By Anna Tarrant
The title for this post reflects a common question I have been asked consistently throughout the process of conducting my PhD and subsequently since it was awarded in July 2011. I am a human/social geographer by discipline (although I find this restricting and have drawn upon a range disciplines to conduct my work). When I am asked “So what did you do your research in?”, people are often surprised by my response: “It is/was about grandfathers.” I am met with silence followed by “But that’s not geography!” The predominantly non-academic folk I come across think geographers explore volcanoes, aquatic environments, poverty, health and so on – and they do – but I was much more interested in the everyday; why I am who I am, what is important to me, who matters to me and why?
At the time it never occurred to me that in being labelled a geographer, people could no longer see what it was that motivates me as an individual, in my everyday life, as opposed to just my professional life. I was initially stumped by this question on several occasions (because explaining about masculinities theory and absent presences seemed rather inappropriate for the most part). I began to think about the question more; why grandfathers? What is it about me that means I am intrinsically interested in such a topic? There are academic reasons, as I outline below, but the more I ponder it, the more I have come to realise that it is because of my keen desire to maintain strong familial relationships and to enjoy the diversity of people in my everyday life, that I felt it important to explore roles that many people (and in this case men) find so valuable, important and meaningful to them. At the same time, my professional and personal life are not entirely separate; the boundaries between personal and private are blurred (especially as I have now started to use Twitter…a lot) and that is what has prompted me to write this blog post…as a way of reflecting on how the personal becomes political, how my personal interests have made my professional life so much more tolerable, even enjoyable and to understand what motivates me so I know what to pursue next. Given these musings, I realised maybe I do have something to contribute, and here it is.
Initially in agreeing to write this post I was concerned I would have little to write because to my mind my PhD topic was very much born out of interests developed in my academic undergraduate life. At this juncture I feel I should explain why I came to think this. I am 25 years old, fairly young for a Dr, even in the UK. Having completed my A-Levels at 18 with reasonable grades, I went to Lancaster University. I was fortunate enough to find a very interesting dissertation topic on older men, for which I interviewed my grandfather and several of his friends. This idea emerged because I sought additional reading about geographies of gender, a topic that inspired my interests and that I had a thirst to learn much more about; at this point unsure why! It was this that led me to realise that, academically at least, older men have received very little critical attention and focus in sociology and the social sciences. Through the support of two male supervisors at Lancaster University, I began to question more about these forgotten people (at least in the academic imagination), noting that in my own world, men have featured very predominantly, and in very supportive capacities. Having secured funding for a doctoral project on intergenerational relations between men, I did the required reading and set out to interview men who were fathers, and men who were grandfathers. I won a funded scholarship to Linkoping University, Sweden to theoretically explore the often contradictory identities of older and ageing men and from there my PhD topic evolved and was officially born.
I cannot say that academic stimulation alone was responsible for my choosing to focus down on my particular project. I had particularly enjoyed interviewing grandfathers. I experienced a sense of pride when the men were pleased that they at last were getting some attention for the roles they play in their families. This reminded my very strongly once again of the men in my family life. I am blessed with a wonderful family and a very loving, caring father and I have always spent lots of time with my mother’s father and to a lesser extent my father’s father. My relationships with the men in my life, I am sure each have been partly responsible for my finding a lovely husband who has been incredibly supportive, particularly of my desire for an academic career. I am fairly sure that actually, what drives me is a desire to use my own positive family experiences as a way in which to really tackle the issues and inequalities many people face in their families and to explore how the positive character of family relationships can be replicated and used as a model for furthering social cohesion in communities and in everyday situations. I know this is a tough task but I am increasingly committed to the idea that everyday practices, the little things are incredibly powerful and meaningful to the quality of a person’s life.
So where am I going next? Just this Christmas I noticed something in my everyday life that I think may inspire further research questions. In talking to my husband’s grandparents it occurred to me that they don’t own a computer and that their local bank and supermarket were closing down, making it harder for them to access basic resources. I am now wondering how older communities cope with these changes and what can be done, in the planning of urban areas to aid in the continued inclusion of elderly residents. Inspired by my personal and familial relationships, this is research relevant to my career and to the lives of those who are (and are becoming) increasingly vulnerable.
Dr Anna Tarrant was awarded her PhD in Human Geography in 2011 from Lancaster University. She is currently Senior Teaching Associate at Lancaster University but has just accepted a Research Associate position with Open University where she intends to develop the research ideas discussed in this post. You can follow her on Twitter @dratarrant or subscribe to her blog, which is a space for her academic musings.