Catie Gressier completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia, based on research with white settler communities in Botswana.
She went on to hold the McArthur Research Fellowship in Anthropology at the University of Melbourne.
Her research focuses on human-environment relationships in Australia and southern Africa, with recent publications exploring trophy hunting, wild meat consumption, and the Paleo diet.
The year after I left school, my mum went to do volunteering work in Namibia in southern Africa. I finished my first year at university studying psychology and then I went to visit her. I was blown away by the experience, dropped out of uni, and ended up spending the best part of three years working and travelling in southern, central and west Africa. I wanted to formalise that relationship—give myself a legitimate reason for hanging out some more—so I studied anthropology.
Within the broader category of cultural anthropology, I think of myself as an environmental anthropologist. I've pursued divergent projects, but they've all had a common theme of how settler communities interact and engage with their natural and social environments, and how those environments, in turn, shape them.
Highlights and Impact
Academia is a rocky road of highs and lows. You get a great many lows in that your work is constantly being critiqued—the review process, being rejected from various journals and so on. One high though was when an article I wrote about people who will only eat the meat of species that are causing ecological damage in Australia—they call themselves 'pestatarians' or 'invasivores'—got picked up by a journalist. All of a sudden it got legs amongst a number of different media venues. It provoked what I think was an important public debate about meat consumption, so I was excited when that happened.
Using anthropological research to give a voice to people can be very powerful. I've just published a book about the Paleo diet, and many of the people with whom I worked were sufferers of ongoing chronic illnesses, or were struggling with weight issues. Their bodies were stigmatised and they often experienced outright abuse because of this, particularly in the case of obesity.
I asked one of my research participants to read a chapter of the book, and she wrote a long and fascinating email reflecting on her emotional experience of reading the work. She said it was just so empowering for her, not only to have someone who was genuinely interested in hearing her story, but also to then construct her as an expert within the text in relation to broader aspects of the political, economic and social underpinnings of food systems and their implications. That was probably one of my proudest moments: having the opportunity to give a voice to people who are not often heard in the public sphere.
My current project is working with farmers who are trying to create more ecologically sustainable, high welfare, and socially inclusive food production practices. I'm working with a grass-roots organisation promoting these aims. They're a powerful and sophisticated group, but if I can expand their voice to broader or different audiences, then that would be something that I would be excited to achieve.
My first project on white settlers in the Okavango Delta was a flight of fancy to some extent, whereas now I feel an obligation to engage with some of the problems that the world is facing. Getting into research on food systems has been a valuable way to apply any skills and knowledge that I might have to something that could help address some of the huge challenges the world is currently facing.
The precarity of employment and continuity of income is the biggest issue; going from contract to contract with no long-term security. I've had some extraordinary opportunities within those contracts, though: managing to stretch out my time at the University of Melbourne to five and a half years research-only was brilliant, and that’s what has enabled me to be reasonably productive in terms of publishing.
Now I'm in a solely administrative and teaching role with no research component, but you've got to pay the bills. I've taken this job as a pragmatic move, where hopefully I’ll learn new skills and a broader understanding of the university apparatus, which will help me get back into research in the longer term.
It's extraordinarily difficult to crack into any long-term, secure position. I've applied for several jobs and haven't been successful, as is the case for every academic I know. It doesn't necessarily mean that you're lacking in skills, it's just not the right fit. Not only is the frequent job-hunting disillusioning, but it’s really worrying because you need to have an income, especially when you have a family to support.
For me, being a mother is a mixed blessing in that, on the one hand, it makes you extraordinarily efficient with your time, and on the other, it confines your participation in things like fieldwork, especially in the early years. I’ve definitely done more reading than I ever would have had it not been for my daughter. As a baby, she wouldn't nap without physically touching me, and I couldn't write while lying with her. So I think my first book At Home in the Okavango was really fortified by a huge literature review, from being confined to the bedroom for many, many, many, many reading hours!
Advice to Younger Women
You have to be pretty robust, thick-skinned, and prepared for a rocky ride, because it is a difficult career-path. But it is also profoundly rewarding, which is why, despite the challenges, we pursue it. We could be getting more security and much higher remuneration in other sectors, but you get so much value in terms of your sense of contribution.
Research also enhances your own knowledge and your own understanding of the world, which is the greatest gift on a personal level. For instance, with my recent paleo diet book I learnt so much about the food system and the broader economic and political structures of the world at this moment in time.
This may sound clichéd and trite, but following my passion has resulted in the successes that I've had. That’s because you have to work so incredibly hard and be so disciplined and driven in order to have a successful research career. You've got infinite freedom, in many instances, so you have to be self-motivated, otherwise things just don't get done. You've got to have a love for what you're doing to keep that motivation. So even though following your passion sounds idealistic, and it probably is, it's actually worked for me.
Mentoring and Support
What I've discovered is that it doesn’t really work to be formally allocated a mentor. It is an organic process. Academics are so busy you have to build a personal relationship with someone before they're really prepared to carve out time for you.
Building relationships with colleagues is the first step. As someone wanting mentoring you need to demonstrate you have the capability and potential to actually do something, rather than just demanding that someone devote their time to you.
I've had extraordinary mentorship. In particular, Monica Minnegal at the University of Melbourne has been so generous with her time. She's just such a consummate teacher: she'll never give you the answer but she'll ask you these wonderfully elliptical questions so eventually, you catch up to where she's at. I would aspire to have those kinds of skills—direct people through, but not with a heavy-handed approach, guiding them to conclusions themselves. That’s an incredible art form that good teachers and mentors have.