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The place of care – Rural human services on the fringe

Brian Cheers, PhD, Director,
Centre for Rural and Regional Development (CRARD),
University of South Australia, Whyalla

I thank the people of the Mi’kmaq nation for inviting me on to your land to tell my story. I honour your land, I recognise your traditional ownership of it, and I respect the privilege you have extended to me.

What a glistening array of experience has gathered here!
May this be the start of many continuing conversations; paused, but not finished, when we leave tomorrow. I approach my task with humility, respectful of the wisdom you bring from so many places, cultures, and spiritualities.

We will touch on community development, social policy, social development, service provision, social justice, advocacy, community governance, education, and research. I will hear how you work with domestic violence, family violence, poverty, health care, and political sovereignty. I will listen to the voices of fishermen, aged people, Bedouin people, agricultural workers, Indigenous peoples, and many more.

The threads we share

What do we share in this diversity? What brings us to this place?

First, it is the caring - each of us simply cares deeply for others. It is so easy to lose who I am while doing what I am. Caring starts with the commitment, the passion, the vision.

I, and you, bring to the conversation my, and your, particular place. It is the only one there is. It is an open, dynamic mosaic; a place where lives, livelihoods, environment, culture, and governance meet; a place where community, services, policy, and professional narratives intersect. Things happen in places.

But I haven’t come here dragging my place behind me – kicking and barking like some bewildered cattle dog on a sheep station. It lives through me. I make the space I live in my place by giving it meaning as I go about my daily living. The rural practitioner does not sit outside, mysteriously materialising in the space of the community to, just as mysteriously, disappear back to some well-ordered, comfortable, well-to-do planet of professionals when their day’s work is done.

If my place is unique, then so, too, is my practice. I invent it as I go along. I don’t do my practice - I make it in places. I suspect this also brings us here – we are proud of what we do, we want to tell others about it, and we want to know what others are doing.

I find it affirming to be with other fringe-dwellers. We inhabit the fringes of policy, planning, management, and practice; on the outskirts of professional knowledge. Especially in Western countries, these too often start, and finish, in urban places and assumed contextual uniformity. We are on the fringes geographically, politically, administratively, theoretically, and empirically.

Rural social care

My story today tells of rural social care, rather than human services. Much is happening here. In the program I see:
• Grief, shame, and pride in Ceduna
• Honour killing and vendetta in Sindhi
• Identity politics
• Groups and the informal community
• Community governance
• NGOs, state, and civil society
• The performative ‘I’ and its characterization in narratives

I just can’t stretch the structural language of human services this far. To do so risks obscurity for the simple point of it all – people caring for each other. Caring is an ontological issue, not a structural one - I am; I am in relation to others; I am in this living thing along with everyone else; I care what happens to you and to all of us together; and so do you.

A few years ago, I listened to the stories of countless rural practitioners, policy makers, planners, managers, and scholars from around the world (Cheers, 1998; Cheers and Taylor, 2001)). Those they shared spoke of rural social care - or all the arrangements through which people try to meet each other’s social, emotional, and material needs. These include:
• Natural support, or the help we give each other as we go through life
• Service provision
• Practice
• Social care development – or social planning, community development, and community services development
• Client and community advocacy
• Contextualised social policy
• Developmental, participatory, action, and community-based research

The storytellers spoke of how they took their humble place in these arrangements in particular rural contexts. We are not all there is. We are not the centre of the social care universe. We are not the sun holding the system together with our magnetic appeal and political indispensability. I once read a series of studies which concluded that, overall, life itself has the same success rate as counsellors for the same kinds of problems – around 72%. Humbling!

Beneath all else, then, social care is an expression of human society - of all the relationships and interaction amongst people, groups, and organisations (Cheers, 1998, p.258). On the one hand, it is, indeed, provided through services. But it is also an ongoing expression of interaction between people responding to each other subjectively, intuitively, and spontaneously from the narratives they live.

This shifts our frame from structures to fields. Fields are more open and fluid; structures more bounded and fixed. Put simply, you are out there in the field along with everybody else. Each community of place has a field of social care. It is made up of natural and formal caring arrangements (Cheers and Taylor, 2001). You are interacting with those in other fields such as business, governance, health, and education. This humanises my view – the field of social care in a place is made, and continually re-made, through the interactions of those who are it.

Liquid modernity

I am touching here on Bauman’s portrayal of liquid modernity (Bauman, 2000; Bauman, 2001, p.143) - or “postmodernity in its liquid phase” (Bauman and Tester, 2001, p.89). The comforts of modernity – such as faith in true structures, knowledge, and ways of knowing – are melting. But they have not dissolved into absolute uniformity. Imagine different-coloured columns of lead melting into a swirling, multi-coloured pool, moving in vaguely discernible directions, with currents merging, flowing around, in and out of each other. These are not-quite-there structures in liquid, rather than solid, form. To quote Merrylyn Asquith (2002, p.45):

Liquid modernity denies that modernity is a finished project, separated from now, set apart from today and tomorrow. Yet, this space in time … as it fluctuates from the certainty of the structured past and unsettles human perceptions of any predictable future, embraces the notion of postmodernity.

Quoting Bauman and Tester (2001, p.71), she continues:

As it does so, it “engages both the changing world and its reflection in human experience, it allow[s] a focus on the ongoing transformations….”

This is what Heather, Margaret, Grace, and their people in Ceduna found as they came to understand family violence in their community (Taylor, Cheers, Weetra, Gentle and Miller, 2001). They saw that family violence was entwined with all the problems facing the community – dispossession, poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, and much more. I quote their report:

…all these issues and problems are community-wide in that they permeate the whole community, touching everyone within it. Taken together, they meld into a mass of issues, each reflecting the whole. They intertwine through each other, coming in on themselves, locking together throughout the community. In this sense, they are not separate strands; they are all in there together, with no facet being clearly separable from the others. With family violence in focus, it can now be seen as a swirling mass of issues sucking the energy from the community. (Taylor et. al, 2001, p.51)

Getting a fix

How, in all this swirling, can we get a fix on our work?

We could, of course, join the economic rationalists, managerialists, and big-city market well-fairies who cling to the illusory modernist promises of certainty. Note, for instance, how holistic notions of participative community development have been reduced to leadership training manuals, community capacity audits, and the like. Or how the meeting of people in casework is regulated by protocols and procedures. No thanks!

The pillars of modernity have not worked for those who live in rural places. Throughout the world, they are disadvantaged relative to urban people on virtually all social, health, and economic indicators (Cheers, 1996). The evidence is clear. Take, for instance, the forest people of Orissa whose livelihoods were cut off when the forests were reserved (-----). Or the Australian Aborigines, whose livelihoods, cultures, and spiritualities were all but destroyed by the fences, poisons, and guns of agriculture (Cheers, 1998, pp.54-5). Or the Indigenous people of North America when the buffalo were wiped out.

So how do we get a fix? The notion of place helps.


A place is a space given meaning (or constructed) by people; a location for human symbols and activities (Stehlik, 2001). Take the beach area in Machotown, a small regional city in Australia (de Warren, in progress). For some of the gay men it’s the beat where they cruise. The same space can have different meanings for different people. For the Aboriginal people, this is a place to gather and share their stories; for the police, to watch and regulate; for the hoons, to abuse the gay men; and for the family people it’s a place to play on Sundays.

Yet we are in danger of sinking into rank, individualist, constructivism. Social constructivism makes more sense to me than the idea that there are as many constructions of a place as there are people in it (Burr, 1995; Wendt, in progress). Through interaction, people also generate shared constructions of their place, sometimes across the entire community, sometimes only with some others who live there.

In a community of place, the more enduring shared constructions are the community narratives (Bridger, Luloff, Ploch and Steele, 2001). Through its stories about itself, a community lives through time. Come to Wheatown, near where I live . The dominant story here is of a harmonious, quiet, inclusive, homogeneous place that successfully pulls together against the odds for community betterment. In Sheeptown, just up the track, it is of a lucky, stable community with a few leaders, which has been well enough endowed by location and climate to be reasonably economically secure. Tomorrow, Sarah Wendt will tell you about how community narratives in the Barossa Valley impact on domestic violence (Wendt and Cheers, 2004).

The space a community occupies is contested space because, as with the beach area, different people construct it differently (Bourke, 2001; de Warren, in progress). An emerging narrative in Sheeptown, for example, tells of a non-inclusive, change-resistant, under-achieving community with a small, traditional power elite.

All communities have many narratives. Our research on Eyre Peninsula in South Australia has identified five kinds :
• Dominant narratives, which have most influence on how the space is constructed
• Secondary narratives, which have less influence but are continuous with the dominant ones
• Subversive narratives challenge the dominant ones, and are discontinuous with them
• Latent narratives lie dormant, to be activated now and then
• Emergent narratives are new ones starting to be said.

Take Paradise Shire in Queensland (Bone, Cheers and Hil, 1993, 1994). A dominant narrative is that youth are well looked after through sports clubs, churches, families, youth clubs, and the like. A secondary one is that there are some disgruntled youth, but that these are the unemployed blow-ins from southern capitals who go there for the idyllic tropical lifestyle. I had to tell the local authority the subversive narrative that youth living in the tourist centre 30 km from the main town are not well looked after, and have nothing to do on weekends but get bored. Worst of all, there are hardly any blow-ins. A friendly local anticipated the kafuffle our youth needs report to council would cause. “Remember Brian”, he said, “you will be talking to a bunch of Hereford bulls!”

No dramas – the community activated the latent narrative that, when all is said and done, youth problems are a matter for the local community organisations, not council. Using our report, the social development group attracted more than $2m over the next two years for youth facilities; which started an emergent narrative that local youth are as important as the tourists.

Narratives of place help us get a fix on the swirling. So, too, does community interaction theory (Wilkinson, 1991; Luloff, 1999; Cheers and Luloff, 2001). This is the field, rather than the structural, angle in community sociology. A community of place has four facets: locality, local society, a community field, and interaction with the wider society (see Figure 1). The locality is the space the people occupy. Local society is the organisation of social institutions, associations, and interactions in the social life of a locality. It is arranged into various social patterns and organisations according, for example, to shared interests, culture, or occupation. All local societies have various social fields through which groups of people pursue their various interests through interaction with each other. These include, for example, business, health, education, sport, and religion. Social care is one of these.

Figure 1: Communities of place according to community interaction theory
Cheryl: insert slide 8 here – not the slide itself but what is on it

But a place is not a community unless it also has a community field through which people express their shared commitment to the well-being of the community as a whole through interaction across, and between, these special-interest social fields. The community field:

… comprises all those acts which contribute to the interests of the community as a whole by interlinking and coordinating the other social fields and harnessing their information, experience, resources, and energy for the common good. (Cheers and Luloff, 2001, p.131)

Organisations in the community field include, for example, local government, community development organisations, and community councils in Indigenous communities. Research has shown that a strong community field is positively associated with economic growth, social-emotional aspects of community well-being such as community attachment and solidarity, and solving social problems (Martinez-Brawley 1990, 2000; Wilkinson, 1991; Cheers, 1998). The fourth facet of a rural community is the interaction of its people and organisations with those outside the community.

Community interaction theory extends our understanding of social care in place (Cheers and Taylor, 2001). Social care is a dynamic, open field amongst others, and we professionals are just another part of it; albeit an important part. Although the community field is central to a community’s efforts to manage change, other fields also contribute to a strong community field and, through this, to the wellbeing of the community as a whole. In social care, we do this in several ways (Cheers and Taylor, 2001, p.216). Through social planning, we identify social needs and plan services in interaction with planning in other fields such as economic development and health care (Cheers, 1998, pp.131-42). Through community services development we construct services that are responsive to local contexts, needs, and priorities (Taylor, 1999). In community development (Cheers and Luloff, 2001) we facilitate local participation in social care, the community field, and other social fields. And we enable people to express their commitment to their community and each other by supporting informal helping and involving them in service delivery.

The power of place

Places have power. Imagine a world of spaces without places. A world of global uniformity. This, some would have us believe, is where global capital and its faithful servant economic-rationalism are taking us. Thankfully, this agenda doesn’t seem to be going so well (Cheers and Clarke, in press). For instance, even though commodity markets might be increasingly global, capital remains perversely national. Witness, for example, the huge subsidies given to agriculture by the United States and many European countries. But there are also local reasons why global capital’s lust for homogeneity is being resisted.

Places have presence – they are there. And with presence comes power – one has to do something about the place. With power comes the potential to subvert dominant narratives (de Warren, in progress). Take, for example, Australian farming. Despite globalisation, around 97% of Australian farms stubbornly remain family owned and managed (Garnaut and Lim-Applegate, 1998; Elder, 2001; Cheers and Clarke, in press; -----). Why? Because a farming family has deep emotional attachment to their place – their land and their community.

Those who read the journal Rural Social Work would have come across Sandra’s little story (Cheers, 2002, p.2). Sandra is my neighbour in our tiny rural hamlet. Although she sees herself as anything but subversive, through her immersion in her place Sandra takes on homogenisation.

She refuses to be sold anything over the telephone. Although extremely generous, Sandra does not donate to large national charities, which often phone seeking donations. She explains: “when they get persistent I ask them whether they contribute to the local hospital, the kindy, the school, the show, the CWA, the craft shop, the footy club, the cricket club, the Christmas pageant … ”.

Go Sandra!

So place has power (de Warren, in progress). In our world of social care, power to resist the dictates of central office, policy homogeneity, service uniformity, and, for my Indigenous friends, dominant Western ways of knowing (Zapf, 2004).

Beyond places of narratives

Is place only narratives and social constructions? In some comments on a draft of this paper, Kim Zapf said:

Places have narratives apart from the communities that have lived there. There are spirits, or energies, in places. It is possible that people receive direction from a place, not only from interaction with the others who live there. You [Brian] have spoken of places having presence that involves power – “one has to do something about the place”. There are times when the place has to do something about the people. (Zapf, 2003)

Kim continues:

This is the spiritual notion of place that I find in the Aboriginal perspective that I do not find in most of our Western approaches

From this view, places have presence is another sense – in the “spirits, or energies” that are there.

Narrative discontinuities

A community of place is where narratives meet. Some speak of social care – what it is, what the priorities are, how to go about it, and so on. And the stories are often different.

Take, for example, the Aboriginal women in Northern Australia who ran foul of funding rules when they used a government-funded bus to go bush with the victim when family violence happened. To central office, the bus was to be used for service-related activities, not to go fishing. To the women, they were continuing the ancient tradition of taking the victim and her children away from the community and do women’s business, while the men did men’s business with the perpetrator.

Some of the differences between narratives are discontinuities (Cheers, Briskman, Green and Lonne, 2001). These run far deeper than mere differences of opinion. A narrative is rooted in, and expresses linguistically, a culture, an identity, a history, a spirituality. For this reason, their differences are not always just a matter of degree; they can be chasms. Integrating, or even bridging, these can be well nigh impossible.

The languages of your organisation, your profession, and your community can be fundamentally different. While, for example, the organisation codifies procedures, the profession speaks of casework theories, and the community talks about people helping each other out. Or your department expects you to spend your time giving resources to the poor, while local people think you should be helping them establish a social enterprise to generate jobs. Or the professional narrative tells you to keep your professional distance, but the community says you are of it - just like everyone else.

Narrative Domains

Bob Lonne and I are investigating the narratives relating to the work of rural social care practitioners. It appears that these can be grouped according to the domains from which they emanate. Narratives in the same domain tend to speak the same language.

Our initial analysis suggests seven domains:
• Structural – policies, legislation, service structures, and delivery methods
• Professional – knowledge, values, ethics, training, and socialization
• Practice fields – e.g. child welfare or community development
• Practice wisdom – expertise applied to the immediate practice situation
• Personal – practitioners’ personal, social, and cultural backgrounds
• Society – narratives, processes, and structures
• Community – narratives, processes, and characteristics

The structural domain tends to dominate social care in many Western countries, where those in the formal sector have come to view it through a formal lens. We have constructed an institution of social welfare, filling it with organisational structures and procedures, trained professionals, siloed programs, sophisticated databases, and the like. Without doubt, these contribute much to human wellbeing. But in our thinking, and due to our thinking, the institution has become increasingly detached from the totality of human life, from spontaneous support, from community, and from other sectors involved in managing social and economic change. We have come to view social care more and more narrowly as a product of societal structures and let fade the idea that it is also an expression of human community (Cheers, 1999).

Valuable as it is, the professional domain does not point the one true way. As our Indigenous colleagues will remind us, there are ways of knowing other than Western ways. Even in Western thought, there are at least two dominant narratives. Chris Colgan, for instance, will tell you that social work is, philosophically speaking, an Idealist profession driven by ideas of human living (Colgan and Cheers, 2002). It is not, essentially, the Realist one it has tried to be over the last century, clinging hopefully, but with increasing despair, to the phantom facts of positivism.

Different fields of practice are constructed in different languages. The DSM language of mental illness, the social role valorisation language of disability, the community strengthening language of community development, the system language of family therapy, and the holistic language of Indigenous peoples – are all linguistic worlds apart.

Practice wisdom focuses my expertise and experience, and my ideas about what I should be doing, life, people, human problems, etc. on the immediate, particular practice situation, and shapes my ongoing responses within it.

In the personal domain, is my unique understanding and living of life. For instance, a comfortable 30 year old, white, city-raised, Anglo man will obviously come at social care from a different angle to the 60 year old Indigenous woman who is an elder in her small, remote community.

Dominant narratives from the wider society can also influence practice. These tell the broader societal – not community – stories of, for example, individualism or collectivism, capitalism or socialism, competition or cooperation. For instance, the construction of highly urbanised settlement patterns in Australia over the past 200 years has contributed to recruitment and retention difficulties in all human services professions (Lonne, 2001).

I’ve already said quite a bit about the community domain. Here’s a little story from a small, remote town in Far North Queensland.

I once had a rather poetic conversation with a cattle man, with both of us hanging over the back of a Toyota ‘ute’ (or pickup) staring into the tray. [He said:]

“Look mate; when I have problems, I ask a gum tree what it thinks. If I don’t get the answer I want from the first one, I go to the second. I just keep going down the line until I hear something that makes sense.”

I suggested he might try this in relation to his problems. A few days later, we continued the conversation after he had consulted his eucalypt counsellors. They had, indeed, given him some clues, which, after we discussed them for a while, shaped a solution to his situation. Men in his culture do not often talk about their personal issues directly and avoid eye contact while doing so. To ‘go bush’ alone to try to solve personal problems is common. And they often do their serious talking with each other while hanging over the back of a Toyota, a fence, a gate, or something similar. (Cheers, 1998, p.226)

But is he alone? Or are the spirits and energies of the place providing him direction? To paraphrase Kim, sometimes, indeed, the place does something about the people!

… and their discontinuities

From this angle, many rural practice issues appear as discontinuities between narratives from different domains. For example, the dual roles of practitioner as professional and community member don’t quite fit together because each is embedded in a different linguistic system. The personal-professional boundary issue is about discontinuities between professional, personal, and community narratives. And discontinuities between professional ethics and community norms are common. Come with me to Australia’s Northern Territory.

… during their temporary absence from town, the rumour was circulating that a local man and woman had become lovers and were, in local terms, ‘druggies’. Consequently, they and their respective children were named deviant. The rumours had especially serious repercussions for the woman and her children because her ex-partner was seeking custody, with the support of the town’s police sergeant. I was aware from information they had given me in confidence that both rumours were false. I also knew that I had sufficient standing with local people to quash them. But I couldn’t contact them because they were on his remote property at the time. Should I maintain the ethic, or break it and stop the gossip? I chose to set the record straight, for which the couple later thanked me. (Cheers, 1998. p.231)

The culture-shock experience of new workers moving from southern to northern Canada identified by Kim Zapf (1993) can be viewed as a reaction to discontinuities between the community domain on the one hand, and the professional and personal domains on the other. Kim said:

The community is considered [by the new worker] theoretically according to systems of attributes rather than as a place of immediate experience. … The newly located worker attempts to understand the community using frameworks from his or her own familiar culture and profession. Applying metaphors from the South leads to a limited view of the northern community as a pathological variation of the southern experience. (Zapf, 1993, pp.701-2)

This initial framework gradually disintegrates in the face of experiences in the community. At first, this disjunction causes confusion and anxiety although most practitioners eventually enter into what Kim called “local systems of meaning and priorities” (Zapf, 1993, p.702). He continues:

This shift will probably be accompanied by a stressful period of frustration and disorientation, giving way eventually to regained confidence and a sense of well being as the worker learns to operate within the new system of meanings. (p.702)

… and domain location

Bob Lonne and I are testing the hypothesis that practitioners can be located in relation to these domains. Put simply, a practitioner is closer to a particular domain the more he or she practices according to its narratives.

In caricature, the community practitioner is most at home when she is out in the community, sleeves rolled up, part of the local scene. She will be found at community development meetings, negotiating with the mayor, taking some young people to the blue-light disco , mentoring the youth advisory council, doing needs surveys, or figuring out with the chamber of commerce how economic and social development can work together. Emilia Martinez-Brawley (1986) found these amongst the patch workers in the Scottish Isles. She said that the patch worker becomes known to those she serves, capitalizing on their strengths, and generally tailoring services to needs in very personal ways.

In the Barra “patch”, the social worker employed local home helpers from the community. She had developed a cadre of workers whom she had trained. Because she knew the elderly and the home helpers, she was able to place them close to their homes and with compatible personalities. What the elderly got was someone who looked after them in a personal way, who stopped by their houses even when they were not scheduled to work, etc. The home helpers often coordinated with other neighbors. All this resulted in a close and very supportive network of care. The social worker knew the mothers of young children who were feeling overwhelmed. She knew who needed a break from children but might enjoy caring for an elderly person a few hours a week; she knew who could cope with young children and who couldn’t, etc. (Martinez-Brawley, 1986, p.12)

And the discontinuity? She was anxious about the legitimacy of these activities within her department. For instance, she often provided informal services to people who did not wish to become cases and for whom formalizing the help would have been detrimental.

In contrast, the structural practitioner is more likely to do things by the book, while the professional practitioner is more focused on applying practice theories, whether it is a strengths approach to counselling, or community interaction theory to community development. The field practitioner keeps within their field, sticking fairly closely to the funding rules.

In contrast, the practice-wise practitioner responds to each situation as they find it, drawing on their professional experience. They are intuitive, although this belies their careful, reflective making of expertise over time. Their overriding aim is to do the best job possible, almost regardless of structural imperatives, professional norms, or the constraints of practice fields. Personal practitioners are also intuitive, but are more inclined to use their socialization and life experience. Finally, the society practitioner locates her or him self in the big picture, where narratives concerning, for example, dispossession, colonisation, structural disadvantage, and patriarchy will be found.


I think most of us lean towards this or that domain, using our judgement when our leanings don’t match the task at hand. Mostly, we are aware of the narratives touching our roles, consider them, and, when we hear disjunctions, choose amongst them. Some of these choices have major consequences.

At the policy level, for example, Australia chose a couple of decades ago to apply the dominant Western narrative of domestic violence to family violence in Indigenous communities. It didn’t help. In 1992, family violence was happening in up to 70% of families in some communities (Sam, 1992), and it has increased alarmingly over the last decade (Indigenous Women in the Criminal Justice System Report, 1996; Robertson, 2000, p.xxxiv). In 2000, 46% of all hospital separations of females for intentional injury were Indigenous women, even though Indigenous people make up around 2% of the Australian population (Minister for Family and Community Services, 2000).

In a penetrating paper, Judy Taylor (Taylor, Cheers, Weetra and Gentle, in press) identified three phases in our understanding of family violence. First came government reports that considered it as just another case of the dominant discourse about violence between adult partners in nuclear families in the context of patriarchy. Indigenous women then gave us a different understanding of family violence in community, cultural, and spiritual contexts within a history of dispossession. Take, for example, the definition of violence of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence:

Unwanted acts on individuals involving physical, verbal or psychological force. … It occurs between men and men, men and women, women and women, adults and children, and children and adults. (Robertson, 2000, p.4)

Suicides and self-injury were included, as well as inter-group fighting, cyclic violence, and dysfunctional community. The Task Force said that it violates a person’s trust and spiritual/cultural beliefs.

This is very different to Western constructions of domestic violence.

In Australia, the people of Ceduna are at the forefront of the third phase, which involves devising and implementing holistic-community strategies for responding to their particular understandings of family violence (Taylor et al, 2001).

Choices between contesting narratives are also made at the service level. For instance, Quixley (1993) argued for holistic community narratives to address rural youth needs, rather than program-based approaches. “It is inadequate”, she said:

…to attempt to break the cycle by simply providing houses, or establishing training programs, or extending secondary schooling provisions. [Such measures] … will not deal with the problems faced by young people in rural and remote communities. Solutions must be tackled in the context of a response to the whole problem faced not only by young people, but by the entire community. Community ownership of the process of change is critical to a successful outcome. (Quixley, 1993, p.20)

So how do we choose between contesting narratives? Sometimes it is obvious. James Midgley (1981) showed us how social development should obviously be the dominant social care narrative in profoundly impoverished countries, and how silly psychodynamically based casework is. Sometimes, as with Indigenous family violence, it is a matter of hearing the anguish of those who suffer. As one Ceduna woman put it:

Pay day, tension growing in the neighbourhood, the pressure builds, do I do anything? What can I do? The violence erupts, it ebbs and peaks throughout the early hours, SILENCE, morning, children sitting on the kerb outside, and, saddest of all, 2 hours later a load of washing on the line, business as usual. BUT What about the real people this is happening to? Where did the kids sleep? Who is comforting the family? How to break the cycle? (Taylor et al, 2001, p.38) (boldface in the original)

And sometimes, as with my young friends in Paradise, a latent narrative will do the job.

Try moral …

But the choice isn’t always so clear. Where do I start when it isn’t? First recognise that the choices are essentially moral ones. How so? The choices are between the narratives of different peoples, each of which says ‘this is how life is, can, and should be’. By definition, none is the most right, correct, or good. “There is”, says Bauman (1999, p.xiviii), “no supra-cultural and supra-historical observation point from which the true and universal meaning can be sighted and subsequently portrayed”. Oh well!

Ultimately, there is only one place to go – to where Bauman calls the moral self (Bauman, 1993, p.11). For, you see, it is ontologically given that I am responsible. “Morality”, he suggests, “is before being”:

Visibility conjures up the Face I face, but it also creates me as moral self. Taking responsibility as if I was already responsible is an act of creation of the moral space, which cannot be plotted elsewhere or otherwise. This responsibility, which is taken ‘as if it was already there’, is the only foundation morality can have. A frail foundation, one must admit. But there you are: take it or leave it. (Bauman, 1993, p.75) (Inverted commas in the original)

To choose, then, I must first take responsibility for my responsibility. From this comes engagement with the Other. In Merrylyn Asquith’s (2002, p.5) terms:

Self-responsibility creates emergent morality in a relationship springing from responsibility for, and being for, the Other. In this discourse, morality requires … emotional engagement with the Other (Bauman, 1995). The Other, according to Bauman (1995, pp.1-4), is … people who are not one of Us, those for whom we are not responsible, with whom we choose not to be emotionally engaged, to whom we choose not to commit and whose interests come, if at all, after our own.

These are the asylum-seekers, turned away from Australia’s shores, locked up as criminals, or sent back to face the persecution they escaped from. They are the stolen generation of Australian Indigenous children who were taken away from their communities. They are the Aborigines in South Australia who were herded to their deaths off the cliffs of Eyre Peninsula. They are the street children living in Rio, murdered, according to Seabrook (-----), so that the tourists could better enjoy the view. They are the poor itinerants who live in the caravan on the edge of town. And they are the 13,000 children who, in 1994, the Save the Children Fund found were dying daily from diarrhoea, yet could be saved by a simple daily 10c sachet of salts and sugar (-----).

Indigenous ways of knowing tell that a place, too, can be the Other. Recognising both people and place as the Other, then comes being for the Other. In Merrylyn’s terms, this:

… is constituted in preparedness to take responsibility for the Other’s well-being, to demonstrate goodwill to the Other, engage with the Other and commit to the Other’s interests before one’s own. (Asquith, 2002, p.83)

So, too, the other way round – can not the place take responsibility for my well-being, for the people who are there, demonstrate good will towards me, engage with me, and commit to me? (Zapf, 2003)

To return to my central point, when faced with disjunctions, our choices between contesting narratives must be taken seriously. As Mary Midgley commented, perhaps moral may be “simply the superlative of serious” (1981, pp.126-27)

At the fringe … once more ... with subversion

I think, for rural practitioners, the daily presence of community narratives makes a big difference. The narratives of place are less compelling in the city where organisational imperatives are just down the corridor; where I can retreat to my office; and where, at day’s end, I can go home to my place. In the bush, my place is where I live and work, where I know the Other as a real human being, living a real human life, in the real world; where I can know the place as the Other. In the bush, we are all both Us and Other.

Is not Bauman’s understanding of moral the story of rural practice - self-reliance, independent judgement, ingenuity, courage to subvert? Perhaps this is why Bob Lonne found that the further rural social workers were from their supervisors (up to a point), the more satisfied they were with their jobs, and the longer they stayed in them (Lonne, 2001).

Here are some stories of subversion by practitioners.

Remember the Aboriginal women who went fishing? It was the government regional manager who convinced central office to change the policies. The same regional manager convinced central office to allow the Aboriginal women Elders of Palm Island to talk to men who were perpetrators at the Women’s Shelter because, as one woman put it, “the men need our help too” (Taylor, circa 1990). More recently, the human service workers in Ceduna have convinced the government to give their understanding of family violence a go.

Each of these stories speaks to us of judgements at the fringe challenging, then making, policy. The centre needs our insights as the phantoms of modernity float away – homogenisation, objective facts, generalised theory, general practice principles, standard policies, uniform funding programs, monolithic service structures, and, to quote Bob Lonne, “the dead hand of proceduralism evident in many case management systems” (Lonne, 2003)

Where to Now?

Being moral is the foundation. Yet there is much more. How can we respond to diversity, particularity of place, kaleidoscopes of change, cultural uniqueness, different ways of knowing, holism? Quietly, seriously, away from the gaze of the politically, organisationally, and professionally dominant, we have been developing, from the ground of our practice, ways of working whose time has come.

We have learned how to play our part in the world of social care within the swirls of liquid modernity. Listen to Emilia Martinez-Brawley (2002, p.293):

The raison d’etre of social work has been the attempt to make the best sense of people’s lives and situations, the attempt to improve their condition based on their own historical, cultural and geographical realities. The practice of social work has always required unique responses because individuals live under unique, local conditions and communities are all different.

In a word, the practitioner thinks carefully about the situation in its uniqueness and wholeness, including the narratives flowing through it, with serious intelligence and judgement. Emilia calls this ‘integrative thinking’ (Martinez-Brawley, 2002), because the practitioner is attempting to integrate “the various elements of the human encounter” (p.296). These include: the cultural, social, physical, political, economic, and spiritual context; the various narratives relating to the job at hand; and the human relationships in which the job is embedded. Integrative thinking is linguistically and culturally rich.
• It focuses on gestalts, rather than fragments, social patterns rather than individual atoms.
• It incorporates spontaneous, intuitive, and holistic ideation as well as rational, linear, data based thinking. It is simultaneously messy and constrained.
• Integrative thinking is continuous and ever-flowing – evolving from the situation, adjusting as context, situation, and interaction move around.
• It incorporates some generalisations, but mostly uses particular, local, evolving information.
• The practitioner’s leanings and understandings are formed through interacting with others.

Integrative thinking is especially suited to rural contexts because it has evolved in our collective practice wisdom in response to the places we have been. In Emilia’s terms, it fits well with “the rural school of make do … of the possibility of arriving at creative solutions utilising whatever elements at hand can be harmoniously integrated with the context” (Martinez-Brawley, 2002, p.300). To paraphrase Emilia:

The practitioner brings together the whole context, engaging with it in intimate, continuous ways. He or she includes the perspectives of local people, the calculation of local consequences and the constraints of specific histories and environments (Martinez-Brawley, 2002)

She continues:

Integrative thinking requires that every action be a reflection of former action and be corrected by the next action. [It] does not emphasise answers as much as the cooperative process of arriving at them. …Integrative thinking is highly participatory; it requires the constant validation of those who are involved in the environment … [– by], for example, rally[ing] around an idea or a project, add[ing to it], and [making] it their own. (pp.300-1)

Emilia focuses on front-line practitioners. But integrative thinking runs through all aspects of rural social care. It’s time to say a little more about what this is.

Rural social care sits within the broader notion of managed, sustainable rural change (Cheers, 1998, pp.103-6). Because change is inevitable, and to a degree unpredictable and uncontrollable, rural communities can only ever really hope to manage change as best they can. It is more like hanging onto my jeep as we bolt down a mountainside, rather than a sedate drive from A to B through neat, manicured, suburban streets.

Here’s how I picture it.

Figure 2: Managed, sustainable regional change

Cheryl: please insert slide 17 diagram in here. Call it ‘Managed, Sustainable Regional Change’
From: Cheers, B. (1998, p.107)

The community’s boundaries are indistinct and ever changing. Economic development, social care, health care, and education are represented as four braids, each comprising a number of entwined cords, snaking their way through time. The braids are linked, but not rigidly. Vertical and horizontal ties intersect in the local community. Social care includes development (social planning, community development, and participation), formal and informal care arrangements, and direct client practice. Integrative thinking can happen at all these levels.

In Conclusion

Good on us!!!

We’ve been working at the fringe, struggling with the vague feeling that we were not doing it right – according, that is, to the dictates of head office, the profession, central government, and the academy - the very structures and truth-tales of solid modernity. Faced with contesting narratives and their discontinuities, using good sense and judgement, we have generated, from the ground up, ways of working that fit the contexts in which we live and work.

The modern world is liquefying. Hey! We know this world – this is where we’ve been all along. We know how to work in it. Our time has come.

So tell your stories with pride. May our conversations be affirming, fruitful, and enjoyable; and may they continue beyond this place.


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