The Graduate Desk

The last month has been a whirlwind of activity* but this blog will, to the relief of many and the disappointment of very few, not document the minutae of my life. My main wish for this website is to develop it into a guide for prospective PhD students about what PhD life is like. Or, rather, what my PhD life is like, since I can’t possibly do justice to the enormous diversity of experiences of doctoral students across the globe.

Which brings me to my desk.

The Ethnographic Anecdote (please know that this and all the other headings in this post were written with my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek)

All PhD students in Social Anthropology in Manchester get assigned a desk, although to say that it’s assigned is not really an accurate statement. It’s more of a muted free-for-all that is carried out in tentative shuffling movements. During one of our welcome seminars last week the head of our programme showed us, a dozen or so first-year PhD students, around the department, ultimately arriving near a block of empty desks.

“These are your desks,” he told us. “At some point in the next few days you can each pick one and make it yours.”

Not one to wait politely until the desk I was coveting was snapped up, I crept backwards out of the group. As the programme director explained the importance of keeping our valuables on us at all times lest a thief find a way through the security doors, I scribbled my name on a post-it and stuck it to the monitor of the desk I coveted. In an otherwise windowless corridor, it is the only one which offers a glimpse of trees through a distant window (provided I crane my neck in a certain way).

Participant Observation

The next day, I arrived with a reusable carrier bag packed to overflowing with pictures, objects and books. I spent the morning sorting through the items in my bag, selecting which ones would spend the next year bearing witness to my moments of dejection, inspiration and apathy. As I put the desk together, I realised that I was simultaneously crafting a visual message for my colleagues to share what I and my project are about and a visual anchor for myself to return me to my core whenever I need tethering. I have transformed this desk into a gallery of Fiona Potter’s PhD Proposal – a clumsy experiment in place-making practices.

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The Theoretical Analysis

Twenty odd years ago, in a collected work entitled Senses of Place (Basso & Feld 1996) a #bigdog in Anthropology wrote that “Place makes a poor abstraction. Separated from its materializations, it has little meaning” (Geertz 1996).

Reading this for the first time a few years ago, I realised that one of the reasons I was so drawn to the Anthropology of Place is its immunity to pure abstraction. I’m not the kind of academic who likes sophisticated philosophical arguments and weighing up the merits and pitfalls of competing theoretical models. I understand their relevance, sort of, and reluctantly accept that the theoretical is an important component of any valuable anthropological dissertation, but I struggle with abstraction and enjoy that Place is not something you can say anything meaningful about without returning to material reality.

I’m not going to pretend that writing about how I decorated my desk is some sort of elaborate attempt at an auto-ethnography, but it did give me an opportunity to think about how the historical trajectories of material objects are part of what constitutes a sense of home. These aren’t just objects I bought at a store recently, but objects that have decorated the various places I’ve lived over the past ten years and so it is no surprises that seeing them , especially next to one another, makes me feel at home.

I believe that material stimuli – Geert’z “materializations” of place – contribute very much to a sense of home, be they the serendipitously occurring flicker of leaves through a window ten meters away that remind me of the trees I could see from my teenage bedroom, or the deliberately placed artworks and photographs that used to populate my life in Berlin. Visual stimuli aren’t the only things that can make you feel at home of course, as we navigate the world with all our senses. We all know that glitchy feeling of arriving in a new space and recognising a familiar smell that makes us feel like we’ve been there before. Or, indeed, a familiar noise – one of my co-supervisors, Rupert Cox, considers sound an important medium in constituting senses of place in Okinawa.

The point is that place isn’t something that we experience conceptually, at least not only. People coming to my desk can pick up the images, thumb through books, ring the bell and explore my sense of place and home by interacting with its material manifestation. It is not something they could gain as clear and direct an understanding of merely by speaking to me about it.

The Comparative Angle

Considering that my research project is concerned with how people establish a sense of home, it should come as no surprise that I was among the first students to pick a desk and make it feel like home. While some students prefer to work from home, a library or the cafe, I really like having a Place to go do do my work. And it is equally important to me to ensure that that Place visually reflects my research interests and personal taste – in short, that it feels like home both in terms of how I experience it and how my guests do (or in this case, the people who pass by and visit my desk).

My neighbour, Samuel, has taken a slightly different tack. Although he has placed important photos of people and places that give his life meaning on his desk, he’s dedicated as much space and energy into a communal coffee and milk stash, which he intends to complement later this week with snacks for everyone on our programme to enjoy.

While I’ve received complements on how “homey” my desk feels, I have to admit that it doesn’t offer much to anyone else, unless they share my exact research interests and want to borrow a book. Samuel is engaged in a very different kind of place-making, one that revolves around commensality, relationships and shared experience.

Conclusion and Reflection

While the roots of my interest in the Anthropology of Place grew in readings about the mangroves of Indonesia, the deserts of Arizona and the waterfalls of Papua New Guinea, I’m now embarking on a new mode of thinking that involves autonomously identifying different place-making practices that I see around me. Beginning to build the courage to do my own ethnographic research is an exciting part of the doctoral journey and I am eager to begin flexing my observational and analytical muscles.

Even though it feels mildly absurd that I’ve just written a thousand words about desks, I feel like I’ve begun to recognise (1) how difficult it is to corral a set of associations into a readable piece of writing, never mind constructing a tangible argument and (2) how exciting it is to make observations about the world I see and link those observations to the observations others have made before me.

Here’s hoping my next post is more cogent.


*I left my job of over two years at Audible, I gave up my flat and I said goodbye to my friends in Berlin. I moved to Manchester with two suitcases, fifteen moving boxes and a guitar. I met with my supervisors, attended Welcome Week seminars, picked modules and got to know my fellow PhD students. I got a massage. I ate Thai food. I drank cocktails. I started classes, struggled with the volume of readings, adjusted my schedule over and over again, started and quit Turkish lessons and re-learned how to skim an article. I registered with the doctor, got a SIM card, bought a few pot plants, discovered a great Indian takeout place (The Great Kathmandu Tandoori Restaurant), picked up my bicycle, and failed to answer urgent messages from curious friends, family members and former colleagues about “how the PhD is going” and “how Manchester is”. Friends, this was your answer.

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