Michelle Dyer – TASA 2015 Postgraduate Conference Scholarship Report

TASA 2015 Postgraduate Conference Scholarship Report Awarded to Michelle Dyer, James Cook University:

I always find it ironic that I research gender relations and women’s agency while constantly juggling the demands of being a single parent with an academic career. During my research in a village in the Solomon Islands I had no running water, no bathroom, intermittent electricity, no internet, and mobile phone only when I stood in a particular spot (sometimes). What was lacking in amenities was more than compensated for in child care. I didn’t have to worry about my children, two daughters aged 4 and 6 years old at the time. They had 100 playmates at any time of the day or night. If I couldn’t find them at meal times it was likely that they had charmed their way into someone’s kitchen house and were happily eating food they wouldn’t have even tried if I’d offered it to them.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, while I love to switch on the light, enjoy hot and cold water running from the tap, and the joy of a flush toilet, child care is prohibitively expensive and my mother and extended family live on the other side of the country in Western Australia.

I am a PhD student at James Cook University based in Townsville, now in the agonizing death throes of final write up, for completion by June 2016. My research is about gender relations and natural resource management at a village level in the Solomon Islands. In my research I use a feminist political ecology approach to understand the gendered nature of development and natural resource extraction. I also critique underlying neoliberal ideology in the international development paradigm. I am particularly concerned with ethnographic exploration of generative aspects of women’s agency rather than agency conceived through the negative paradigm of subjectification; a view prominent in neoliberal discourse of women in developing countries.

It was through my fieldwork that I came to frame my topic this way; residing in a village in the Solomon Islands and accompanying women in their daily lives. I found it difficult to reconcile my experiences living and working with strong, resourceful village women with the victim–superwoman caricature presented in much of international development grey literature. My scholarship paper addressed the importance of avoiding tempting lyrical metaphorical seduction by rousing and triumphant rhetoric of the Third World woman rising up to save herself, her family and communities generally. In such a vision, women are ‘empowered’ through the liberating force of their participation as rational economic actors in the formal economy. This is a neoliberal version of feminism which promotes a picture of women divorced from culture and inequitable structural contexts. Rather, I argue for contextual nuance which situates women culturally and historically and recognises that gender relations is about relations between women and men.

When the TASA 2015 conference came around, so tantalizing close in Cairns and resonating so strongly with my research topic, I had run out of funding and had no child care options. Initially I gave up the idea of going in the face of these obstacles but sociology colleagues at JCU encouraged me to go and so I applied for a TASA postgraduate scholarship. Thank you to Dr Theresa Petray and Naama Blatman-Thomas for your encouragement and support. I feel very fortunate to have received the scholarship and thank TASA for their generosity. Without the scholarship I would not have been able to attend. Eventually my mother came to take care of the children. Thanks again Mum!

The TASA 2015 conference was my first sociology conference. I found that the different disciplinary slant in sociology compared with anthropology provided new illumination on familiar themes in the sessions I attended. I really enjoyed the postgraduate day. Aside from the range of topics covered by the speakers, it was great to meet postgraduates from other institutions and, as a postgraduate, feel valued at the conference generally. I particularly appreciated Professor Raewyn Connell’s presentation on ‘Writing as work’ as a lunchtime session during the conference.

It was great to meet the sociology tribe and I encourage you all to attend the Australian Anthropology Society conference if you can. I think collaboration between our disciplines can only serve to make all our research stronger. Thank you once again to TASA for welcoming me.


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