Imagining neighbourhood-based community : an autoethnography

Hall, Michelle Louise (2013) Imagining neighbourhood-based community : an autoethnography. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


This research is an autoethnographic investigation of consumption experiences, public and quasi-public spaces, and their relationship to community within an inner city neighbourhood. The research specifically focuses on the gentrifying inner city, where class-based processes of change can have implications for people’s abilities to remain within, or feel connected to place. However, the thesis draws on broader theories of the throwntogetherness of the contemporary city (e.g., Amin and Thrift, 2002; Massey 2005) to argue that the city is a space where place-based meanings cannot be seen to be fixed, and are instead better understood as events of place – based on ever shifting interrelations between the trajectories of people and things.

This perspective argues the experience of belonging to community is not just born of a social encounter, but also draws on the physical and symbolic elements of the context in which it is situated. The thesis particularly explores the ways people construct identifications within this shifting urban environment.

As such, consumption practices and spaces offer one important lens through which to explore the interplay of the physical, social and symbolic. Consumer research tells us that consumption practices can facilitate experiences in which identity-defining meaning can be generated and shared. Consumption spaces can also support different kinds of collective identification – as anchoring realms for specific cultural groups or exposure realms that enable individuals to share in the identification practices of others with limited risk (Aubert-Gamet & Cova, 1999). Furthermore, the consumption-based lifestyles that gentrifying inner city neighbourhoods both support and encourage can also mean that consumption practices may be a key reason that people are moving through public space. That is, consumption practices and spaces may provide a purpose for which – and spatial frame against which – our everyday interactions and connections with people and objects are undertaken within such neighbourhoods. The purpose of this investigation then was to delve into the subjectivities at the heart of identifying with places, using the lens of our consumption-based experiences within them. The enquiry describes individual and collective identifications and emotional connections, and explores how these arise within and through our experiences within public and quasi-public spaces. It then theorises these ‘imaginings’ as representative of an experience of community. To do so, it draws on theories of imagination and its relation to community. Theories of imagined community remind us that both the values and identities of community are held together by projections that create relational links out of objects and shared practices (e.g., Benedict Anderson, 2006; Urry, 2000). Drawing on broader theories of the processes of the imagination, this thesis suggests that an interplay between reflexivity and fantasy – which are products of the critical and the fascinated consciousness – plays a role in this imagining of community (e.g., Brann, 1991; Ricoeur, 1994). This thesis therefore seeks to explore how these processes of imagining are implicated within the construction of an experience of belonging to neighbourhood-based community through consumption practices and the public and quasi-public spaces that frame them.

The key question of this thesis is how do an individual’s consumption practices work to construct an imagined presence of neighbourhood-based community? Given the focus on public and quasi-public spaces and our experiences within them, the research also asked how do experiences in the public and quasi-public spaces that frame these practices contribute to the construction of this imagined presence? This investigation of imagining community through consumption practices is based on my own experiences of moving to, and attempting to construct community connections within, an inner city neighbourhood in Melbourne, Australia. To do so, I adopted autoethnographic methodology. This is because autoethnography provides the methodological tools through which one can explore and make visible the subjectivities inherent within the lived experiences of interest to the thesis (Ellis, 2004).

I describe imagining community through consumption as an extension of a placebased self. This self is manifest through personal identification in consumption spaces that operate as anchoring realms for specific cultural groups, as well as through a broader imagining of spaces, people, and practices as connected through experiences within realms of exposure. However, this is a process that oscillates through cycles of identification; these anchor one within place personally, but also disrupt those attachments. This instability can force one to question the orientation and motives of these imaginings, and reframe them according to different spaces and reference groups in ways that can also work to construct a more anonymous and, conversely, more achievable collective identification. All the while, the ‘I’ at the heart of this identification is in an ongoing process of negotiation, and similarly, the imagined community is never complete. That is, imagining community is a negotiation, with people and spaces – but mostly with the different identifications of the self.

This thesis has been undertaken by publication, and thus the process of imagining community is explored and described through four papers. Of these, the first two focus on specific types of consumption spaces – a bar and a shopping centre – and consider the ways that anchoring and exposure within these spaces support the process of imagining community. The third paper examines the ways that the public and quasi-public spaces that make up the broader neighbourhood context are themselves throwntogether as a realm of exposure, and considers the ways this shapes my imaginings of this neighbourhood as community. The final paper develops a theory of imagined community, as a process of comparison and contrast with imagined others, to provide a summative conceptualisation of the first three papers.

The first paper, chapter five, explores this process of comparison and contrast in relation to authenticity, which in itself is a subjective assessment of identity. This chapter was written as a direct response to the recent work of Zukin (2010), and draws on theories of authenticity as applied to personal and collective identification practices by consumer researchers Arnould and Price (2000). In this chapter, I describe how my assessments of the authenticity of my anchoring experiences within one specific consumption space, a neighbourhood bar, are evaluated in comparison to my observations of and affective reactions to the social practices of another group of residents in a different consumption space, the local shopping centre. Chapter five also provides an overview of the key sites and experiences that are considered in more detail in the following two chapters.

In chapter six, I again draw on my experiences within the bar introduced in chapter five, this time to explore the process of developing a regular identity within a specific consumption space. Addressing the popular theory of the cafe or bar as third place (Oldenburg, 1999), this paper considers the purpose of developing anchored relationships with people within specific consumption spaces, and explores the different ways this may be achieved in an urban context where the mobilities and lifestyle practices of residents complicate the idea of a consumption space as an anchoring or third place. In doing so, this chapter also considers the manner in which this type of regular identification may be seen to be the beginning of the process of imagining community.

In chapter seven, I consider the ways the broader public spaces of the neighbourhood work cumulatively to expose different aspects of its identity by following my everyday movements through the neighbourhood’s shopping centre and main street.

Drawing on the theories of Urry (2000), Massey (2005), and Amin (2007, 2008), this chapter describes how these spaces operate as exposure realms, enabling the expression of different senses of the neighbourhood’s spaces, times, cultures, and identities through their physical, social, and symbolic elements. Yet they also enable them to be united: through habitual pathways, group practices of appropriation of space, and memory traces that construct connections between objects and experiences. This chapter describes this as a process of exposure to these different elements. Our imagination begins to expand the scope of the frames onto which it projects an imagined presence; it searches for patterns within the physical, social, and symbolic environment and draws connections between people and practices across spaces.

As the final paper, chapter eight, deduces, it is in making these connections that one constructs the objects and shared practices of imagined community. This chapter describes this as an imagining of neighbourhood as a place-based extension of the self, and then explores the ways in which I drew on physical, social, and symbolic elements in an attempt to construct a fit between the neighbourhood’s offerings and my desires for place-based identity definition. This was as a cumulative but fragmented process, in which positive and negative experiences of interaction and identification with people and things were searched for their potential to operate as the objects and shared practices of imagined community. This chapter describes these connections as constructed through interplay between reflexivity and fantasy, as the imagination seeks balance between desires for experiences of belonging, and the complexities of constructing them within the throwntogether context of the contemporary city.

The conclusion of the thesis describes the process of imagining community as a reflexive fantasy, that is, as a product of both the critical and fascinated consciousness (Ricoeur, 1994). It suggests that the fascinated consciousness imbues experiences with hope and desire, which the reflexive imagining can turn to disappointment and shame as it critically reflects on the reality of those fascinated projections. At the same time, the reflexive imagination also searches the practices of others for affirmation of those projections, effectively seeking to prove the reality of the fantasy of the imagined community.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 61097
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Hearn, Gregory & Drennan, Judy
Additional Information: Recipient of 2013 Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Award.
Keywords: autoethnography, community, consumption, consumption experiences, consumption space, gentrification, imagination, imagined community, Northcote, Melbourne, place, public space, public sociality, quasi-public space, space, ODTA
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 03 Jul 2013 03:24
Last Modified: 09 Sep 2015 04:38

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