Finding our place in the world
Associate Professor Michelle Duffy is fascinated by the ways in which we interact with our physical, social and emotional worlds to form our identities, build our relationships and find a sense of belonging.
Associate Professor Michelle Duffy is a human geography educator and researcher. Her work is highly participatory, inviting individuals and communities to tell their stories — from a child’s experience of living in south-east Melbourne, to a crowd’s emotional response at a music festival, or even a nation’s evolving relationship with the natural environment.
“As a cultural geographer, I draw on a range of approaches to tease apart the entangled, embodied and heterogeneous relationships that are fundamental to how we create and imagine place, identity and subjectivity,” says Michelle.
Michelle is particularly drawn to exploring the role of emotions in forming our relationships. Our emotions are constantly at play as we interact with other people and places, she explains, and motivate and mobilise us into action.
“How we are affected and respond to our emotions can tell us much about our capacities and vulnerabilities. It also offers possibilities for transforming our ways of thinking about ourselves, our relationship with community and place, and our responsibility to future generations.”
Michelle began her career in the allied science industry, before completing a degree in music and arts.
During this time, she became curious about the way that music connects, moves and shapes our identities and relationships. This curiosity led to a PhD in cultural geography and a research interest in music festivals as a microcosm of community and a way to explore people’s relationship with sound.
“Festivals are significant to geographic inquiry as examples of the complex and diverse processes of place-making.
“They also reveal a lot about how our identify is formed and operates and, as my research has since revealed, often have a role in creating stronger communities in rural and per-urban regions in Australia.
“What was very clear from my PhD research was the importance of the emotions that arise out of being part of a music performance – whether that be as a performer or audience member – and how these emotions can continue rippling out after a festival event.”
Methods of music
Michelle also uses music and sound as a novel research method. For one VicHealth-funded project, her team invited children to record their experiences of ‘home’ within Melbourne’s south-east growth corridor.
The children’s recordings, backed up by semi-structured interviews that explored social connection and meanings, were developed into two sound art exhibitions: one at Cardinia Cultural Centre, Pakenham, the other at fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne.
“One child told me at our Melbourne exhibition how excited she was that people from the city wanted to hear her story. This really touched me, as during our data collection, many children talked about the negative perceptions that people outside their town had of their community.
“Enabling others to tell their stories is really important for my research.”
Over the past few years, Michelle’s work has sashayed into the world of dance as an alternative way to explore the impact of sound: the connection between how we move to sound and our notions of place.
“When we observe a movement, even inattentively, we understand that movement in terms of its relationship to a particular environment but also with regard to our own capacity to move.”
The work of Michelle and her research team sheds light on how people interpret movement within their own unique contexts and expectations. For their most recent project, the team is exploring how mobile devices have been taken up by ballet companies to continue dancing during the COVID-19 lockdown, which has led to a reimagining of choreography.
Community wellbeing and resilience
Michelle’s research is helping to build stronger communities, and informing new policies and programs. One example of this is her membership with the Community Wellbeing Stream of the Hazelwood Health Study, a 10-year longitudinal study, funded by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.
The large-scale project has worked closely with community groups and stakeholders to identify the health and wellbeing effects of the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire, located in Morwell, and its associated smoke event and rebuilding efforts.
“Our research demonstrated there was a significant impact on community wellbeing, most notably a loss of trust in authorities when dealing with a crisis. However, our research also highlighted incredible capacities held by individuals and within community groups.
“For example, community-initiated Facebook groups emerged during the mine fire event and were used by the community to comment on the emergency response and to share a range of self-sourced information.”
In response to community discussions about the future for Morwell, Michelle’s team drew on participatory and arts-based research approaches to explore what community groups want for the future of their town.
The resulting photographic exhibition, Our hopes for the Future of Morwell, was exhibited at locations such as Federation University’s Switchback Gallery in Churchill, Victorian State Parliament, and elsewhere.
The team is now developing a regional resilience barometer as a holistic tool to capture the changes in key dimensions that underpin community wellbeing.
“This will enable us to map the overarching strengths and capacities that contribute to community wellbeing, which will be of value to local and state government in planning and allocating resources to further enhance these capacities.”
The sound of progress
Michelle believes the current geological age of human activity, known as Anthropocene, “heralds unparalleled challenges that we urgently need to address.”
Challenges such as climate change, inclusion and belonging, community development and sustainability, and identify.
In response, Michelle’s work is helping us make sense of how we engage with our world and each other using our senses, so that we can take concrete steps towards a healthier, more sustainable and connected future.
“The path I am taking, along with my colleagues, is to find ways to recognise the intricate, deeply entangled relations present between the human and non-human world. We are excited to continue exploring these relations through experimental, emergent, and creative practices.”
The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.