Ethnography

BAYS POINT: GOD’S WAITING ROOM

 

CONTEXT:

Bays Point, a small village in Northern New South Wales is home to five different retirement complexes. The population of the town is about 14600 (ABS, 2008) and the majority of these residents are elderly or retired.

According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 36.9% of Bays Point residents in 2006 were persons aged 55 years and over (ABS, 2008). I attended one of the two high schools in Bays Point and that is where I learnt that the locals refer to the town as “God’s waiting room”.  Bays Point shopping village lies in the centre of the town and serves the community not only with all of the necessary amenities but it also acts as the hub of social interaction for the residents. In this study I describe the activities, character types and behaviours in this shopping centre.

METHOD:

I acquired the data for this study through a combination of participant observation and field notes. I wanted to observe the locals engaging in their daily activities undisturbed, and for the sake of authenticity I decided I would remain a passive observer. Van Deventer (2007) argues that “covert research has a component of deception associated with it” and therefore raises ethical questions concerning privacy, consent and confidentiality (Van Deventer, 2007). I feel that I overcame these issues by ensuring that my research met legal and ethical standards outlined in the University’s ethical guidelines (University of Queensland, 2012). I did not record any of my research subjects, nor are any of them identifiable upon reading my data. Each day that I visited the shopping complex, I made discrete notes in my phone, which I later went home and expanded on in more detail. I visited the shopping centre over a period of three weeks, on different days, at different times, including weekends.

CHARACTERS AND ROUTINE BEHAVIOURS:

During my time as a researcher at Bays Point shopping village, two primary character groups emerged, each of which can be broken down into more detailed sub-groups. I also noticed a set of routine behaviours typical to these characters. On a day-to-day basis, I observed the characters performing the same acts in an almost ritualistic manner.

The first group I observed was those who worked at the shops. I watched the way that shop employees interacted with members of the community and came to the conclusion that there were two different character types working at the shopping village. Firstly, there were those who were employed as part time or casual team members at the supermarket, video store, bottle shop and news agency. These individuals were primarily of high school age and were obviously only interested in going to work to make money. They were often rude and impatient towards the elderly customers they served and I noticed that this negative attitude was a routine behaviour amongst this particular sub-group. In stark contrast, the people who worked at the shopping village on a permanent basis- particularly store managers and owners- were friendly towards their customers and knew many of them by name. Their routine behaviour was to engage in conversation with their customers and to go out of their way to assist them. A good example of the positive relationship between employees and their clientele could be seen at the coffee shop where the two full time baristas knew their customers so well that they were often able to guess what each person was going to order.

The second group of people I observed was the locals. The locals I surveyed were predominately people aged over fifty and can be categorized into five main sub-groups. Firstly, I noticed the types who constantly complained about their ailments and illnesses to their friends and to the shop owners. These people would spend the majority of their time at the shopping village discussing afflictions, diseases, trips to the doctor and medical costs. What was particularly interesting about this group of characters was their competitive nature- each character would assert that his or her illness or ailment was the most painful, debilitating, or expensive. People from this character group would routinely line up outside the doctors surgery, pharmacy and pathology fifteen minutes before the shopping centre opened in the mornings.

The next group of characters I observed were the type who regularly met at the Bays Point Café. This group was predominately female and would spend their time gossiping over coffee and cakes. They were always dressed nicely, with their hair neatly groomed and their outfits freshly ironed. They didn’t seem to have a set meeting time, as I saw them on different days, in the morning and the afternoon. Thirdly I noticed the type of character, predominately male, who lingered around the community notice board outside the supermarket. This type of character would routinely scan the notices, monitoring what was going on in the neighbourhood and keeping their eye out for bargains and services.

The next group of locals I noticed was the type of character who visited the shopping complex in their ‘work out’ or ‘athletic’ clothing. In many cases, these characters would be on their way home from the local sports and recreation club, Club Bays. They would be dressed either in golfing attire, or would be carrying bike helmets or towels. The final group of people I observed were the type who would openly flirt with members of the opposite sex and go out of their way to compliment their peers and the shopkeepers. For example, one morning I overheard an elderly gentleman telling a group of woman outside the pharmacy ask a group of women what secret medication they were buying in order to make them all look so youthful.

ANALYSIS/INTERPRETATION:

At the conclusion of my field study my interpretation of the data produced the following three fundamental ideas: Firstly, I believe that the owners and managers of shops at Bays Point Shopping Village have capitalized on the popularity of the complex within the elderly community. I believe they have recognized the high percentage of elderly/retired people in the town and accordingly, have targeted their businesses towards catering specifically for their needs and desires.

At the complex there was a noticeable lack of teenagers and children and the few that I saw in my time as a researcher were there with their parents. Additionally, any young adults or middle-aged people I saw, for example, teachers from the nearby high school were clearly identifiable. They walked briskly and with purpose and waited impatiently in lines looking at their watches and tapping their shoes. I concluded that children, teenagers and young adults only visit the shopping village out of necessity and they do so reluctantly. I believe the lack of young people has a strong correlation with the idea raised above; that shop owners at Bays Point cater explicitly for their elderly customers. Finally, as stated previously, the shopping complex is the hub of social interaction and communication for the elderly residents of Bays Point. Not only is it convenient and accessible, I believe they see the experience as an escape from their lives- particularly those living in the retirement villages in the area. I believe they relish in the feeling of freedom that it offers them.

FURTHER RESEARCH:

An interpretation of the data I acquired prompted me to consider possible future research relating to the topic. According to O’Connell and Ostaszkiewicz (2005) the number of people over 65 will more than double in the next century, with the “greatest proportional growth projected for the 85 plus population”(O’Connell & Ostaszkiewicz, 2005). The study published in Australian Health Review argues that Australia needs to respond proactively to this vast demographic shift by promoting healthy ageing and developing a non-discriminatory approach to accommodate elderly people within the community (O’Connell & Ostaszkiewicz, 2005). I believe that Bays Point fits into our culture as an example of this type of community. I think it would serve as a useful and interesting case study to social science researchers in the field.

REFERENCES:

 

O’Connell, B. & Ostaszkiewicz, J. (2005). Sink or swim- ageing in Australia. Australian Health Review, 29(2), 146-50.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). Person Characteristics. Retrieved April 20, 2012, from http://www.censusdata.abs.gov.au/ABSNavigation/prenav/LocationSearch?collection=Census&period=2006&areacode=SSC16153&producttype=QuickStats&breadcrumb=PL&action=401

University of Queensland. (2012). The University of Queensland Guidelines for Ethical Review of Research Involving Humans. Retrieved May 5, 2012, from

http://www.uq.edu.au/research/rid/human-ethics

Van Deventer, J.P. (2007). Ethical considerations during human centred overt and covert research. Quality and Quantity, 4, 45-57.

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