To mark International Women's Day this year we are celebrating some of the professional and academic staff who make our College a world-leading insitution for research and teaching on Asia and the Pacific.
In this piece, we chat to Anthropologist and PhD candidate Justine Chambers.
1. What inspired you to get into your field of research and why?
I'm finishing up my PhD in Anthropology here in the College of Asia and the Pacific. I was drawn to Anthropology as an undergraduate because of its exploration of different societies and cultures. Anthropology teaches us important lessons about the world and the global whirl of cultural mixing, contact and contestation – but it also importantly teaches us about ourselves. I was always interested in reading about other cultures and other countries growing up, but anthropology gave me the tools to better understand the world as it really exists rather than as I may have wanted it to be - to step outside myself and my own biases and question some of the epistemological views I took for granted.
2. Who is a woman in your field you look up to?
Someone that I have always admired in Anthropology is Margaret Mead. She was a pioneer in cultural anthropology and also one of the first women to make ground-breaking discoveries on human nature and the power of culture, based on her research in Samoa and Papua New Guinea. What I really admire about her is her fearlessness - the fact that she pursued Anthropology at a time when it was very unconventional for a woman to be travelling alone to other countries. She also pushed conventions on how to behave as a woman, questioning gender norms and particular models of human sexual behaviour at the time in both her research and public work. She was also a supporter of many political causes, including women’s rights and racial equality and importantly encouraged people to think of social problems as culturally constructed, issues that could be overcome by questioning social norms and boundaries.
3. What is a teaching/research project you are currently working on that motivates you?
I am currently in the final stages of writing up my dissertation. As part of my PhD I conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Karen State, in southeastern Myanmar and former home to one of the most enduring civil conflicts in the world.
As one of the first ethnographic studies to be conducted in the region for decades, my research seeks to problematise the existing literature on the Karen and discover the ways they see themselves outside the politicised and victimised narratives of the ethno-nationalist movement. Instead, I focus on understandings of morality and goodness, getting to grip with how the significant social, political and economic changes of the last five years are impacting the lives of people both young and old.
4. What are you most proud of?
Having spent the last three years working with the University of Yangon through my work at ANU's Myanmar Research Centre to develop a strong partnership across various disciplines has been one of the most valuable experiences of my PhD. For many years the education sector in Myanmar has been severely under resourced and critical thinking has been actively suppressed. Despite a critical anthropological hue on educational developmental models, I fundamentally believe in the power of education and knowledge, particularly in its ability to challenge the logics and mental models that make discrimination and mass violence plausible solutions to social ills. Given the violence committed against Rohingya people in Myanmar over the last six months, I believe developing these kinds of partnerships are essential to building a more tolerant and inclusive society.
5. What's your advice to your younger self about choosing the right path and juggling life's demands?
I think simply to believe in yourself. Don't underestimate yourself and the potential impact you have to make. Women, and young women in particular, have a bad habit sometimes of undervaluing themselves and their ability to take on new and challenging tasks. It's sometimes hard not to get caught up in the challenges of living in a mans’ world. But you need to remember to let people know what you do well and take ownership of it. Look for the role models in your life and follow by their example. Working hard isn’t enough to get the recognition your deserve. You have to be confident in who you are and the fact that you do have something valuable and important to say and contribute.
Justine Chambers is a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology, School of Culture, History and Languages in the College of Asia and the Pacific. She is also Associate Director of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre.