Accepted paper:

Ethnography, critique, and the ambiguity of ethical inquiry in the contemporary


Richard Martin (University of Queensland)

Paper short abstract:

This paper asks how critical indigenous theory might develop forms of ethical inquiry in contemporary Aboriginal Australia. I specifically focus on the challenge of writing and the meaning of ethnographic work about northern Australia's Gulf Country, both in the academy and in the context of litigation.

Paper long abstract:

With Writing Culture (1986) and other publications throughout the 1980s and 1990s, anthropology's claim to absolute knowledge and objective authority were critiqued. While holistic ethnographies continue to appear, such representations increasingly incorporate a reflexive turn, whereby anthropologists grapple with the challenge of 'being in culture while looking at culture' (as James Clifford puts it in The Predicament of Culture). At the same time, particularly in Australia, anthropology is often called upon to authorise a certain kind of 'truth' about Indigenous people for consumption by the government and other interested parties like the mining industry, as well as Indigenous people themselves, for whom epistemological questions relevant to the discipline may detract from projects of cultural revival drawing on ethnography. This paper examines this predicament by reflecting on my doctoral research about the Gulf region of northern Australia, which combined anthropology with the analysis of literary texts, and subsequent engagement in native title and cultural heritage work across the same region oriented towards the production of expert knowledge for court proceedings. Cognisant of the stakes involved for Indigenous research subjects caught within 'a system of distributed misery' (Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment), this paper asks how critical indigenous theory might develop forms of ethical inquiry within the contemporary that avoid the obvious pitfalls of immanent critique.

panel P38
Moral certainty and ambiguity in research: anthropology's enlightenment legacies and the politics of ethnography