Learning Sydney: Round 2

Since my inaugural trip to Australia last May/June, I’ve written my thesis and earned my master’s degree in Anthropology. The title of my thesis is The Gap on the Block: Subjectivity, Aboriginality, and Agency in Contemporary Urban Australia. My thesis explored the construction and maintenance of an Aboriginal subjectivity in a inner-city suburb (similar to our city neighborhoods in the States) of Sydney known as Redfern.

Aboriginal Australian Flag at Redfern's "The Block" - the site of my master's thesis research

Aboriginal Australian Flag at Redfern’s “The Block” – the site of my master’s thesis research

This inner-city suburb has been widely understood by Sydneysiders as the “Aboriginal” neighborhood due to its higher proportion of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders (the indigenous peoples of Australia). Redfern is currently in the process, like much of inner Sydney, of being redeveloped and gentrified. Interestingly, the population of indigenous peoples in Redfern is still under 5%, which speaks to how the European invasion of Australia has decimated the indigenous population since 1788. Nevertheless, this background info is important for understanding my second trip to Australia in August.

On my first trip, I visited Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne. This second trip was spent entirely in Sydney. I had decided during the last academic year (and from my first visit down under) that Sydney was the geographic context in which I wanted to situate my research. The first few days were spent mainly exploring the area and situating myself into the cultural and historical context of the city. I was also sending out emails to potential contacts and informants to set up meetings while I was in town. Before I flew to Sydney, I had spent a few months making contacts online with indigenous activists in Sydney as well as community members from Redfern and nearby Waterloo (both of these inner-city suburbs have higher proportions of indigenous Australians living there, when compared to Greater Sydney).

I believe it was day 3 or day 4 when one of the eminent cultural anthropologists from the University of Sydney suggested I attend their department’s weekly discussion seminars while I was there. This same professor also agreed to sit down for a conversation with me and discuss my research. Not only was I excited to be talking to one of my academic heroes, but now I had a way to meet others who had similar research interests and knowledge about my research topic, as many of the graduate students were from the region.

Anthropology Department at University of Sydney

Anthropology Department at University of Sydney

The research seminars were eye-opening. The first talk I attended addressed ritual sacrifice in anthropology. The second talk I attended addressed an ethnomusicology projected conducted in Hopevale, Queensland, Australia with a local indigenous church chorale. Not only was it enlightening to see how scholars outside of the United States are approaching anthropology, but the graduate students were more than welcoming after the talks.

Another fascinating aspect of this experience was that the anthropology department at Sydney Uni follows a broadly European model for graduate school. This means the program is meant to least 3 years in total. Year 1 is spent developing reading lists and learning the information/data necessary to develop one’s own research project. Year 2 is spent conducting fieldwork. Year 3 is spent writing one’s dissertation. Thankfully, the graduate students at Sydney Uni were in different stages of this timeline, and therefore provided valuable feedback and information about how I might approach my own fieldwork.

I was able to ask basic logistical questions such as “How many ethnographic interviews did you end up using in your project?” and “How many informants were you with on a regular basis (deep hanging out – a concept developed by anthropologist, Clifford Geertz)?” In my opinion, these kinds of questions are often overlooked, as many of us are expected to just know how the logistics of a dissertation operate. In this sense, speaking with other scholars and graduate students was an integral part of my preliminary fieldwork. However, the actually ethnography I was able to conduct was equally important. I will discuss this in my second blog post!