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


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).


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