Accepted paper:

Categorisation, measurement, and Australia's 'indigenous population'


Frances Morphy (Australian National University)

Paper short abstract:

The universalising definitions of family and household in the Australian census obscure the dynamics of Aboriginal sociality and spatial organisation. While the Enlightenment project of measurement cannot be abandoned by the state, it could be disentangled from the hegemony of ‘mainstream’ categorisations.

Paper long abstract:

The 1967 referendum, which provided for self-identification as an Aborigine and/or Torres Strait Islander in the Australian Census, allowed the emergence of an 'Indigenous Population' and a 'demography of disadvantage' that now drives state policy towards this population, imagined as homogenous, or heterogenous only with respect to the Settler Australian division of the continent into 'urban', 'regional', 'remote' and 'very remote' areas. The Australian Bureau of Statistics makes universalistic assumptions about the 'facts' being measured in the census. For example, it takes Settler Australian categorisations of kin, family and household as 'normal', and definitions of these phenomena, derived from those categorisations, frame the questions posed to the population. This paper follows data collected in the 2006 Census from the Yolngu of Arnhem Land, a 'very remote' Aboriginal population, from point of collection to the Data Processing Centre in Melbourne, showing how census categories and technologies (materialities) of measurement work to obscure the enduring dynamics of Yolngu sociality and spatial organisation. Does this matter, to either the Yolngu or the state? It will argued that the answer is 'yes', to both. For the factoids of the census output constitute the 'data' on which government policy is based, and such policy is unlikely to achieve its expected outcomes. The paper's concluding argument is that the Enlightenment project of measurement cannot be wholly abandoned as a technology of the state; however, it could be disentangled from the hegemony of 'mainstream' universalising categories. Indigenous demographies are possible, and are beginning to materialise in Australia.

panel P68
Made to measure: measurement, anthropology and the enlightenment