I sat next to a guy … and I said to him, “Can I help you because you look really like something’s wrong. Are you okay?” … He said “Is there bad stuff in these offices, because every time I come in here I get really depressed?” (Lisa, age 40)
Cameron Duff (2010) has considered the way that places can evoke an emotional response. He refers to “thick” places that contribute to a person’s sense of meaning and self. While Duff considers such spaces in the more positive sense of personal enrichment, in my research I’ve been focusing on how the Work and Income offices also generate the “bad stuff” that makes the man in Lisa’s story above feel “depressed”.
Duff writes “to experience place is to be affected by place”. He proposes that place is always more than a simple geographical representation, instead places evoke feelings. It is clear from talking to clients of Work and Income that visits to the offices stir up many emotions. Clients describe their visits to Work and Income in very negative terms. They talk of trying to avoid going into offices, and of wanting to leave as quickly as they can. They relate feeling “fear”, and “dread” and use words such as “horrible”, “hideous”, “traumatic” and “downgrading”, to describe their visits.
The atmosphere of a place is intrinsically connected to what happens there. In other posts I’ve talked about excessive waiting in the Work and Income offices, and how clients feel demeaned by the way caseworkers treat them. Practices of a place “embed” feeling into it: environments are affectively shaped by the activities that take place there. Clients are very critical of the practices of Work and Income. They describe repetitive administrative errors depicting a system that is cumbersome and inefficient.They recount stories of case managers losing documents (e.g. birth or medical certificates) that take time and money to replace. They speak of encountering policy that they can not understand, and case workers who are unwilling or unable to explain it. They talk about not knowing why applications are declined and of being sent away to gather information, the purpose of which they do not understand:
… like when I first started they’d go “Yep your appointment’s here”, they go “Bring your ID”. So you bring your ID to the appointment and you get to the reception and they go, “Have you got all of the forms that you need?” I’m like, “What forms?” They’re like, “Bank statements.” So you go and get the bank statement, then you get into your appointment after waiting and then they say, “What did you spend your money on?” You say, “This and that.” They go, “Where’s your receipts?” You go, “What? What do you mean?” Then they go, “We can’t give you anything unless you have proof so we’re going to have to make another appointment.” Then most people will give up in between and it’s a sort of formula that they do to knock down the money that they let out (Frances, age 27)
Like Frances many of the people I have spoken to describe Work and Income as an institution “wasting people’s time” through ongoing communication errors that to many not only reflect a lack of respect for them and their time, but are construed as a deliberate attempt to deny them access to entitlements.
Geographers such as Ben Anderson and Nigel Thrift (2004 p.68) have described the way that affective responses can be “designed into spaces”. Thrift considers aspects such as design, lighting and music, but he also notes other features such as event management and performance as forms of “landscape engineering”. It is interesting to note that most clients of Work and Income describe the offices themselves as clean and modern. Apart from the open plan layout, which doesn’t offer anything in the way of privacy, there seems little in the physical environment that people object to. Yet the way that events are managed and performed within the offices – the excessive waiting; the intrusive questioning; the convoluted administrative processes that many do not understand; and the treatment by staff – all give an emotional resonance to Work and Income offices that make them very unpleasant places to visit.
Anderson, B. (2014). Encountering Affect : Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions. Farnham, GB: Ashgate,
Duff, C. (2010). On the role of affect and practice in the production of place. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28(5), 881-895.
Thrift, N. (2004). Intensities of feeling: Towards a spatial politics of affect. Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, 86 91), 57-78.