Narrative And Belonging To Place

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TASA 2003 Conference, University of New England, 4–6 December 2003

Ronnie’s Story: Narrative and Belonging to Place
Richard Woolley
University of Western Sydney

This paper emerges from doctoral research, finalised in 2003, centred on key ways in which an experience of certainty is constructed in social life. The struggle to ‘make-certain the world’ is understood as the effort to maintain the stability and durability of those social relations which construct social experience and personal identity as coherent and continuous. The focus of this paper is on an experience of belonging to place, particularly the symbolic construction of place through the narration and shared understanding of stories. Stories, such as the vignette that forms the centrepiece of this paper, can be argued to mark local people off as ‘insiders’ in their particular place. A variety of recountings of the repetitive pathway walked by one local character and his ritual attendance at a local hotel are used to illustrate the production of a shared experience of ‘being-local’. At the same time this story is interpreted as rehearsing a sense of the transience of this mode of belonging. The disappearance of the character at the heart of this local story is thus also understood as indicative of an experience of the ‘uncontrollable’ social and material transformations of the area, the ‘uncertainty’ which co-constitutes social lives.

Each individual’s experience of place, home and intimacy is constituted through action – their sense of belonging to the social is active and contingent. This approach to belonging stands in contrast to one that considers individuals’ locations, residence or personal relationships as somehow prefiguring their social actions, as a given ‘base’ from which social action is elaborated. The effort to construct and maintain a viable life in a particular place is fundamentally linked to establishing a place-in-the-world for ourselves. Dwelling and belonging are, after all, fundamental tasks of homo faber. To dwell in a particular place is in this sense to ‘inhabit’ it, through the acts that establish and maintain a home, face-to-face social relationships and social patterns of recognition and communication in that place. Belonging is constituted in this effort to inhabit place. This desire to belong is understood theoretically as part of an ongoing labour to construct a coherent social experience for ourselves (Dubet 1995).

Woolley – Ronnie’s Story: Narrative and Belonging to Place


The research participants whose social experience is described here, live in a place they have come to as adults in their search for a viable life. They inhabit this place in specific ways by which they establish themselves as ‘insiders’, but without making legitimating claims that this is ‘where they are from’. They reflect a reality of contemporary life, the quest for an experience of certainty in the social world, in this case through a sense of belonging to place. In this paper, the focus is on the symbolic construction of this sense of place, particularly the role of narrative and story in the construction of an experience of ‘being-local’.

The research and the role of place
In Australia, classic community studies have been quite anthropological in orientation developing a kind of micro-cosmology which reflects the ‘way-theworld-is’ as a distinct local ‘reality’ (Bryson & Thompson 1972; Walker 1944; Wild 1974). Community characteristics, their ongoing reproduction and patterns of interaction with the ‘world’ outside its spatial and cultural ‘limits’ thus constitute the research object. These assumptions are not those that underpin the research on which this paper is based, nor its methodological approach. The status of ‘place’ in this research commenced from an assumption of what Marc Augé (1998: 116) calls the “delocalization of the social” whereby the “continuity and symbolization of place” as an