Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Reflections on a visit to the Wimmera

Classified as: Reflective journal, participant reflections, history and discourse, observations
Edited and updated 22 August for the reasons outlined in the section on ethical considerations at the end of this post.
 
Beautiful 'reflections' on the roadside verge
On 9th August
I went to Wimmera PCP for my final presentation and feedback session. It was a really good visit that has inspired a lot of ideas for me.

Bruno Latour, in 'Writing Down Risky Accounts' (2005) says that social life is always complex and "messy" and that a good report should be able to elicit “networks of actors” and capture “energy, movement and specificity”.

I think this blog has captured some of the 'messiness' of social life and social research, but I don't think this (or my other notebooks or journals) has entirely captured the complexity, and the interconnections.  So, as this is likely my last formal meeting with research participants before I finish my thesis, I would like to try a pictorial essay to capture some of the complexity of colour, movement, networks and  connections.

I will possibly try to do something similar for the two previous feedback sessions, but as they are a while ago, I won't be able to capture so much.

In this essay, I am drawing on my notes and observations from the meeting. The essay thus uses information provided by participants at the meeting, but I haven't included information that could identify individuals, and any mistakes or misrepresentations are my responsibility. There is a discussion of ethical considerations at the end of the post. I'm using photos I took after the meeting, and some publicly available images. In this writing I am drawing on knowledge from my previous studies in history and on general sources such as Wikipedia, so this essay should be seen only as a 'think piece' at present. It is also a draft for some further writing I will be doing in the thesis, where it will be fully referenced.


Where we met in Horsham (image from Google*)
I gave the presentation at the meeting of the Health Promotion Network. There were eight people present and two linked in by videolink. All were women. (There had also been two men present, but they had to leave before my presentation).

 After the presentation, people talked about the challenges of health promotion, such as engaging 'hard to reach groups'. They also talked about community gardens, including this one:

Community garden in Warracknabeal


Other gardens in the area include a school garden and a community garden at Horsham North, and another that involved members of the local Karen community. The gardens have had different levels of success. People in disadvantaged areas may be reluctant to get involved. On the other hand, a network member commented about how people from the Karen community are very actively involved in their local garden and use the vegetables, and how mainstream Australian culture seems wasteful by contrast.

At the Warracknabeal garden, organisers have been making soup and giving it to local people. The community garden is in a central spot in the town, which probably makes it easier to engage people. There are some very engaged community members, one of whom also got some local youth involved recently.  Similarly, some of the teachers at Horsham North Primary School are active in the school garden.

There was some other interesting public information that I became aware of as a result of attending the meeting. The regional Office of Health is planning a 'Prevention Exchange' forum in the area. NAIDOC week had recently been held in Horsham, with a range of activities.

Image reproduced from the Horsham Rural City Facebook page

I was also interested to learn that lentils are an important crop grown in this region.

As Latour might say, the diversity of topics discussed in most meetings illustrate some of the apparent "messiness" of social life. Latour is not using "messiness" in a pejorative sense (and I do not mean it in that way) but in the sense that when researchers try to record complexity it sometimes seems 'messy', because there is so much going on in most social situations.  Underneath the variety of topics I've referred to here there are important themes, illustrating how social determinants, ecology, culture, everyday life and health connect, and are shaped by history. Below are some photos from my visit, and some history, exploring some of these themes further.


Bush near Horsham after the rain
Often along the roadsides in regional areas, there are revegetated areas of natural bush, or remnant bushland that has not been cleared.

For contemporary Australians, even city dwellers, just by stopping beside the road as we drive from place, we can imagine something of what the land was like when Indigenous people lived here, before the white invasion.

No doubt it was different in Indigenous times when areas may have been regularly cleared by 'fire stick farming', but we can get some sense of  the past.

The current day Wimmera and surrounding areas were home to the Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Japagulk and Wergaia peoples. They obtained their food, building materials and other resources from the indigenous plants and animals of the land and had done so for thousands of years.



Raindrops in the bush



Some of the foodstuffs included animals such as kangaroos and emus, fish and eels, but they also had a wide variety of plant foods. Tuberous plants were a key source of vegetable food, including the Yam Daisy, one of the key food sources in this area. Women gathered it using their digging sticks, but also leaving enough in the ground to ensure they grew again next season.


Murnong or Yam Daisy (photo: A J Brown for VRO)




Small plants on the roadside verge near Horsham
Wattle on the road near Horsham

Wattleseed was also an important food source for Indigenous peoples. Many wattles have edible seeds, although we don't know now the full range of which seeds are edible and which are not.




Cleared and cultivated paddock near Horsham
When white people came to this area, first as large scale squatters and then as smaller scale settlers, they cleared the land and introduced imported animals such as sheep and cattle, and started broadscale farming of crops for trade and cash, rather than for local subsistence.

The dispossession of Indigenous people was also a violent process. There were numerous massacres in the present day Wimmera area. Historically this was an invasion by a white society hierarchically structured by class and gender, ruled largely by white men largely from middle or upper class backgrounds. Closer settlement and soldier settlement later allowed people from working class backgrounds to gain some land, but it was still a hierarchical and patriarchal society, in which the production of cash crops or livestock for capitalist trade and export formed the economic basis, and people aimed for individual ownership of land and acquisition of resources.

This was in contrast to Indigenous society, which was generally egalitarian in sharing ownership of food and resources, and in which people were seen to have shared responsibilities to the land rather than individual rights to profit from it. 

White people rationalised the dispossession of Indigenous peoples by saying that they were 'cultivating' the land and making better use of it than Indigenous peoples had, however industrial scale farming has major ecological impacts. These impacts are not just the dispossession and destruction of people and other species, but also the impacts on soil fertility and the high levels of carbon emissions associated with current industrial farming.


Industrial scale farming requires structures of machinery production, storage and transport, illustrated by these pictures of grain silos and fuel tankers in Horsham.



 
 One of the final consumer products of farming within a capitalist industrial society is of course fast food! Horsham has its share of fast food outlets, so a farmer who has spent the day on the tractor working to produce a cash crop of lentils, or wheat, or other foods, could then drive in to town to buy a hamburger.

So on the one hand, here is industrialised capitalist society which has become dominant in Australia over the last 230 years since the white invasion began. Cash crops of grain or legumes, and livestock, are grown on broadscale farms and transported over long distances to be sold to companies which package them or transform them into consumer goods such as hamburgers (or lentil burgers!), to be sold in supermarkets and fast food outlets.  Correspondingly, cars, farm machinery, fuel and fertilisers are imported, or manufactured elsewhere in Australia, and transported over the same long distances to the farms.

Historically, this has replaced a society in which people walked over the land that gave them nearly everything they needed (there was some long distance trade in Indigenous societies). Indigenous societies had shared ownership of land, were relatively egalitarian and, although they affected the landscape, for example through the use of fire, lived sustainably for thousands of years. Industrial capitalist societies produce vast amounts of comforts and consumer goods, but are deeply unequal, and in their present form, ecologically unsustainable.

Health promotion network members can be seen as located at the intersection of these differing social forms. The network includes Indigenous organisations and Indigenous members as well as members of the farming families and the regional township populations created by white industrial society. Network members look after the health and wellbeing of local people. They work to make their local community more inclusive, bringing people together around projects such as community gardens, which encourage healthier and more sustainable ways of eating and living.

But great unresolved issues still underly this work. These issues can be represented through looking at food and transport: can we continue with societies that are based on individual ownership, profit and inequality, and which are making us unhealthy, through sedentary lifestyles and fast food production, and putting our ecology at risk, through carbon emissions and destruction of local environments and species? Or can we learn from societies that were based on principles of communal ownership, respect for land and sharing of resources, but to many people now would be almost unthinkable as a way to live? Local health promotion workers are doing great work within these contested fields, but my contention is that health promotion as a discipline has to engage more directly with these questions about what kind of society we want, and how we can live in ways that are fairer and more sustainable, but potentially involve huge disruption to taken-for-granted social and economic arrangements?




Finally though, the combination of cleared land and natural landscapes is sometimes very beautiful.













Ethical considerations: This part of the project has been approved by the Monash Ethics committee on the understanding that participants are providing information anonymously and discussion is not being taped. I gave participants a project information sheet but they did not sign individual consent forms for individual information to be used. Therefore I can only report my observations in a general way, rather than in a way that links information to individuals. The participants of course know who they are and probably can remember who said what, but I can't record or report anything that would indicate that. In fact, even if new participants had signed consent forms, as previous participants did, the forms would have specified that information would not be reported in a way that could be linked to a particular individual.   I am not able to say, for example, that 'a health promotion worker from a community health service in xx municipality said such and such', because that could potentially identify somebody, even though I did not use their name.

Clearly this means that this report - and anything I publish on the research - can't always include the 'specificity' of actors that Latour is referring to above, and indeed academic writing can be a bit boring partly for this very reason. More broadly, ethical processes that have often been designed particularly to protect participants from certain kinds of risks in medical research - such as invasive procedures, or the publication of personal health information - can in some ways conflict with other ethical considerations in community based participatory research. For example, the requirement that research participants are anonymous while I, as the researcher, am named, carries a risk that I will be seen as the 'author' of all the ideas in this project, whereas clearly many of the ideas come from participants.

Community based participatory research is of its nature a shared project, but formal academic processes and ethical requirements carry a risk that the academic researcher is privileged.  I have done a lot of work on this project and put a lot of thought into it, and I expect and hope to get credit for this. I think, however, there also need to be processes, including ethics processes, to ensure that research participants, as well as academic researchers, are acknowledged as 'authors' of the knowledge created by research. I'm not sure how to do this, but maybe there could be a form of report or article which gives research participants, if they wish, the opportunity to state who they are and how they have contributed to the research. Again, I'm not sure which journals would (or do) publish such articles but it is worth thinking further about.

I rewrote this post on 22 August because I felt that I had gone a bit beyond where I should have in using some information from the meeting that was not directly related to my presentation, and that in using Latour's word "messiness" it might have sounded as if I was suggesting the meeting was 'messy' when that was not what I intended! Some of the risks of participant action research are illustrated here, I guess.

---

* acknowledged according to Google permissions





























Monday, 8 August 2016

"nothing begins when it begins and nothing's over when it's over" - progress report

I've presented on the research project to people in ISEPICH and SGPCP earlier this year and am presenting to Wimmera PCP this week. This is the final stage of the research and I'm trying to get some feedback from participants (or their colleagues) on the findings of the project and the implications of those findings before I finish writing up my thesis.

It is difficult because most people involved have limited time and it is hard to condense the findings and implications down to a 15 minute presentation, and hard for people to give feedback within those constraints too. However I think it is grounding the research - even recognising those difficulties grounds it.  Hopefully the results of this project will feed into ongoing policy and development in health promotion and public health. It's all an ongoing project and this research is just one small part of it.

 "nothing begins when it begins and nothing's over when it's over"
(Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride)

Here's the presentation. Some the slides are a bit hard to read, I can't make them any larger on Blogger, but if you click on individual slides they will come up more clearly.
















Saturday, 30 July 2016

Hows, whys and Ecofeminism

Classified as: theory, reflections

I've been writing my theoretical and methodological chapters and trying to make sense of the fields of theory I've used in developing the research and analysing the findings. These are: health promotion theory, political economy (largely based on Marxist and neomarxist theory), theories of discourse and practice (sometimes called cultural theory, to distinguish them from the economism and structuralism of Marxist theory in particular, I think), ecohealth and ecofeminist theories.

One of the things I have to explain is how I moved from beginning the research with a personal belief in feminism but not a strong over-arching feminist approach, to the current position where I now see Ecofeminism as the strongest explanatory framework for the research findings.

The simple answer is this: there have been over 100 people involved in this research project now, including about 40 as research participants (I will try to include a table with specific figures next week). The overwhelming majority have been female, particularly when you analyse down to 'those employed in the health and community sector' and then 'those who are research participants'.

You can explain the 'how' of this quite easily: women are over-represented in the caring professions and women are somewhat more 'pro-environment' than men, therefore more women are involved in the research. But the 'why' is deeper, and involves asking about things that are generally taken for granted, such as why 'caring' (both paid and unpaid) in this society is predominantly done by women.

For that, I have turned to history and feminist theory, and finally to Ecofeminism, to understand that our public discourse is dominated by exchange, trade, competition, money and hierarchy but is built on a taken-for-granted realm of subsistence, cooperation, everyday life, care and nurturance and 'nature' or the ecologically given.

As I've noted before, in recent history dominant knowledge was patriarchal, created by ruling class white men. Within that knowledge, women, 'inferior races', peasants or working class people and the natural world, were the given - that which constituted, or produced, the natural and human 'resources' that could be traded or fought over (summarised so clearly by Weber, as discussed here).

I have become increasingly impatient with social theory that doesn't deal with gender (as so much of it doesn't). I think that only by understanding this patriarchal world that has created our current reality, can we move on from it - but so many people seem reluctant to do so (partly because it's still all around us, of course!).

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Adjusting to the new reality that's quite like the old one, or maybe not

Classified as: reflections, updates, politics

So the election has not brought any apparent policy change in regard to equity, environmental sustainability and health. There also appear to be some worrying trends such as the election of Pauline Hanson and possibly some other One Nation representatives in the Senate. This is likely to mean continuing verbal attacks against Muslims, and probably against Ms Hanson's previous targets of Asians and Indigenous people. What this will lead to I'm not sure. Previously in Victoria, it seems One Nation was largely defeated by strong positive leadership on multiculturalism and non-violent civil action. I hope this can be repeated but it also needs to extend to other parts of Australia, and we need to understand what the appeal of One Nation is.

Similarly I would say we need to understand what is the appeal of boat turn backs and detention camps for asylum seekers, which are policies of both major parties, so they are not just appealing to fringe groups. I think advocates are doing a really good job of drawing attention to the inhumane nature of detention camps, and that is probably achieving some change of attitude. (Will try to reference this at a later time when I am not working on my mobile). However I think we also need a stronger discussion on why people support those policies and what the alternatives are - I'm sure that's happening but I'm not seeing much of it in the public arena, so it needs to be brought out somehow. I guess it's always an issue of defining the problem AND presenting solutions, for effective policy and political change.

The broader political front is also pretty depressing, not just because of constant news of violence such as the latest shooting in Munich, but because of political decisions like Brexit and the nomination of Trump as Republican presidential candidate in the USA. It seems clear that those movements reflect people's concern over inequality to some degree, but they also reflect fear of immigrants and the 'other'. Thinking about what is happening with inequality world wide (where approximately 64 people, the majority of them white men, hold half the world's wealth in monetary terms), the fear of immigrants and the turning to someone like Trump as a saviour is deeply, deeply midplaced if it is a reaction to inequality. However there must be some social meaning to this and I think it is important to understand it.

In the USA it seems pretty clear that Trump's appeal is related to old style white patriarchy - the feeling that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are illegitimate upstarts. That was pretty clear in Trump's convention speech, where he and his supporters were saying Hillary Clinton should be jailed, without any resort to due process (indeed one of them claimed she should be shot). Of course, this is also 'Strongman Dictatorship' of a classic type, that's not only directed against women or people of colour, but I think a key reason he can say these things without provoking more outrage is that many people do see women (in this case) as not being legitimate players and therefore not entitled to the protection of the normal rules of the game. The same was true when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister here, when very nasty verbal attacks, of the kind that are not usually made in Australian political life, were made against her (including sexualised attacks, remarks that she should be drowned or culled like an unwanted animal, and attacks on the occasion of her father's death).

In the UK however the reaction seems a bit different - with the election of Theresa May, it seems more as if people have turned to a woman to clean up the mess that men (largely - eg David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage) have created. That's certainly not an unheard of thing in politics though!

Both of these phenomena fit with my 'grand theory' about competitive, hierarchical patriarchy - that it has a dominant ideology of competition, inequality and reliance on violence, but that the underlying assumption of this is that someone is around to do the caring, the cleaning up, to keep things going no matter how violent and chaotic the world becomes. It is this assumption that climate change in particular calls into question.

Big leap there that I'll discuss later. This will be updated. Also my earlier post on Malcolm Turnbull and climate change will have to be updated because the speeches I analysed all seem to have disappeared from his website. To be continued ... 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Election wash-up - reflecting, musing, trying not to brood ...


Classified as: reflections - musings, feelings

I'm going to try to blog more frequently for the rest of this year/until I finish the PhD - whichever comes first. After that the blog may take different directions, or I may stop doing it, I don't know. It concerns me somewhat that I feel as if I can't say entirely what I think because this blog is linked to my research (of course!) but also to Monash. The university does have some control over what I say - in the obvious sense that is right, in that the things I say shouldn't be abusive or offensive. Yet at the same time it seems as if it is limiting my ability to be truthful, which I guess is what some people talk about when they talk about 'political correctness'.

Normally I take comments about 'political correctness' to be code for 'I want to make negative comments or judgements about women and minority groups, but I might get into trouble for it' and I don't have much sympathy for them. However I feel a sense that I am limited in two ways: one, not being able to express emotion, and two, having to appear politically 'impartial'. The first I think has a basis in that being emotional can turn into swearing and being abusive (my mother used to say 'swearing indicates a poor vocabulary' meaning you should be able to find other ways to express your feelings, but I don't know - it's pretty ubiquitous!). I think part of having an egalitarian society is definitely treating others with respect, but at the same time I think we should be able to express how we feel. The political impartiality thing I think is a mistake - researchers and teachers at university level should be able to express who they would vote for and why. It's a fine line - they shouldn't use their position to campaign for a party, because they do have a personal-emotional influence on students, as well as an intellectual one, but they should be able to say why they think particular policies are better for Austrslia, I suggest.

Which is all a long winded way of saying that I am angry and disappointed about what has happened in the federal election. I am angry at Mr Turnbull for being dishonest about climate change (see previous post) and disappointed and a bit angry that just over half of Australian voters supported his government nonetheless. I am disappointed that even though most Australians apparently think our society should be more equal, they won't vote for that (presumably because they are worried about 'the economy', that identifiable 'thing' we are all supposed to fear and venerate).

Let me be clear - I am not saying people shouldn't worry about losing their jobs and not having enough money - of course they do. But 'the economy' is simply the sum total of our work, trade and exchange, and how we look after our environment and each other. If we want to have a society that is fairer and more sustainable, we should be able to do, but people seem scared to try. I think the fear is essentially, that one, we (ordinary people) don't have the capacity to do so, we will stuff it up somehow, and two, rich and powerful people will punish us if we try (of which two is probably more realistic).

As I am getting towards the end of this thesis, I am strongly convinced that we need major social change to create societies that are fairer and more sustainable, but I am becoming depressed about the possibility, not just because of what's happened in our election, but because of what's happening in the world (like what's happening now in Turkey or the massacre in France, to name just two recent events). I'm depressed, to be frank, not seriously depressed I suppose, but just flat - finding it hard to get motivated in any way. I still get delight in my family and my grandkids and the natural world, but so much else seems misguided. There are so many people, mainly women, but also some men, particularly those who aren't in the full time paid workforce, in this project who are working quietly at community level for fairer and more sustainable communities - yet when I look at the national or international political level, it's just not reaching there.

I'm writing this on my mobile, so it's a bit difficult, and I think I'll stop there. It's probably not entirely clear what I mean either, but perhaps I can expand or explain in later posts. I'm not giving up, and I hope others aren't either, but it is a weary path at present. There are therapeutic group sessions being offered in Melbourne for climate activists at present, I think I might try to get to one. Anyone else who is interested, please contact me for details through my Monash email address (see side panel of blog).