this is a research blog

This blog is part of Natalie Swannʼs PhD research project at the University of Melbourne, “On the way home: the interplay between faith and migration for Christian migrants”. Comments you make will contribute to the data collected in this project. More information about the commenting policy can be found here. Information about the project can be found on the ʻabout this projectʼ page.


Back in the saddle

It has been a long time since I have updated this blog. Let me tell you what’s been going on. Here is a hint: not much of the PhD!

I was excited to come back from our trip to the UK pregnant with our second child. I kept doing some data analysis and writing, but the drafts I produced were all pretty rough.

Before I went on maternity leave, I presented a paper at a little conference in Perth on Cosmopolitanism.

Abigail was a delightful baby and I took more time off to enjoy her infancy and help Ben adjust to being a big brother than I did when Ben was born. As I attempted to return to the PhD, however, the kids and I all had some health issues and it was hard to get the project back up and running. It wasn’t anything terribly serious, but we are still figuring out some of the treatments, and it has slowed me down.

Little Abigail will be two in March and she is just delightful. Although it would be nice if she figured out how to sleep through the night!

I hope that the next few months involve more communication about the project and the types of things I’m writing. In the mean time, you might like to have a look at the types of books and articles I am reading by clicking through to my Zotero profile. Let me know if there’s anything you would like to read along with me!

Thank you to all of the people who have helped me with my project and for your patience as I write up your stories. Please be assured that I have not given up!


on my way… to the UK

In a couple of days, I will be starting an eight week visiting student placement in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL). I am equal parts excited and terrified.

Before we left Australia, people kept asking me, “So, why are you going? What do you hope to achieve?”. There are moments when, I confess, I wonder if it is all just a glorified academic junket.

But I think there are adequate justifications. I have copied below the submission I made to the University of Melbourne in seeking some funding to help with costs, which explains some of the official reasons.

There are unofficial reasons, too, like the fact that ever since I was an undergraduate student I have daydreamed about working in the RHUL Geography Department, or that it cements a connection to the discipline of Geography even though I am doing a PhD in anthropology, or that it was easier to suggest to my husbands’ employer that he take a couple months off work to look after our 2 year old on this adventure than to parent at home.

I have not done as much preparation as I had hoped before getting here and I worry that I will not get quite as much done as I intend. But I have learnt over the last 15 years that both of those feelings are pretty much constant baggage I carry around with me, and that good things usually happen in spite my levels of preparedness or productivity.

So, I shall just jump in the deep end…

While overseas, I intend to:

  • spend two months as a visiting research student in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway;
  • present at the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth’s 2014 annual conference
  • Conduct participant observation in churches in the greater London area that are similar to the churches that have been the subject of my fieldwork in Melbourne.

I will be writing up my research on the interaction between faith and migration for Christian migrants in three churches in suburban Melbourne. My field site is ‘at home’; unlike most anthropologists who travel to conduct fieldwork and return to their academic institution to write, I will remain in my field site during writing up. I am committed to staying in dialogue with my research participants while writing about their stories. A relatively brief visit to another institution, however, will facilitate a more intense level of analytical focus from which to return to these conversations with my participants.

Royal Holloway’s Department of Geography has a great deal of relevant expertise to my research project; for example, the work of Professor David Gilbert on suburban geographies of religion in London, the work of Professor Veronica Della Dora’s work on sacred space, pilgrimage and memory, and the work on mobilities by Professor Peter Adey and Professor Tim Cresswell (formerly of RHUL). In addition to the academic staff, Royal Holloway has an exciting group of graduate students doing projects on similar topics. I have organised temporary supervision with Prof David Gilbert, Head of Department, during my stay. I will actively participate in departmental seminars and programs but am not intending to undertake coursework while at RHUL.

In addition, I expect to learn from the creative expressions of scholarship and deep attentiveness emerging from the RHUL Department of Geography (for example, from their program PassengerFilms and the exhibition “Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig”). I have collected data that are multi-media, including words, voices, film and photography, and spending time in the RHUL Department of Geography will help me to explore more innovative ways of presenting my research findings.

While in the UK, I hope to attend churches with similar denominational and migrant compositions, providing me with a contrast through which to understand my field site in Melbourne all the more.

I will present a paper at the 2014 conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwelath at the end of my stay.

This trip will add value in three ways;

  • First, to to the quality of the written thesis and it’s engagement with theory by engaging with additional expert supervision,

  • Second, it will add depth to the quality of my understanding of my fieldsite through comparison with sites in Greater London,

  • and third, it will add value to my capacity to communicate my research findings both in formal academic settings and in developing creative ways to exhibit research findings.

A love letter to Lowlands


A couple weeks ago I was challenged to estimate my annual spend on coffee. It’s obscene. Triple digits. Easy. And when you’re a 33 year old student, that’s proportionally quite significant.

I find various ways to justify it. Mostly, I tell myself it’s OK because I use cafes as an office. I might be able to get a desk on campus, but honestly, why would I sit alone in a dark airless room when for the cost of coffee and a bit of food I can sit in a beautifully designed, well lit oasis. Also, waitstaff are better at hiding the anxiety and desperation that PhD students make a living out of laying bare to anyone who passes within a 5 metre radius.

About two years ago, my husband, 6 month old and I moved house. Still the same neck of the woods, but far enough away that we had to adopt a new café within put-the-baby-to-sleep-in-the-pram walking distance. It was El Joyero, then, but we watched Chrissie and Ollie, Joe, Rin, Jane and the rest of the team turn it into something beautiful. It became Lowlands a year or so ago.

Theirs was an awkward beauty. If you were a casual visitor, you might have mistaken introversion for standoffishness. God knows, there are sufficient places in Melbourne’s north where the staff look down their noses at those of us without tattoos, dark rimmed glasses and an intimate knowledge of Rwandan single origin. But with repeated custom we came to realise that the melancholic Lowlands was an act of courage; that hospitality shook its fist at introversion and dared it to put up a fight against building a little community. And serving really, really good coffee.

We didn’t know their names at first, but as our baby boy grew, we would cringe as he referred to the barista as ‘man’ or ‘that man’ and quickly came to learn the staff by name. We taught him that these people who made coffee for us were real people and they, in turn, welcomed him; accommodating the occasional temper tantrum, forgiving his slowness to learn the difference between an inside voice and an outside voice, delighting when he would point at them excitedly informing them of their own names.

We haven’t really had to explain death to Benjamin yet*, but the prospect of explaining the imminent closure of Lowlands feels like having to explain a death. Here are people that he’s loved and who have loved him who won’t be part of his daily experience anymore. I know that it was their job to serve us. Lowlands was a business, not a person. And yet…

It is not strange for people in other parts of the world to be friends in spite of – or even because of – a relationship in which they exchange money for goods and services. But it is in Australia. Check out my friend John’s PhD on tipping if you want some evidence. And as we talk to the staff at Lowlands about the fact they have to close because of the rising cost of rent, I don’t really know how to reach out across the barrier of exchange to provide comfort or love, or to give any other kind of gift than cash.

Yesterday, I spoke to Chrissie for the first time since the sign announcing their closure had been placed in the window.

She couldn’t take my money. The tears took over and she abandoned the cash register to Jane. We are not friends that she and I could cry together. I regret that there was no comfort I could offer. That all I had was my custom. That when this little oasis disappears as though it were a mirage we will no longer share the snippets of life and mothering that accompanied those other more economic exchanges.

I have loved Lowlands for much more than the coffee, or the food, or the hipster decorating – for more even than the functions it served as office, counsellors’ rooms, or performance entertainment for a small child. I have loved Lowlands because I always knew Chrissie had those tears within her.

*The exception being an ill-advised home screening of The Lion King. All I could remember were singing animals. Do not, I repeat, do not trust your own childhood memory; we all sat on the couch weeping as Ben held out his hands to the TV pleading “Daddy lion come back…!!”

on living in the south-eastern corner of The West

Christmas is coming; which, in Australia, means summer holidays, sunscreen, bushfires, and barbeques. My husband’s work Christmas Party is in a few days time and it marks the beginning of a party season that will keep going until mid-January when people start having to head back to work after Christmas and New Year. If you are reading this from the North Atlantic you have good reason to be jealous.

Sun hats and deck chairs: Christmas 2012

Sun hats and deck chairs: Christmas 2012

I have also been communicating with some colleagues in the UK about visiting next year and the mismatch of summer holidays and semester schedules makes things a little bit awkward.

And then I excitedly opened up a book recommended by someone I trust and read this:

“Indeed, the place we most often call the West is best called the North Atlantic — not only for the sake of geographical precision but also because such usage frees us to emphasize that “the West” is always a fiction, an exercise in global legitimation”
Michel-Rolph Trouillot Global Transformations (2003), p1

These little moments create a friction.

I think Trouillot is right to point out that ‘the West’ is a fiction. And to his credit, he does say that the North Atlantic is what we ‘most often’ mean when we use the term. But these little moments shape those of us who live a little bit more to the the south and east of Trouillot’s North Atlantic West. They are a gentle reminder of the tension in Australia (and New Zealand, and other places besides) between the centrality of the ‘fiction’ of the West to our identity and the simultaneous physical, seasonal, and calendrical distance we experience from the rest of the West.

We are set apart.

Is everything theological?

Reflections on “Grounded theologies: ‘Religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography” by Justin K.H. Tse in Progress in Human Geography, published online 18 Feb 2013.

“My central argument is that the task of geographers who deal with religion is to reveal spaces, places, and networks as constituted by grounded theologies, performative practices of place-making informed by understandings of the transcendent.” (p3)

One of the things I have always loved about geography as an academic discipline is it’s commitment to building theory out of close observations of the world and the way it works. I think this is basically what Justin Tse is calling for in this article; he thinks geographers should pay more attention to the way in which people live and move and dwell in light of their understanding of the divine, the trancendent, and the sacred and that geographers should get down doing field work that pays attention to this in the same way that they have examined race, class, and gender as axes of difference. Of course they should. I find it surprising geographers need an article like this to convince them of this, but it’s been a little while since I was involved in a geography department.

But Tse is careful to argue not just for studies of religion but of theologies. I think this is because he does not want us just to focus on the institutions of religions – the places of worship or institutional structures – or on codified systems of belief. Theology, in Tse’s argument, is not (only) something preached from the pulpit (or mosque, or temple) it is the way people live out their understanding of the divine and its relationship to the world.

Theology is not something limited to people who consider themselves religious either, for Tse follows John Milbank in suggesting that “secular sensibilities are themselves theological” because it was shifts in theology that made secularisation possible in the first place and because they still have their own views of the relationship between the transcendent and the world (p4). There are strong similarities, then, between Tse’s understanding of ‘theology’ and what anthropologists would traditionally call ‘cosmology’. The result of this definition, then is that everything, whether it is self-consciously religious or secular, is open to the geographer examining ‘grounded theology’.

These ‘grounded theologies’ happen in various spaces/practices that Tse labels ‘immanent’. He uses the word ‘immanent’ a lot. Here are just a few examples:

Grounded theologies “are grounded insofar as they inform immanent processes of cultural place-making, the negotiation of social identities, and the formations of political boundaries, including in geographies where theological analyses do not seem relevant.” (p2)

“By religion, I mean the practice of particular narratives regarding divine action, transcendent presence, or supernatural reality in the immanent world that in turn inform conceptions of placemaking.” (p2)

“Theology in this sense refers not so much to the codification of religious propositions to which religious adherents give cognitive assent, but rather to the performative practice of narratives about metaphysical divine action in relation to the immanent world” (p4)

“Such concerns with religion as an integral part
of these assemblages typify these geographers’
concern that religion is not merely an ‘opiate of
the masses’ that veils the contribution of more
immanent social factors in the construction of
subjectivities” (p10)

“After all, to portray de facto interfaith mixing in religious spaces for secular causes is to bracket the transcendent and elevate an immanent sphere of action, precisely the grounding of a secular theology.” (p12)

“Following the previous sections, I contend that religion in geopolitics must also be understood as grounded theologies in practice, not as veils for immanent factors of injustice.” (p13)

In Christian theology, the word immanent describes the indwelling of God; it expresses His presence in the believer, in the created order, in the material world. It is usually used in contrast to transcendence, in which God is understood to be above and beyond the physical and material world. The way in which believers understand the balance or tension between God’s transcendence and His immanence is often really interesting (e.g. in my experience, it impacts how Christians think about and care for the environment). Yet Tse seems to use immanent to mean not God-in-the-world, but just the world. Maybe he’s not alone in this in social science, but it hasn’t struck me so strongly before. I think we lose some of the term’s nuance in the process.

If you are confident navigating the academic jargon of social science and religion, this is a great summary of some key thinkers and contemporary trends in academic thought. And if you are looking for a bibliography for work on geographies of religion (or social science and religion more generally) this article has a cracker of a reference list. I am looking forward to reading some more of Tse’s work and seeing him do the work of producing ‘grounded theology’ that he argues for here.

The inevitiable

Inevitably, at some point during a PhD, a student will stumble across the work of someone who has published work that makes them feel like their project is irrelevant. It happened to me yesterday, as I sat down to prepare my latest Annual Report (3 years in – 2 years full-time equivalent – who knows how many to go…).

So here it is, a Christian geographer at the University of British Colombia doing work on migration and religion — Justin Tse. If you are still reading this blog despite the vast motherhood- and fieldwork-related silences, you really should read his as well. Possibly instead.

And, you could check out a new book on Religion and Place, in which he’s got a chapter, or his recent article in Progress in Human Geography. Despite the temptation they present as a form of noble procrastination, I am leaving a detailed read until after the Annual Review is finished. Keep your eyes out for a review in May!

Openness and reward

This week at field-work-church*, God spoke to me. I have been cautious about the claim that an anthropologist should (and especially cautious about the claim that they do) make themselves open to being ‘converted’ to the way of life or beliefs of the people they work with. But there are moments in which I feel more malleable than others. This week was one of those moments.

The pastor was preaching from Genesis 15; Abram is starting to doubt God’s capacity to come through on his promise to make him a blessing and a great nation. Abram is afraid. When the preacher threw out the rhetorical question “What are you afraid of?” I knew the answer straight away – a looming PhD annual review, 20 thousand words and the feeling like it’s all slipping through my fingers. But God’s words to Abram rung true:

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.”

I heard that promise for myself: “I am your exceedingly great reward“.  I realised that even though I might not change up my church membership to join one of the churches or denominations I have been working with, God does speak to me through them. And it is God who is my exceedingly great reward and not academic acclaim; the great privilege of working with Christians from other traditions and being pushed to think about God in new ways is its own reward with or without the piece of paper I hope to get at the end of it all.

As a postscript, I feel like this process of letting/hearing/acknowledging God speak to me in a way that makes sense through my own theological lens makes me a bad anthropologist. And I don’t know what to do with that yet…

*My husband, son and I are members of a different local church, but I have been attending this church for about 6 months doing part-time fieldwork.