Neighbourhood Houses as sites of women’s empowerment

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Harrison, Ursula May (2018) Neighbourhood Houses as sites of women’s empowerment. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


Neighbourhood Houses, first established in Australia in the 1970s, operate within a community development framework and are committed to empowering individuals and communities. Their practices encourage active participation and involvement in social and recreational programs, formal, informal, and incidental learning, leadership activities, and local decision making. Empowerment is a central principle of community development, although in recent times its continuing relevance has been questioned within the community development field. Women constitute a majority of participants and staff in Neighbourhood Houses. This thesis reports on the first Australian study to focus on women’s experiences of empowerment through their engagement with Neighbourhood Houses. It examines the processes, practices and aspects of community development that contribute to their experiences. The epistemological approach of this research draws on feminist and poststructural perspectives regarding how knowledge and meaning are produced, and what constitutes knowledge. An overall qualitative approach to the research design was used in order to focus in a detailed way on women’s everyday experiences of empowerment in the course of their engagement with Neighbourhood Houses. Twenty-eight women participants and managers of Neighbourhood Houses in urban and rural areas were interviewed for the study. Semi-structured interviews, informed by narrative research practices, explored the multiple and diverse ways in which discourses and practices of power were expressed, negotiated, challenged and resisted by the participants. The findings of this research present in rich detail the diversity and fluidity of the women’s experiences of power, disempowerment and empowerment. The research found that the women experienced empowerment in multilayered and iterative ways through engagement with the Neighbourhood Houses. In their active engagement, the women were supported by the flexible, inclusive, and non-prescriptive community development practices within the Neighbourhood Houses. The participatory, learning, and relational environment of the Neighbourhood Houses enabled the women to explore new ways of being in the world and to develop new understandings of themselves in relation to the world. This contributed to a strengthened sense of their own agency and control within their personal, working and civic lives. This detailed exploration of women’s everyday experiences in Neighbourhood Houses supports the continuing usefulness to community development of an enriched, nuanced understanding of power and empowerment informed by feminist and poststructural theory.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Historical > FOR Classification > 1607 Social Work
Historical > FOR Classification > 1699 Other Studies in Human Society
Current > Division/Research > Institute for Health and Sport
Keywords community development; empowerment; power; disempowerment; women; Neighbourhood Houses; feminist theory; poststructural theory; social inculsion; learning; belonging; managers; Victoria; Australia
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