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Exploring “The City’s Outback”

I am part-way through the anthropologist Gillian Cowlishaw’s book about the lives of Aboriginal people in western Sydney, The City’s Outback, and am enjoying it mightily.

I’m beginning to wonder, in the wake of both this book and Tess Lea’s explorations of the worlds of public health professionals in the NT, Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts, whether anthropologists are doing some of the best journalism around. Maybe they would not like to be compared to journalists, or their work to journalism, but I do mean it as a compliment.  If the best journalism is about fearless and self-aware telling of stories that pick away at truths while acknowledging the difficulties, if not impossibility, of such a task, then that seems to be also the work of these books.

Cowlishaw has written about her book in Crikey today, and below is a review by Dr Cynthia Hunter, Medical Anthropologist and Lecturer in International Public Health at the University of Sydney.

Dr Hunter writes:

“The strength of this book lies in how deftly Gillian articulates the blackfella way of life in Mt. Druitt.  Her sound and experienced ethnographic approach to Aborigines has been crafted through years of disciplined and careful observations based on a desire to understand culture.

The connections and networking that were made in previous fieldwork experiences, Bourke for example, are one of the main reasons the Mt. Druitt research was undertaken and that has resulted in this publication.

Gillian places herself (the white woman) firmly and at times uncomfortably in the text. The subjectivities of the ethnographer as the research instrument come through as points of humanness.  In doing so she exposes the fact that blackfellas know a lot more about whitefellas than the latter do about them.  This imbalance becomes a common theme throughout.

It is wonderfully and powerfully exposed through the emic (insider, or local view) Gillian has captured through the voices of her informants. Chapter 1 Talking under water is a powerful metaphor of submerged Aboriginal voices. They tell their life stories and through the telling we gain a better understanding of how intergenerational dispossession affects people and how stolen generation children seek their own identities through constantly ‘looking for’ and ‘looking out’ for kin and family.

Chapter 3 History hurts reveals these stories and reminds us of the huge differences in experience of living in the world both in the past and now.

Nevertheless, in seeking identity there is no great difference of the them and us; between inner city Sydney and the city’s outback. Most people want to have kin and family connections as part of their identity.  The violence that irrupts to shatter lives comes in many forms, for example, the structural and institutional violence of government departments such as housing (pp25-26; 46-47) and the police (22-25; 77-78).

While the details of individual stories can be harrowing there is also humour and fun and resilience in many blackfellas’ lives in Mt. Druitt. They recognize that the injured, the poor and the alienated can maintain a ‘victim mentality’ but this is not only an Aboriginal position, nor is it the only Aboriginal position. The government-run ‘living skills’ classes such as housekeeping are based on practices specific to historical circumstances. What are considered as absent housekeeping skills may never have been learnt, especially for those who have not had housing (p.149) or something you did for others (p. 150).

The subjectivities of the ethnographer as the research instrument come through as points of humanness that interface with the humanness of the stories being told.  There are points where the ethnographer is the foreigner, her normal habits and practices considered different in many ways. Furthermore, in revealing these differences Gillian gains a whole new understanding of what ‘good manners’ mean in this cultural context and its contrasts (p155-157).

Gillian’s ethnography speaks consistently and iteratively of a lively culture of Aboriginal people who live out west of the city. The issues for public health are blatantly displayed and continuously underscored by the recurring events of misfortune, disease, disaster and death from substance abuse, dispossession and poverty while people try to make a go of life.

These elements are not Aboriginal in the making but universal for people in similar circumstances.

However, the cultural context makes this book a compelling read because it requests us earnestly to look beyond the public discourses of Aboriginality at the unfamiliar social world of living beings told from their perspectives. In Frank Doolan’s words we (whitefellas) need an [new] organization of the mind” (Cowlishaw, 2009:14); a new way of thinking to engage effectively with blackfellas.”

Cowlishaw, G. (2009) The City’s Outback, UNSW Press: Sydney.
PS. Have just discovered that you can read a short extract of the book here.

Comments 3

  1. Jon Hunt says:

    I don’t think that many people realise that to improve the current health situation one needs to understand where these people have come from and who they are. That’s exactly why things haven’t improved; the focus has been on illness not on people. Anthropology and not public health should be a prerequisite for working in this field. I once had a patient say to me “We like you because you understand us”. I initially felt flattered, then on second thoughts wondered whether she only wanted something from me….!

  2. Jennifer Doggett says:

    Sounds like a fascinating book – it’s going straight to the top of my reading list! For me, this post also highlighted the need to have more Indigneous people in all parts of the health system, including policy makers, bureaucrats and senior managers. We focus on the need for Indigenous health service providers (although of course we don’t have enough of them) but often forget about the many other influential roles within the health system which are predominately filled by white people.

  3. Kersebleptes says:

    Have told the other barbarians at PB about this…

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Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
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2017 conferences
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#BTH20
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#LivingOurWay
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#OTCC2017
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Australian Palliative Care Conference
2018 conferences
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#ACEM18
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