Accepted Paper:

Anthropology and the state: what kind of handmaiden?  


Julie Finlayson (ANU)

Paper short abstract:

Australian anthropology is divided by two forms of often mutually exclusive practice - applied work and academic research. The former is a response to legislative contexts in which Indigenous Australians assert their rights and interests in cultural heritage preservation, land rights and native title. Historically, applied anthropological work is criticised as an extension of the state’s colonial project of subjecting Indigenous people to surveillance and subjugation, including cultural assimilation. The paper examines the background to this claim, possible reasons for its persistence and challenges entrenched assumptions about how anthropological knowledge is harnessed to policy-making.

Paper long abstract:

The first generation of Australian-trained anthropologists conducted fieldwork with Indigenous Australians in areas of remote Australia which required, at that time, access permission from the Protector of Aborigines, State and Territory-based officials with extensive powers of control and coercion over Aboriginal people. For this reason many anthropologists involved in research facilitated by the state were viewed as complicit with the policy objectives of colonial projects. Critics argue that the alliance forged through such research led to anthropological knowledge contributing to detrimental policies and negative outcomes for Aboriginal people. The perception persists where contemporary anthropologists working in Aboriginal Australia conduct research within legislative contexts or via government-funded consultancies.

Based on observations of policy-making in government and a literature offering divergent views of the process I critique the notion of applied anthropology as a 'hand maiden of colonialism' by examining first, theories of policy development, the relationship of knowledge to process in bureaucracies, the nature and sites of power and influence, and finally, suggest reasons why negative views of applied anthropological research have had such longevity.

Panel P19
Audible anthropology: anthropologists in government