Connection and disconnection in our suburbs: Part One

Part I: Connection – everyone’s wanting it

Recently The Conversation published a piece by Julian Burnside which resonated with me and the work that I do. While Burnside was writing in the context of the Australian response to asylum seekers, much of what he wrote about gets to the heart of what I think is an important contribution of my own work.

Burnside argues an increasing sense of disconnection, felt by an increasing number of people, is a major problem in contemporary Australian life. He writes:

People are disconnected so they are not heard, then they shout louder, and are still not heard, so they shout louder and louder until people become afraid of them and shun them and so the downward spiral continues.

I recently submitted my PhD ‘All give and no take? Suburban life and the possibilities for sharing in Australia’ looking at how middle class Australians understand practices of neighbourly sharing. A key finding of this work is that people really want to share, and in expressing this desire understand sharing to be an act of generous giving.

I’ve written about this valorising of giving over receiving both on The Conversation  and over at Shareable. But here I want to write about how important experiences and dreams of disconnection and connection are in shaping attitudes toward neighbourly sharing, and why I think Burnside is right on the money when he argues about the value of taking time to connect, even with those we fear.

In conducting my research, I talked with two seemingly different groups of people. First were those from inner city suburbs who were actively interested in sharing (things, ideas, conversations) with their neighbours and were actively involved in an online sharing network (the Sharehood).

The Sharehood website

The Sharehood website

And second, were people living in the outer suburbs who had no explicit or obvious interest in neighbourly sharing (I will write later about how in setting up the research I set up an arbitrary dichotomy between inner suburban and outer suburban identities).

Housing estate

Housing estate

My research was conducted via qualitative interviews and written correspondence (see Rautio 2009 and Harriss 2002). With many of these people I developed long and ongoing relationships through a process of regular exchange of written letters.

Covering a range of topics, from neighbourhood life, to practices of sharing, to life stories and suburban childhoods, overwhelmingly participants from both groups spoke about their desire for ‘connection’.

According to the Grattan Institute, an independent think tank,

Social connection refers to our relationships with others. More specifically, social connection is meaningful, positive, interaction between people. It makes us feel that we matter, that we are engaged with others and that we are embedded in networks of mutual appreciation and care (Kelly et al. 2012, p.4).

That people desired social connection was revealed in a number of different ways by both groups. First, participants expressed joy and delight when recounting the first-hand experience of sensing that they mattered to those around them. For example, as one man described:

One older lady who I saw a few days after my return said to me ‘Oh you’re back! [Heather] told me she thought you were back!’ They had been discussing my whereabouts – two septuagenarians paying attention to the comings and goings of their young neighbour. That made me feel good and strongly connected to my community.

Second, participants expressed desire for social connection through nostalgic references to a more connected suburban past. One fellow, who had spent some time in Russia, compared Russian life to that of Australia explaining: “Relationships are different [in Russia], [because of] the richness is in your relationships with people over there, like it was here in the ‘50s.” While other participants said things like: “When we were little we used to play in the front yard and, you know, everyone knew everyone and that sort of thing. Now it’s all kind of closed door”, “I don’t know, streets aren’t how they used to be. When I grew up it was likely Ramsay Street Reference to long running Australian television drama Neighbours and now… you don’t really get that” and “We tend to live in our own worlds in a modern society and just don’t care anymore about other people that we don’t have a personal relationship with”.

Similarly when I told one participant that the barista at my local coffee shop knew my order she exclaimed “If the guy in the café knows what you drink, that is awesome and hats off to him for taking time to notice. This is one of the things that we are missing in life now, is connection with other people.”

For Sharehood members, those people consciously interested in sharing practices, many saw the Sharehood network as a way of creating the desired social connection. In response to my query about why she was interested in the Sharehood, one participant reflected: “Well, I suppose I’d be very interested in being part of something. Both the thought of taking part in making a change in people’s lives, encouraging people to connect with each other, and how I could personally benefit from having a community”. When I asked her how she would personally benefit she replied that “I guess… having a community in your neighbourhood, the fact that it’s right there… [there would] be people who you could chat with when you go out your door. Or people might casually invite each other to their houses…” As one of the founders of the Sharehood explained, “I think the main thing for people [joining the Sharehood] is wanting to know their neighbours and wanting more of a sense of community and stuff… Yeah, I reckon for most people it’s about wanting to get to know people”.

In my research, the idea and experience of connection has emerged as neighbourhood trait strongly desired by suburban residents. Indeed not only is it desired, but it is seen as an attribute that is absent from many contemporary experiences of suburban life.

So… what is it that stops such connection from flourishing?

Stay tuned for Part II of Connection and disconnection in our suburbs: Connection – everyone’s afraid of it

References

Harris, J. (2002). The Correspondance Method as Data-gathering Technique in Qualitative Enquiry. Internation Journal of Social Research Methodology, 1(4).

Kelly, J. F., Breadon, P., Davis, C., Hunter, A., Mares, P., Mullerworth, D., & Weidman, B. (2012). Social Cities. Melbourne: Grattan Institute.

Rautio, P. (2009). Finding the Place of Everyday Beauty: Correspondence as a Method of Data Collection. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8(2).

Climate Change is boring

Given the recent release of the Fifth Assessment from the IPCC and the fact that my climate change students challenged the class to provide some kind of creative response to climate change, I thought now might be the time to post my climate change rap.

Climate Change is Boring

Climate change is boring
I’m left snoring and drawing
in the margins
of relevance, the elephants
in the room
are not doom and gloom
as we assume
it’s the action of you
and me too, who
while here proclaiming, exclaiming
at the simplicity
our complicity in maintaining
the status quo, repeat
show of comfortable living
to which we are giving
in to expectations, inclinations
of conformity
we’re f%^&ked
you’ll see.

Engaging the rage and being neighbourly at election time

It’s the Australian Federal Election next weekend, and like most of my friends I’m nervous at the inevitable outcome that will see Tony Abbott become the ‘leader’ of our country. In the run up to the election I’ve been feeling so dis-empowered and so despairing about the political climate of this country.

I’ve thought about leafleting for the Greens, or helping Get Up distribute how to vote cards, but realistically I don’t think this will help. Everything I’ve learned during my PhD suggests that people are not going to change their minds about things simply because a random stranger on the streets pleads with them. Realistically, our politics are often not decided through a rational process of policy comparison, but rather as an ingrained belief in ‘what kind of person’ we are. I vote the way I do because the people around me whom I trust vote in similar ways and I am like them and believe in the things they do (for an example of just how powerful social norms are in subconsciously influencing behaviour I recommend a look at Griskevicius et al’s 2008 paper Social Norms: An underestimated and underemployed lever for managing climate change).

I live in a suburb with one of the highest proportion of Greens Party voters in Australia. I don’t know how most of the people in my street vote, and I can only assume that there is a diversity of views that the sameness of the houses fails to reveal. I do know however that the people living in the house several doors down are Liberal Party supporters. For the past two elections they have had Liberal Party signs in their front yard.

It’s hard to know how to react to such signs when one rides past them everyday – not particularly good for the blood pressure! In 2010 one of my housemates sheepishly admitted to having given the Liberal Candidates fangs and a snot nose, and riding home late one night the Gazelle did yell out an anti-Liberal profanity. But I felt that this year that kind of a response was a helpless cop out, especially given it looks like the Liberals will win by a large margin.

One of the things that irritates me most about our current style of politics is the intense oppositional nature of debate; you’re for or against, right or wrong, black or white, believer or denier. Given the complexity of challenges we face in the 21st century, climate change, refugees, global financial crises, food security, etc., etc., I feel we need a more sophisticated capacity for nuanced debate.

So, I decided to try apply this approach for myself try to engage in some real dialogue with my Liberal voting neighbours.

I was extremely nervous about knocking on their door and I could feel my heart racing as I approached their house. I rang the doorbell and cleared my throat. A man in his 70s opened the door and looked at me quizzically. I apologised for barging in on him and explained that while I did not usually vote Liberal, I was genuinely curious as to why they did. He called his wife, a 79 year old German woman and we stood on their front veranda for at least half an hour and had a chat.

In deciding to knock on their door, I had also decided to listen as openly and respectfully as I could. I allowed myself to disagree but not to argue, to question but not to retort. This is what Tom and Gretchen (not their real names) said:

  1. We can do anything under the Liberals. Gretchen was particularly vocal that in her experience, under a Labour government workers had to be members of the union. She felt that this gave the union enormous power and meant that if she worked harder than one of her colleagues she was no better off – unions were an opportunity for slackers to free-ride.
  • While I didn’t agree with this argument, it kind of made sense. I explained that I thought my generation didn’t really see Labor as being about unions, but that I personally supported unions because of my own experience in the tertiary education sector. Tom actually acknowledged he could see where I was coming from.
  1. Kevin Rudd has the charisma of Hitler. Gretchen grew up under Hitler and felt that Kevin Rudd had a similar charismatic power.
  • To be honest, while comparing Rudd to Hitler may be a little extreme, I too find his charisma creepy. I remember asking the Gazelle what it was that people seem to love too much about him, why is he the golden saviour boy of the Labor party?
  1. Tony Abbott is a really nice guy. According to Gretchen, they saying goes ‘if you don’t want to like Tony Abbott, make sure you never meet him’. Gretchen had never met him but believed him to be honest, trustworthy and a genuinely nice guy.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Gretchen and Tom, the arguments they put forward above make a kind of sense that I don’t find too confronting. It got a little harder when they asked me why I didn’t vote Liberal. I explained that in particular I was concerned about their climate change policy and their stance on refugees (which is not to say the Labour party is necessarily any better). This is how Tom and Gretchen responded:

  1. Climate change is not real. According to Gretchen climate change is crap. Her evidence for this was that “Greenland would not be called Greenland if it had always been covered in ice”. As a friend pointed out, Greenland was actually called Greenland by Vikings who were trying to make it sound appealing to settlers… Gretchen was also concerned that if we were actually going to take climate change seriously, then we’d be required to go back to living by candlelight.
  • This argument had me flummoxed. I didn’t know whether to burst out laughing or to cry. I did tell them I disagreed to which they responded with a story about how the science of smoking was wrong and it wasn’t actually bad for you – they were living proof. Aside from not even knowing how to respond, neither Gretchen nor Tom was open to listening and anyway, that wasn’t why I was there.
  1. Refugees are paid to stir up trouble. Despite having grown up under Hitler and fled war torn Germany, Gretchen had little sympathy for so called queue jumping refugees – those who arrived by boat. In fact, according to Gretchen, someone was paying these people to risk their lives, and the lives of their children, in order to stir up trouble in Australia. Her perspective was that no real refugee would risk the life of their child on a boat like that. She left Germany because they had nowhere to live, but if it had involved a leaky boat, she would rather have died with them at home.
  • Needless to say I found this very hard to take. I had to stop myself from bursting into tears. I told her I disagreed but she was adamant.

Despite Tom and Gretchen having such radically different views to me, we did actually share some common perspectives. In particular, we all survived off extremely low incomes and felt rich in doing so. We talked in wonder about ‘those people’ who spent hundreds of dollars on multiple pairs of shoes. And Gretchen was baking a cake, just like I do.

At the end of the conversation I thanked Gretchen and Tom for their time. In turn they both thanked me for initiating the chat. Indeed Tom was particularly grateful and said that it was a nice change from the hate mail they regularly received. I was surprised to hear how frequently they had received anonymous notes since their signs had gone up.

And ashamed that that could have just as easily been me.

I didn’t change their minds and they didn’t change mine. But perhaps, just perhaps, we got one step closer to removing the fear.

Why is it harder to take than to give?

This writing was originally posted over at www.Shareable.net, an online magazine about sharing – check it out!

Just over a year ago I was given a ‘community cake’. A cake tin full of all the ingredients needed to make white chocolate and blackberry cake. All the ingredients that is, except for one cup of sugar. It was a birthday cake and my challenge was to ask a neighbour I didn’t know for a cup of sugar.

I have to say my initial reaction was one of fear. I thanked my friend, but I was also angry that she’d put me in the position of having to follow through – you can’t do a PhD on neighbourhood sharing and then chicken out of asking a neighbour for sugar!

I’ve been studying the way in which sharing is conceptualised and practiced by Australian suburban residents for nearly four years now. I’ve talked with suburban residents from Melbourne, Australia; some were members of thethesharehood.net (a not-for-profit neighbourhood exchange network whose members tend to be based in the inner suburbs) and others were residents of new housing developments on the edges of Melbourne who displayed no obvious interest in sharing.

It turns out that Australians love the idea of sharing. It taps into a deep seated nostalgia for the imagined (or real) suburban existence of the 1950s. Australian historian Hugh Stretton once said that one of the key characteristic talents of Australia was to be suburban. After all we invented the Hills hoist clothesline and the Victa lawnmower – symbols of domesticity that are world famous (at least in Australia). And nothing conjures up suburbia like ducking over to your neighbour’s house and asking for that cup of sugar. As one of my research participants explained “Mum used to send us next door to borrow a cup of sugar and you know, all that stuff just used to be very normal in terms of neighbourhoods for us”.

The suburban residents I spoke to long for greater connection with their neighbours. And they think that sharing is the way to get this.

But what does it mean to them to share?

The overwhelming consensus amongst my research participants was that sharing was an act of generosity. It was the altruistic and pro-social act of offering, of giving, of lending a ladder, of mowing the neighbour’s lawn, baby sitting local kids, and handing over that cup of sugar.

Yet very little was said about the asking or receiving of such favours.

In turns out that deeply entrenched in the Australian suburban culture is an inability to ask for anything. To do so is to seem weak, to be, in the words of one of the political leaders of the post war era Robert Menzies – a leaner rather than a lifter. Thus in discussions of sharing, very little is said to acknowledge that in order to give, someone must receive. The problem, as one research participant so eloquently explained is that “In some ways, it is harder to receive with an open heart, than it is to give with an open heart”.

I want to argue that all sharing relationships and exchanges are for-profit. Just not necessarily for financial profit. Hidden beneath this façade, this thin veneer that sharing is an act of generosity is a calculating and clamorous economy of social capital. (For those more interested in the nerdy academic side, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on social capital and the interested cultural economy is worth a peek).

It is within this unspoken economy in which the power of non-monetised sharing lies. Although much of the emphasis on sharing in popular media is on the giving side of sharing,in practice there must be just as many receivers as givers. Non-monetised sharing relies on trust and on shared understandings of social norms and obligations. Without acknowledging it explicitly, the person who is the receiver is also often the giver.

Let me explain. If I approach you to borrow your lawnmower I am asking you to do me a favour and lend me one of your possessions. At the same time, I am offering you a kind of ‘obligation ticket’. According to Australian social norms and conventions (and I can only assume that at least elements of this hold true for other Western contexts) if I receive a favour from you, in order to maintain my social status, I need to be obviously able and willing to reciprocate. Thus on agreeing to receive a favour, I am giving you the freedom to ask of me in return. And in doing so, I am offering you something more valuable than access to my ladder or my hedge-trimmer; I’m offering you the opportunity of an ongoing relationship.

If on the other hand I had borrowed your lawnmower and on returning it I paid you $20, I am essentially ending the transaction and escaping our social contract. According to social protocols I am no longer in your debt (assuming I paid enough) and you no longer have the ‘right’ to knock on my door and ask for a reciprocal favour. The beans have been counted and the exchange is over.

Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t come and ask me for something, in which case you would then owe me. But it is the unpaid obligations that are what creates the rich weave of social life. Sure, we might hate them sometimes, but without obligation, without a debt to pay, without a requirement from our community, we can never have the strength of community bonds that we desire. With meaningful connection comes vulnerability and it is this vulnerability we need to embrace.

Neatly defined and bounded transactions are exactly what the monetised sharing economy is about (although there is great diversity in the monetised economy – I won’t go there today but I think we need more terms than simply monetised and non-monetised). My own experiences of Airbnb suggest that real connections are made between people that wouldn’t have been made had I stayed at a hotel or a hostel. And these are good relationships that deepen my connection with the world and with the people in it, leading me to a more thoughtful inhabitation of my space. While these relationships are positive overall, they are fleeting and the risks are less. It’s easier to move on to a new Airbnb host than to move house. Yet Airbnb is not completely clear cut, you can rate and review people and interactions with individuals need to be negotiated.

Other monetised sharing programs, such as Zipcar, however are a step removed again. Many are run by large corporate organisations and according to the study by Bardhiand Eckhardt for many users it is used purely as a convenience, with no interest in community connection.The relationships between users are clearly defined, the lines solidly drawn. (Shareable published a criticism of the Bardhi and Eckhardt study for drawing overreaching conclusions based on its limited sample size – yet their work is a reminder that not all participants in the sharing economy are alike.)

From my perspective these solid lines, while greasing the wheels of exchange efficiency, function almost as hard boundaries stopping meaningful social connection from developing. Think of making a piñata, the sculpture holds together much more cohesively when the paper is ripped. The ripped edges are messy and fibrous. Using paper that has been cut on the edges, the boundaries neatly defined, the edges squared, it is much harder to create a cohesive whole. We need blurry edges in the creation of a congruent whole; we need blurry boundaries in our communities and not just on our piñatas. Yet the creation of blurry edges goes against so many of our social protocols. As Australian social commentator Hugh Mackay observed in one of his works of fiction:

Conventional wisdom says death is the last taboo in Western societies; in suburban culture, the last taboo is direct, confrontational, investigative conversation. We are more inhibited by our obsession with privacy – our own and each other’s – than by any of the lurid sexual repressions that are supposed to cripple us. The so-called respect for privacy constrains our forays into each other’s worlds to such an extent that most of the treasures on offer are never unearthed (Winter Close, page 131).

And so a year on, I am still dithering on my doorstep. I can no longer put off asking for that cup of sugar. If for no other reason than I need to report on my experience as a nice way of ending my PhD thesis. Yet the social norms that dictate what behaviour is acceptable make it difficult for me to knock on a stranger’s door and ask. Yet as rock icon Amanda Palmer explains, “Through the very act of asking people, I’d connected with them.” And thus in knocking on a door with an empty cup I am extending a hand of connection to the people who should be my community.

Integrity and the PhD

The findings of my PhD suggest two things; the sometimes annoying web of social obligation is fundamental to strong communities, and that the ability to ask for help is just as important as the ability to give help.

Today, I’m struggling to ensure integrity between my theoretical work and the practice of my life.

I’m  less than a month away from my final PhD deadline. I’ve returned to my home town to attend various social events in what I thought would be that beautiful free space between handing a draft to a supervisor and getting it back. Alas as often happens one of us was running behind and I’ve been frantically trying to socialise and address a plethora of complex and detailed comments on my draft.

I’m finally teeth chatteringly stressed.

Imperfect Companion - October 2010

Imperfect Companion – October 2010

For me however socialising of often not just a cup of tea in the sunshine. I am one of the main counsellors of my social groups and as such it is often my shoulder that is soggy. I had been here no less than two days and had at least three different tear showers from three different people. And as the week progressed it became not only tears in person, but tears on the phone and over the internet. From people I love and care about. People for whom I would, and do, prioritise above all else. I prioritise them above finishing my PhD.

Usually I manage this role with grace. This week I’m not so sure. I find myself wishing I could tell them all to f-off. To give me just one month, ONE MONTH in which my door is allowed to remain shut, opened only to allow the receipt of cakes, kind words, and referencing assistance.

And it is here I find myself in a dilemma…

The findings of my research suggest that a key part of developing and maintaining strong social networks at the neighbourhood level (and this surely applies elsewhere) is the existence of obligation. The existence of an informal accounting system in which, if we wish to access the benefits of community, we must all partake in. This means answering the door at 3am to a friend in tears, dropping someone off at the bus station in our lunch hour, and listening one more time stories of stupid boyfriends/parents/jobs.

And goodness knows that I’ve been on the crying end of such needs before.

I want to be a researcher with integrity.

I want to be the kind of academic who people can look at and say ‘look, she writes about the importance of community and obligation and manages to practice what she preaches.

But oh how this is challenging me now!

How can I sit tap-tappity tapping in my ivory tower about embracing obligations even when they are inconvenient, if I don’t let down my metaphorical hair and allow the needs of the people I love to swarm into and around my tower?

Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair!

Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair!

I think this issue of integrity between work and life is something we often ignore in the research sphere. I know one academic whose work I admire, but can never fully respect becuase of the knowledge that their own lives are so far from the ideals embraced by the work they do. It is a conversation that I think we need to have in order that we, as researcher, can be continued to be taken seriously.

And I know that many of you who have cried on my shoulder this week will read this and probably feel guilty. Know that I’ll chose you every time, that my shoulder is always absorbant and that my heart always with you. Because without integrity between research and life – what is there?

In turn, and also related to the findings of my research (which suggest that the ability to ask and receive can be just as generous as the practice of giving), I need to remember to ask for a sympathetic ear too. Because despite appearances, those of us with soggy shoulders often need a good cry too.

PhD sneak peek – PhD in pictures

In a change from drawing PhD related octopi, I’ve been sketching some ideas for images to go as chapter headings… Reflecting on this I’m taken back to the hours I spent decorating the margins of my homework book in primary school. Good to see I have my priorities straight at this point.

So, as a preview of the story of my thesis, here are some of the chapter images… and in case you didn’t guess it, I’m missing the tricky ones like the introduction and the theory chapters…

Chapter 1 – Sharing for change: Sharing as a solution to contemporary Australian problems [no image yet - any ideas??]

Chapter 2 – Theories of social practice [no image yet - any ideas??]

Chapter 2 - Representations of Australian Suburban Life

Chapter 2 – Representations of Australian Suburban Life

Chapter 4 - Research Design

Chapter 4 – Research Design

Chapter 5 - Rules of Engagement

Chapter 5 – Rules of Engagement

Chapter 6a - Close yet distant: strong ties and prviate lives

Chapter 6a – Close yet distant: strong ties and prviate lives

Chapter 6b - Close yet distant: strong ties, private lives

Chapter 6b – Close yet distant: strong ties, private lives

Chapter 7 - Sharing as social practice: giving to take, taking to give

Chapter 7 – Sharing as social practice: giving to take, taking to give

Chapter 8 - Sharing to change: transactional or transformative change?

Chapter 8 – Sharing to change: transactional or transformative change?

CFS + PhD = Good.

Some people might have thought I was mad to start a PhD while the Gazelle and I were still anxiously and frantically trying to wrangle his CFS. It’s been three and a half years now of PhD octopus wrangling and I’ve been reflecting on why a PhD and (someone else’s) CFS make a good combination. Or why they do for us anyway.

Firstly, doing a PhD gave me a sense of indulgence. It’s something that I do for myself. I’m not working for the man, I’m working for the me, and thus it’s a strong and active decision in which I come first. My PhD is a sign to the world that I am more than the partner of the Gazelle (does that make me a gazellette?*), more than a carer, I am my own independent valuable person.

Stolen independent woman image…

I have to remind myself everyday that I am not stuck in this job because I need the money (it doesn’t pay that well!) but because I want to be here. Of couse, we’re lucky we could afford for me to do this.

Doing a PhD helped me set some boundaries. I  made it really clear to the Gazelle that if he wanted to enter my office (either at home or at work) he had to ask my permission.  Recently he came into my home office and rearranged the power board…  my tired thesis self couldn’t cope and I ended up in a flood of tears. I think he’s realised why I need that seperation between work and the rest of my life. My office is my space and he has to leave his shit at the door.

The second reason why a PhD works well with CFS is that when you are doing a PhD, like when you have CFS, you kind of isolate yourself from normal active life. I don’t get out bushwalking, climbing, riding, nearly as much as I otherwise would because I have no space in my brain to organise such things and because after a hard weeks work, I like to be at home. And so we’re both disabled in a sense. I’m less put out by the Gazelle’s inability to just pack up and go bushwalking for the weekend, than I would be if I worked my ideal three day per week job.

It’s also been a good combination because, now that he’s finally got a bit more energy, it’s my turn to be demanding. Not that we have a balance sheet listing everything we’ve ever done for each other, but because I’ve put good time and energy into looking after him, I feel much less guilty that I otherwise would have in demanding cups of tea in bed to deal with thesis induced morning panic!

Ahh… A nice soothing cup of tea!

And on final reflection, watching a number of my colleagues struggle to work out how to balance relationships and PhDs, it’s refreshing to finally feel like all that time and effort the Gazelle and I have put into communicating with each other, managing stress, exhaustion and brain fog, is finally paying off. The early days of a CFS relationship were good training for the final push of a thesis!

 

*Interestingly I just looked up the word ‘gazelle’ to see if there was a gender specific version… turns out that Gazelle also means “a beautiful woman of God”… interesting.