March Profile – Tim Heffernan

March 2017’s PROFILE OF THE MONTH: Tim Heffernan

Tim is a second year PhD student in anthropology at the University of New South Wales. Before starting his PhD, Tim completed honours in anthropology at the University of New South Wales and also worked as a research assistant at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra.

Tim’s PhD research concerns contemporary Icelandic identity politics following on from the collapse of the Icelandic banking sector and government administration in 2008-09. This year Tim intends to work with a number of citizen-led movements that have gained prominence since 2008. These include new leftist political parties, formal protest movements, and the developers of alternative economic initiatives. Through ethnography in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, Tim hopes to better understand how these movements are enabling Icelanders to challenge the power of the financial and political decision-making class whose actions precipitated the collapse of Iceland’s commercial banking sector.

ANSA speaks to… Tim Heffernan

1. What first attracted you to anthropology?

Like many people, I think I fell into anthropology by pursuing my curiosity in understanding why people do what they do. I’ve always appreciated photography and exhibitions dedicated to capturing people living out their lives, and I guess anthropology offered something similar. So, pursuing anthropology was a natural progression for satisfying my curiosities about other people. I can still vividly remember the first anthropology lecture that I attended in first year, and am currently supervised by that same lecturer now. Over the last several years, my interest in anthropology has definitely strengthened through reading ethnography and meeting other anthropologists

2. What book are you currently reading (academic or otherwise)?

Over the last year or so I’ve been trying to read as much ethnography as possible. I’ve been choosing books that are well outside my own research interests in order to better understand how ethnography is conducted. I’ve got a real interest in older ethnographies and think younger anthropologists can learn something by reading them. The most recent ethnography I read was Scheper-Hughes’ Saints, scholars and schizophrenics: mental illness in rural Ireland. And before that, I read The Igbo of southeast Nigeria by Uchendu. For pleasure, I’m currently reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

3. Who is your favourite/most inspiring Anthropologist, and why?

Jean and John Comaroff are definitely my favourite anthropologists. I had the pleasure of attending a lecture they gave in 2012 at Sydney University, and I think that is when my interest in their work began. I particularly like their research approach of drawing on their ethnographic and life experiences in South Africa and then challenging hegemonic thought in the social sciences. In saying this, though, I do find their work to be dense and difficult to understand. But I also find this to be an interesting challenge, and have found myself going right back through their many books and journal articles to better understand their ideas.

4. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received about doing anthropology and/or ethnography?

I think it’s really common to think that fieldwork will smooth and easy, and that just isn’t the case. Fieldwork is hard – intellectually, in terms of understanding what’s happening around you, but also socially and psychologically – and that’s not really talked about by senior anthropologists. So, I think the best piece of advice that I’ve received is to just sit with your own insecurities and worries when in the field and not to freak out. There will always be social or cultural elements that you don’t understand and, inevitably, you’ll commit a thousand social faux pas. Despite dying on the inside when these things happen, I’ve found them to also be the biggest learning experiences.

5. What resource, writing, or fieldwork tips do you have for those new to anthropology?
The internet is definitely an anthropologist’s best friend as there are so many excellent resources that are now offered by universities (e.g. the LSE Impact Blog), thought provoking podcasts (e.g. This anthropological life or New books in anthropology), and tips for writing theses (e.g. The thesis whisperer). I think the internet can be really useful in the field, too. For instance, I’m conducting research in an urban environment and have found Facebook and Twitter to be really useful tools for understanding how Icelanders in Reykjavík have been reacting to accusations of corruption within the financial and political decision-making class. Social media has also been great for seeing when public demonstrations are going to be held, or gauging public opinion on particular matters.