Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Community Views: Women and the Politics of Neighbourhood in an Australian Suburb

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Community Views: Women and the Politics of Neighbourhood in an Australian Suburb

Article excerpt


The study of neighbouring and community is a vexed endeavour. In Australia, analytical difficulties are exacerbated by the political nature of suburbia and the ambiguity which surrounds the place of the suburbs in Australian culture. What is well known, however, is that traditionally women have been at the centre of suburban life and are influential in establishing and maintaining everyday neighbourhood communities. Unfortunately, academic knowledge is scant in regards to the experiences and priorities of women in this regard, and of the criteria they use to delineate their communities and determine the boundaries of neighbourhood interaction. This paper considers these issues and reports on a study of neighbouring in an industrial Newcastle suburb. The paper argues that objective class position and life-cycle stage may not, as has previously been thought, be the crucial determinants of neighbouring. Rather, in playing their pivotal role of shaping and defining their residential communities, the women in the study set the boundaries of network inclusion and exclusion by privileging a particular form of housing tenure--ownership.


Over 70% of Australians live in urban centres, with a large majority residing in the suburbs of just five cities. As a commonwealth of suburban dwellers, Australia has variously been described as the world's `first suburban nation' (Horne 1964: 28), `Britain's farthest suburb' (Davison 1994: 102), and of being suburban before ever being urban (Sandercock 1977: 9). Given this demographic profile, Hugh Stretton's (1989: 13) statement that the Australian suburbs `nourish most of the best as well as the worst of Australian lives, including ... many of the country's best painters and poets, editors and critics, scientists and other discoverers, politicians, public servants and professionals' is surely a truism. Stretton's observation, nonetheless, was designed to defend a way of life that has been lampooned by Australian intellectuals and artists for most of the 20th century (Glass 1994; Rowse 1978). Emanating from diverse perspectives, however, critiques of suburbia display little consistency, conflating often competing ideologies, and undermining attempted definitions of a coherent Australian identity.

Indeed, the suburbs and the quality of life therein have long occupied positions of ambiguity in both the intellectual and popular imaginations. Situated both mythologically and spatially between the places of the city and those of the country, suburbia is a `liminal' or transitional zone constituted and reproduced through the contradictory discourses of ruralism and urbanism. At the same time as being defined in terms of these discourses, however, the sites of suburbia and the lifestyles associated with these areas are continually being interpreted also in opposition to both the country and the city. Pervasive ideas about desirable urban form, and city and suburban life, rest on a dualism, the roots of which lie in the contrast between town and country. This dualism informed the urban reform movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries and was implicated also in the `bush' legends of popular Australian myth and imagination (Fiske et al. 1987; Foss 1988; Short 1991; Ward 1958). Furthermore, it is recognised that the suburbs comprise a shadowland between work (which is the traditional world of men) and home--that space historically defined and peopled predominantly by women and children.

The suburbia that emerges from the play of such dualisms has created conceptual problems for academics who attempt to analyse city and suburban life. For example, until recently feminists regarded suburbia primarily as the site of women's oppression--being both the result and marker of their subordinate position vis a vis men. Notable here is the contribution of Sophie Watson (1988), whose book Accommodating Inequality provides an account of gender inequality and the role played by housing location and tenure in reproducing patriarchal structures of injustice. …

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