Defiance in the detail: Young women’s embodied future selves

Defiance in the detail: Young women’s embodied future selves Book Section

Indigenous Australian Youth Futures: Living the Social Determinants of Health

  • Author(s): Chenhall, Richard, Senior, Kate, Hall, Trudy, Turner, Bronwyn, Daniels, Daphne
  • Secondary Author(s): Senior, Kate, Chenhall, Richard, Burbank, Victoria
  • Published: 2021
  • Publisher: ANU Press
  • ISBN: 9781760464448

Abstract: Introduction: All of us are doomed to the life of choices, but not all of us have the means to be the chooser. (Bauman 1998, 86). Future thinking, which may encompass ideas of hopes, aspirations, concerns and fears, has become an important focus of anthropological interest, with authors suggesting that such a focus stems from global feelings of crisis and uncertainty (Kleist and Jansen 2016). Within this larger global perspective, people also develop their own personal sets of hopes and aspirations. The ambitions of these are largely constrained by the opportunity and experience that individuals and groups have to imagine potential life paths (Appadurai 2013). People living in impoverished environments are expected to have a limited set of choices regarding their lives, because their experiences and their opportunities to enact change are constrained. But, as Hoffman (2017) argues in her study of youth in Haiti, limited options may reduce outcomes, but not necessarily the desire to make change. Disadvantaged people do not necessarily suffer from a ‘poverty of aspiration’ (Hoffman 2017, 18). Young people are often the focus of studies about futures, hopes and aspirations, as they are in the process of actively constructing their own futures; indeed, the words ‘youth’ and ‘aspiration’ are often combined to inform a discourse of future planning that revolves around education, tertiary opportunities and a successful career. Implied is a step wise plan, in which each action leads to the next desirable outcome. Young women in Australia expect to have lives that are different from those of their mothers and grandmothers—they expect to be involved in the labour force and to delay marriage and motherhood until their late 20s (Wyn and Woodman 2006)—which implies a step-by-step rendering of their futures. As Kenway and Hickey-Moody (2011, 152) point out, this consideration of aspirations, which appears deeply embedded in educational policy, fails to recognise ‘how complex and diverse aspiration is and how it is rooted in social, cultural and spatial inequalities’. Harwood et al. (2017) have recently described research in which they engaged disadvantaged young people in discussions about their educational futures, including how they imagined their post-school educational options. Importantly, these young people conceptualised the future as being ‘both distant and fragile’ and only to ‘be dealt with seriously after the pains of the present, inflicted by schooling have been managed’ (Harwood et al. 2017, 132, original emphasis). Implicit in this is the suggestion that disadvantaged young people, whose present lives are problematical and unpredictable, are too busy responding and reacting to the present to make concrete plans for the future. For Indigenous youth living in Australia’s remotest regions, a range of structural inequalities resulting from colonisation, poverty and a history of exclusion from participation in economic, education and governance processes has resulted in the poverty of available choices (Senior and Chenhall 2008, 2012) or, in Appadurai’s terms, a reduced ‘capacity to aspire’: If the map of aspirations (continuing the navigational metaphor) is seen to consist of a dense combination of nodes and pathways, relative poverty means a smaller number of aspirational nodes and a thinner, weaker sense of the pathways from concrete wants to general norms and back again. (Appadurai 2013, 189) In 2008 and 2012, two of us published some of the results of our study of young women’s present lives and future aspirations in the remote Aboriginal community of Ngukurr in the Northern Territory (Senior and Chenhall 2008, 2012). We drew on material that we had collected through our extended periods of ethnographic engagement in the community from 1999 to 2008. In our earlier papers, we discussed the limited range of options available to young women, their limited conceptions of future selves, and their limited agency to either make or imagine a different type of future. We concluded that: Young women’s agency examined within the context of a culture which is bound in age and gender hierarchies would appear very limited … community living requires a series of compromises from the young women. (Senior and Chenhall 2012, 384). The young women in our study described feeling trapped by what they considered to be traditional gender roles; they also considered escaping from these roles to be impossible. For example, one young woman commented that the only way she saw to avoid this was to ‘go to Melbourne and get a sex change operation’ (Senior and Chenhall 2012, 383). This possibility aside, it was clear from what the young women had to say that they thought that leaving the community would not enable them to take up opportunities unavailable to them in their own communities. Young people talked about the strong pull that the community and their families had on them, and made it clear that they could never consider living anywhere else (Senior 2003; Senior and Chenhall 2008). The limited range of choices available to young women in remote communities is also a strong theme of McMullen’s research, described in Chapter 7 of this volume. This chapter presents findings from further work conducted with a group of young women in a remote Aboriginal community for whom the opportunities to engage, or even imagine engaging, in the sorts of trajectories set out in educational policies are very limited.

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Chenhall, Richard, Senior, Kate, Hall, Trudy, Turner, Bronwyn, Daniels, Daphne, 2021, Defiance in the detail: Young women’s embodied future selves, Book Section, viewed 30 November 2021,

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