Ep. #35: Loneliness, Positionality, Personhood & Violence: This Month on TFS

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This month Julia (0:59) starts us off with the relationship between loneliness and health after listening to an episode of ‘All in the Mind’, a podcast that explores the connections between the brain and behaviour. She stresses that loneliness is something that everyone is vulnerable to and is becoming more of a problem in our modern world. In the podcast episode, it was suggested that simple acts of kindness and exchange could help overcome this isolating feeling. Jodie questions whether ‘fictive kinship’ might be more successful and Simon gives us a comparison between Australia and Iran between the ways people go about their daily activities: is it less about what we do and more about who we do it with?

Next Matt (5:55) has his podcast debut with positionality. This is something he has been looking at in his science communication Masters recently. He asks us what our own positions were during our fieldwork and what these positions mean for anthropologists during their research. Julia adds that “it’s about the power that you bring to the space … [it] could colour the interactions that you’re having with people, and whether or not people can be as natural with you as they might be in everyday life.” Simon says that he was simultaneously different things to different people and even was questioned about being a spy. Jodie tells us that her physical appearance impacted on how her fieldwork played out and how this may or may not foster trust.

Jodie (11:05) then reflects the recent media incident where Trump was portrayed as saying that asylum seekers aren’t people but instead animals. Although the Tweets have since been exposed as being misleading, it led Jodie to wonder what a ‘person’ is: is Superman a ‘person’? What about our pets – is the phrase “pets are people too” really accurate? What are the boundaries around ‘people’ and ‘personhood’? Is this a matter of perspective?

Finally, Simon (15:42) wraps up our can-of-worms podcast by asking: what is violence? Given the vague and imprecise concept of violence, he asks us how do we broaden our conceptualisation of violence? Julia offers: “I think that when it comes to violence… it’s about how the person afflicted experiences it.” Jodie asks whether we can define Government restrictions that have a negative effect on those experiencing it as ‘violence’? Simon and Matt consider whether fighting and BDSM is ‘violence’ and Jodie finishes by suggesting that maybe ‘violence’ exists where consensual boundaries are crossed.

Transcription of Episode #35: Loneliness, Positionality, Personhood & Violence: This Month on TFS

Simon Theobald [0:00]: Hey everyone. First off, we at The Familiar Strange want to acknowledge and celebrate the First Australians on whose traditional lands we are recording this podcast and pay our respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples past, present, and emerging. Let's go.

Hello and welcome to The Familiar Strange brought to you with support from the Australian Anthropological Society, the Australian National University's College of Asia and Pacific, and the College of Arts and Social Science, produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association, and coming to you from the Australian Center for the Public Awareness of Science. I am your Familiar Stranger today, Simon Theobald together with my fellow Familiar Strangers:

Dr. Julia Brown [0:42]: Julia Brown

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [0:43]: Jodie Lee Trembath

Simon Theobald [0:44]: ...and Matthew Phung...

Matthew Phung [0:45]: Hello.

Simon Theobald [0:46]: ...our podcast executive producer who's joining us here today. Matt is doing a Master of Science Communications here at the ANU and has a background in biology and psychology.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [0:54]: Welcome Matt.

Matthew Phung [0:55]: Hey guys. Thanks for having me on.

Simon Theobald [0:57]: So, Julia, what are you thinking about this week?

Dr. Julia Brown [0:59]: This week I've been thinking about the relationship between loneliness and health. So, there's a lot of research about how loneliness is as bad for your physical health as it is for your so-called mental health. Some people say it's as bad as smoking, in fact, in terms of the effect that it can have on one's physiology. And I became interested in this topic when I was working at the Department of Health and I was looking at social determinants of health and different socioeconomic gradients, like looking at different conditions and gradients around those. And it was really interesting to me how loneliness was one condition, we'll call it, that didn't follow a socioeconomic gradient. So, it's something that everyone is vulnerable to, right? And whether or not it is the same across cultures is very much up for debate, but it is clear that in our modern life, in Western culture, it is becoming more of a problem and I was listening to a podcast last night on All in the Mind, and-

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [2:03]: I love that podcast.

Dr. Julia Brown [2:04]: Yeah, it's a good one. And the topic was loneliness and health and at the end, the host Lynne Malcolm was asking the person she was interviewing, whether anything can actually be done about loneliness and health, and they were saying that what might make a big impact is simple acts of kindness in everyday life, that a lot of us don't have time for because we're so, you know, busy and caught up in things. A lot of the time that we might not realize that a simple interaction we have with our neighbor might be the only interaction they have all week. My question is, what do you guys think we can do about it? Is it about these small acts of everyday exchange that can make a big difference?

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [2:49]: Yeah look, I think it's a really critical issue in, I mean, in Australia, definitely, where we have quite disparate families. We're often geographically separated from the people that were raised by and potentially move away from our friends when we finished school or finish university. People in Australia, particularly, tend to move a lot. It's not uncommon to go and do a gap year overseas and then stay for an extended period of time. So, I think that as a culture, and that's a very broad and homogenizing term right there, but Australia is quite good at being separated from the people that they care about. But I think that leads to a lot of loneliness in society.

And I think the only way really to deal with that at a broader societal level is to encourage that kind of temporary or makeshift family and to really encourage fictive kinship, which is where you decide who your kin, who your family are going to be and you develop relationships to the level of family and if that's encouraged at a societal level, I think it gets easier and it relieves that burden of loneliness. But how do you encourage that at a societal level? I'm not even sure.

Dr. Julia Brown [4:10]: Especially when fictive kin could extend to hallucinatory kin like in the case of some of my participants with schizophrenia who have felt the presence of family members that they couldn't share with others. So, it's interesting because that was pathologized.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [4:26]: Did they feel less lonely?

Dr. Julia Brown [4:28]: Yeah, for sure. It was a protective factor. But…

Matthew Phung [4:30]: The idea of loneliness is kind of like, not just physically being alone, but maybe having a lack of connection in general. So, I think this old quote, it's like, “you can feel lonely in a crowded room”. Everyone, I think everyone in this room has experienced that sort of feeling. So maybe it's not so much as “how do we combat, you know, ‘loneliness’?”, in air quotes, but “how do we increase our connection with the people around us?” And I think you mentioned that earlier in terms of it's a fictive kinship. Is that what it's called? Yeah. Maybe that's a way of developing connections that actually will make you feel as lonely rather than being like “I'm going to go to this place and hang out with people I don't know”. Maybe creating that connection with people that you do know already or with new people might be a way to combat that loneliness.

Simon Theobald [5:20]: Well, what I would say is that one of the things I definitely noticed about doing my fieldwork was that people spent a lot more time in each other's company and therefore, and like families were much more kind of intimate and there was a lot less time spent just doing things by yourself. You basically always went out with someone. It’s kind of unusual to just- I mean, you went to work on your own, right? But otherwise, people were quite social. And… I don't know, maybe that requires a total renegotiation of what we understand to be the foundations of Western society.

Matthew Phung [5:46]: Ooph!

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [5:46]: So, nothing much then.

Simon Theobald [5:47]: Nothing much, Just something simple that.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [5:49]: We'll get onto that tomorrow.

Simon Theobald [5:51]: Sorry. Unfortunately, that's all we have time for. We have to keep moving on. So, Matthew, what are you thinking about this week?

Matthew Phung [5:56]: Well, this week I've been thinking a lot about positionality, especially in my own, sort of, field of study. So, I've recently started studying science communication and they do emphasize a lot, especially in one of my courses, understanding your own position in space and your cultural biases and et cetera. And as far as I understand it, positionality is being aware of your social context, how you are as a person, et cetera, in that sort of vein. So, understanding who you are and why you're like that. I think my big question is what was your positionality in terms of your research? That's what I found really interesting, and I really haven't had a chance to sit down and ask this question to you guys. So, what were your positionalities?

Dr. Julia Brown [6:41]: Well, the first thing I would add is that it's about the power that you bring to space as well, which is really important in terms of working out what your position is in relation to other people. In my research, I would say that it depended who I was with, but I had both clinical caregivers and patients in my study, and when I was in the company of either the dynamic and the power dynamic was obviously quite different.

Matthew Phung [7:06]: But there is an element of understanding power dynamics in terms of who you are and what privilege you bring to your study and your observations. And your, yeah, your observations.

Dr. Julia Brown [7:15]: Yes, and how that could color the interactions that you're having with people and whether or not people can be as natural with you as they might be in everyday life.

Matthew Phung [7:24]: Right. Okay.

Dr. Julia Brown [7:24]: So, that was certainly something that I was constantly aware of. And I think it took a long time for people to feel like an equal with me, and maybe they never did. I don't know, but I know that in the beginning, it was harder to convince people, you know, that I wasn't part of their treatment team and I was here to privilege their stories above their medical records.

Matthew Phung [7:48]: Right. Okay.

Simon Theobald [7:49]: My positionality was really complicated because I felt many things simultaneously and I was simultaneously different things to different people. The most obvious thing is I went with my partner, and she… in an Islamic society, she gave me entrance to women's worlds, I think, that I wouldn't otherwise have had any opportunity to access. And so, a lot of times… We did a whole bunch of things. We did babysitting, which I just think as if I had been a single man, it would've completely changed my experiences.

Matthew Phung [8:16]: Right.

Simon Theobald [8:16]: With regards to power, I understand that coming in, I was a white foreigner and that carried with it a lot cache, a lot of social capital, and people definitely wanted to spend time with me just by virtue of being white and foreign and coming from a Western country. But it also, I think, put me at the end of what is a highly disciplinary state and Iranian society, intimately interwoven with and managed by the processes of Islamic governance. I thought, again, as a white Westerner, I was prototypically in some ways 'the enemy', in inverted commas. As much as the Iranian government and the Iranian people, kind of, distinguish between governments and individuals there was still that sense that I was, you know, maybe I was a spy. Maybe I was some kind of foreign agent. So, in that sense, I was afraid of a punitive state, but I think I was seen as embodying like a whole host of exoticisms and liberalisms and feelings about the outside world that the average Iranian didn't have much access to. So, it made for, yeah, a fairly complicated positional situation that I really haven't… Yeah, I haven’t solved. I haven't solved quite how I feel about where I'll sit in my own fieldwork, despite having almost finished my Ph.D.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [9:27]: Maybe you'll never know.

Simon Theobald [9:29]: Maybe I’ll never know, yeah. What about you, Jodie?

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [9:30]: Well, so I'm glad you said the word embodied because I think that's where I'd like to think about my positionality. So, as a researcher of researchers, an academic of academics, I guess I was a fairly quintessential insider ethnographer although I don't entirely believe in the idea… Like Simon, I think I was different things to different people at different times. Sometimes I was an insider. Sometimes I was an outsider and how I felt about that changed, depending on the context as well. But I think also in terms of my positionality, I am a short, fairly soft-looking woman and I think that that physicality had a real impact on the way that my fieldwork played out. I think if I had been tall, if I had been striking looking, if I had more of a strident personality, then people would have responded to me very differently. As it was, I think I come across as very non-threatening. And I think that… I mean, in some contexts that's a problem because it's easier for people to take advantage of somebody they think they can take advantage of. In other contexts, it's useful because it means that people are more likely to trust you more quickly, which is a really big responsibility. Because if people are going to trust you with things that they wouldn't trust somebody else with, then you need to really honor the things that they trust you with.

Simon Theobald [11:01]: Unfortunately, that's all we have time for. Jodie.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [11:03]: Yes.

Simon Theobald [11:04]: What are you thinking about this week?

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [11:05]: Well, I have been wondering what a person is.

Simon Theobald [11:10]: Wow.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [11:10]: Yeah, nothing, nothing too big. So, most people probably know that Trump was quoted as... It seemed like he was saying something about immigrants to America as these are not people, they are animals. It turns out that he was actually talking about particular gang members.

Okay. So, given either of those contexts, whether he had said it about these gang members or immigrants more generally or people he didn't like, which wouldn't surprise me anyway, and that's why when he said it and everybody was like, yep, that sounds like Trump. Whatever he said, what I want to know is “how do we define, as a general society, how do we define what a person is?” So take, for example, “Is Superman a person?”

So, if we look at the Superman franchise, he's actually an alien, but he's taken human form and he is in love with a human and so we have this human/alien relationship going on, but are they both people in that context? I guess we can look also at the way that people talk about… Huh “people”… People talk about their pets and make the kind of joke that, you know, well, pets are people too. That's my question for you guys. Like, “What are the boundaries around what a person is?” “Is a person, who we only know online, is that a person to us?” “Are they only a person in their fleshy form or are they a person that extends into their mobile phone or into their Facebook profile?” “What are the boundaries around a person?”

Matthew Phung [12:46]: This is… It's making me think of a movie. I think it's called She.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [12:49]: Yes.

Matthew Phung [12:49]: And it's like...

Dr. Julia Brown [12:50]: Or Her?

Matthew Phung [12:51]: Her? Her or She.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [12:51]: Yeah. Her

Matthew Phung [12:53]: And it's got the...

Dr. Julia Brown [12:54]: Scarlet Johansson, right?

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [12:55]: Yeah.

Matthew Phung [12:55]: And was it Joaquin Phoenix?

Dr. Julia Brown [12:57]: Yes.

Matthew Phung [12:58]: He is in love with...

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [13:01]: Her

Matthew Phung [13:01]: Her, who is an operating system really.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [13:04]: Is she a person?

Matthew Phung [13:04]: Yeah. Well, I think a person is someone… “Someone”, I use that as very specifically, someone that is an actor in its own space. So, they can affect change and movement. They can do things.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [13:19]: Is a storm a person? A storm can affect change.

Matthew Phung [13:22]: Well, why do we name cyclones and storms?

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [13:24]: Ooh… Good one! Hey! What do you guys think?

Simon Theobald [13:29]: One of the things I think about when I think about the limits of personhood is people with profound disabilities. And I often wonder the degree to which society treats them as persons because there are a lot of people out there who, for whatever medical reason, unable to communicate with us or are able to communicate in a very limited manner. And a lot of the things that we understand to be human is it comes down to this kind of process of communication. Do we consider people to have significant disabilities to be human in the same sense we consider people who don't have such disabilities? Are they human as well? That's something I feel like we probably could work on as a society. I feel like it's something we don't do to the best of our ability.

Dr. Julia Brown [14:10]: And I think you've really brought to the surface the fact that how we construe someone as having personhood ultimately comes down to the perspective of...

Simon Theobald [14:20]: Others?

Dr. Julia Brown [14:20]: ...others. Yes. So, well, just thinking about like what Matt was saying and what you were saying with people with disabilities. It's not so much about whether or not they are actors or they have agency. It's about the extent to which we perceive them to which counts anyway. So, it's not so much about them. It's about the perspective of us. Yes.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [14:41]: So, if societally we decide that these people in these gangs are not people...

Dr. Julia Brown [14:49]: Well, I just don't...

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [14:49]: Then therefore they’re not people?

Dr. Julia Brown [14:51]: Well, I don't think that society ever decides…

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [14:54]: Anything as a whole.

Dr. Julia Brown [14:55]: Yeah. Yeah. I think it always just comes down to...

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [14:57]: Sometimes it does, I mean, law can… I hate to use a painful example, but I mean, terra nullius, right? When James Cook first arrived in Australia, he was like: “Oh, well these Aboriginal people are not actually people, so therefore we don't have to make a treaty with them. So, this land is not inhabited because there’s no people on it.” And that went into law and...

Dr. Julia Brown [15:21]: The way people are constituted through policy and law definitely counts for something. But I just mean in terms of like that concept of personhood, I think it does come down to how people in their social space can perceive them.

Simon Theobald [15:37]: Unfortunately, we don't have time to get into this can of worms.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [15:41]: Sorry, team.

Simon Theobald [15:42]: Well, that leaves me, the final speaker to speak about something and I'm going to speak about the really simple along the lines of personhood topic of “What is violence?”

Matthew Phung [15:53]: Super easy.

Simon Theobald [15:54]: I know it's super easy, right? Okay, let me put this in perspective. I taught a unit on violence some time ago and in that discussion, I tried to get the students to think about ways in which violence could… like, how do we broaden our conceptualization of what was violence? Every, every tutorial I would ask them a question that really annoyed them at the end, which is “So what do you guys think violence is?” They're always like, “Rrrr… there is no answer!” et cetera. But in some ways, I think they're kind of right. I don't know what the answer to this question is. “What is violence?” for me is such a kind of a vague and imprecise concept and I'm wondering if you guys have any more...

Dr. Julia Brown [16:27]: This is a great way to flip that self-other the other way. So, I think that when it comes to violence, it's not about how the person talking about it perceives it. It's about how the person afflicted experiences it.

Simon Theobald [16:39]: That means anything can be violent though.

Dr. Julia Brown [16:41]: It can be.

Matthew Phung [16:42]: Yeah.

Simon Theobald [16:42]: So, anything and everything can be violent.

Dr. Julia Brown [16:45]: Potentially.

Dr. Jodie Lee-Trembath [16:45]: Can. It doesn't mean absolutely everything is inherently, but it means that most things can be. Yeah.

Simon Theobald [16:51]: Well, I'm glad we wrapped that up, guys.

Matthew Phung [16:55]: I was thinking maybe violence is the dominance that you inflict on someone else rather than just like physical aggression. There’s cases of emotional abuse and stuff like that. That's still violence. Like, I see that as still violence. I don't know if there's a fancy anthropological name for it, but it's not physical in a way but it's still damaging.

Dr. Julia Brown [17:16]: Well, there is structural violence as well.

Matthew Phung [17:17]: Yeah, of course, yeah.

Simon Theobald [17:19]: Symbolic violence.

Matthew Phung [17:20]: So, I guess maybe it's not so much physical and expanding beyond physical.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [17:25]: Can I counter that?

Matthew Phung [17:27]: Yeah, please.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [17:28]: So, what if it's again, not about what the person inflicting the violence is doing. What if it's about how it's received? So, maybe it's violence if the person receiving it is physically changed by it. Like, because like, with loneliness, right? Like, we know that things that are… that have an impact on mental wellbeing also more often than not have an impact on physical wellbeing. So, if it's either having an impact on your physical or mental wellbeing and it's bad, does that make it violence? So, even if the person who is inflicting the violence, isn't using a weapon, like a physical weapon, even if they're not using their body to inflict the violence, if they are using words or if a government is putting restrictions in place that are causing physical harm or physical change to somebody's body, even if that's through their mental wellbeing being damaged, is that violence?

Dr. Julia Brown [18:29]: I think it's really tricky because (a) violence isn't always intentional on the part of the person inflicting it and (b) it's not always received as violent until after the fact. And this is a big problem with any form of abuse, I suppose. Like, when someone's in that interpersonal dynamic, it's difficult to recognize.

Matthew Phung [18:52]: Right.

Simon Theobald [18:52]: The problem for me comes with things like people who consent to being harmed. So, in things like...

Matthew Phung [18:58]: Like fighting?

Simon Theobald [18:59]: Fighting or BDSM or things like that. Is that a violent relationship even though both people have consented to inflicting physical harm on each other? Is BDSM and fighting and so on, “consensual acts of violence” in inverted commas, is that still violent?

Dr. Jodie Lee-Trembath [19:18]: Maybe it's about boundaries. So, if consent has been given and it remains within the boundaries that that consent has...

Matthew Phung [19:27]: Been given.

Dr. Jodie Lee-Trembath [19:27]: Yeah. Like what's been established, then maybe it's not violence, but if a boundary gets crossed...

Matthew Phung [19:35]: Then that becomes violence.

Dr. Julia Brown [19:36]: ...then it becomes violence.

Simon Theobald [19:38]: Unfortunately, it's all we have time for today. I'm sure we could chat about this forever and we've really just scratched the surface. But we haven't even scratched the surface. We’ve, we’ve…

Matthew Phung [19:45]: Barely.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [19:45]: Nibbled.

Simon Theobald [19:45]: Nibbled, muddled at things, but that is all we have time for. I want to thank Julia Brown.

Dr. Julia Brown [19:51]: Thank you, Simon.

Simon Theobald [19:52]: Matthew Phung.

Matthew Phung [19:53]: Thank you.

Simon Theobald [19:54]: And Jodie Lee Trembath.

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [1955]: Thank you.

Simon Theobald [19:56]: Today's episode was produced by all of us at The Familiar Strange. Our executive producers are Deanna Catto and Matthew Phung. Subscribe to The Familiar Strange podcast. You can find us on iTunes and all the other familiar places, including Spotify. You can also find the show notes, including the list of all the books and papers mentioned today plus our blog about anthropology's role in the world at thefamiliarstrange.com. If you want to contribute to the blog or have anything to say to me or the other host of this program, email us at submissions@thefamiliarstrange.com. Tweet to us @TFStweets, or look us up on Facebook and Instagram

Dr. Jodie-Lee Trembath [20:23]: And come on our Facebook group. Come, join us.

Simon Theobald [20:26]: Music by Pete Dabro. Special thanks to Nick Farelly, Will Grant, Maud Rowe, and Martin Pearce. Thanks for listening and until next time, keep talking strange.


The ‘All in the Mind’ podcast episode that Julia mentioned can be found here:

If you’d like to know more about the Twitter incident and the de-bunk, give this a read:

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com

Shownotes by Deanna Catto

[Image: ‘Loneliness’ by Hernán Piñera, available at:

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