previously shared many a drink and conversation unnerving. Was I not trying hard enough to be friendly? Was the noticeable avoidance of eye contact really just the result of poor eye-sight?

After the conference, my colleagues had different explanations for why so many people in more senior roles did not acknowledge our existence. Often these explanations implied they were to blame for making staff uncomfortable because they had not finished yet, being forgotten because of not spending enough time on campus, sending a chapter to be read at the ‘wrong’ time of semester, or taking too much time off for maternity leave. Maybe there is no reason to chat with people you already know at a conference, as you should be getting to meet new people anyway. Perhaps everybody was just too busy having conversations about practical, disciplinary matters they needed to sort out with those of their same rank?

Perhaps I am making too much of the sense of hierarchy. However, it seems to be a lens of analysis useful for understanding observations such as why none of my peers even considered greeting an international invited speaker when he was standing alone, wearing an expression that looked friendly enough to me, as he slowly scanned the room during a break. My sense is that the spatial segregation enacted for the drinks and the exclusive dinner were examples of the more pervasive sense of stratification. With the exclusion of students from certain spaces being a shared experience, we could use it to open up broader conversations about our moments of conference discontent.

Other conferences I have been to have not felt so hierarchical in terms of what conversations you are allowed to be present for. If Australian anthropologists want to be hierarchical, maybe that is a choice they are entitled to. However, I cannot help but wonder if it is a case of anthropology academics experiencing marginalisation within the university, and then reproducing relationships of stratification by marginalising those of a lower rank.

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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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