How did post-colonial forces—Aboriginal intellectuals, critical international scholarship, and the liberalising state—shape the anthropology of Aboriginal Australia? What projects and ambitions were rejected as our once arcane discipline increasingly participated in state-sponsored projects?
When the Australian state recognised Aboriginal equal rights and rights to ancestral lands, what had been a small arcane scholarly discipline emphasising its scientific credentials was elevated to national significance, providing evidence for the development of new bodies of land and property law. Such new roles were accepted at the cost of retaining the discipline's focus on the Aboriginal past rather than developing a more contemporary, critical anthropology relevant to Aborigines' and Australia's present and future. Internationally, critical approaches to disciplinary assumptions were developing, anthropological theory was expanding, and ethnographers were exploring urban life ways, subcultures and histories of colonial engagement (eg. Taussig 1980, 1987).
Presentations will critically reflect on the responses and refusals that have characterised the trajectory of Australia based anthropology when it was challenged by historians, by Aboriginal scholars and activists, and by the demands of state sponsored projects that are intended to benefit Aboriginal people — from self-determination to Native Title. The panel will include studies of how Australia's classical anthropology, which was based on 'the radical incommensurability of modern and non-modern worlds' (Bessire 2014:20), responded to or resisted the demands of post-colonial scholarship with its insistence that natives and anthropologists are coevals, part of 'different societies facing each other at the same Time' … 'locked in antagonistic struggle' (Fabian 1983: 155; cf. Eric Wolf 1982; Talal Asad 1973).
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
The homogenisation of Aboriginal kinship: the native title effect
In this paper, I explore how cognatic descent is being used by anthropologists in native title connection research and examine the social and political consequences on the lives of claimants. Some of the most confronting and contentious schisms among native title claimant groups are in community meetings, in which ‘who’s in and who’s out?’ is being determined by anthropologists.
It has been popular in recent decades to criticize anthropologists’ preoccupation with Aboriginal pasts however, while there has been much change, there are some people whose lives remain informed by long lasting traditions which anthropologists are no longer trained to understand. In the context of native title, simplistic models of kinship are illustrative of the ‘throwing out of the baby with the bath water’. It is well recognized that the legal system which underpins native title poses problems in relation to the onus of proof of ‘belonging to country’ being placed on Aboriginal people. Rather than the recognition of Aboriginal law and its intricacies, native title claims are often shaped by the necessity to adapt to legally palatable models. Native title anthropology has adopted the term ‘cognatic descent’, as a common tool whereby connection to country is established. This strategy has collapsed a sophisticated and multi layered system of relatedness into a form of descent that is not reflected in ethnographic accounts of Australia. In this paper, I explore how cognatic descent is being used by anthropologists in native title connection research and examine the social and political consequences of this collapsing on the lives of claimants who understand their kin and country relation in country terms. Some of the most confronting and contentious schisms among native title claimant groups are in community meetings, in which ‘who’s in and who’s out?’ is being determined by anthropologists wielding family trees.
Crossing the sacred threshold: where law, anthropology and bureaucracy collide
In this paper, I reflect on my recent "insider" ethnographic research at the Northern Land Council (NLC). It is here, where law, anthropology and bureaucratic practice collide, that the complex relationship between Indigenous peoples, their institutions and the state can be better understood.
Having worked as a lawyer at the Northern Land Council (NLC) for over a decade, I found much legal and anthropological scholarship failed to reflect my experience of the messy mechanics of land rights.
To me, the preoccupations of both disciplines seemed similar - how do the normative systems of Indigenous law and custom "fit" within prescriptive and abstract legal definitions? In this scholarship, land rights was presented as a binarised battle between accommodation (by state law) and resistance (by Indigenous people, their representatives and allies). But my experience demonstrated that the NLC was sometimes an agent against the state (e.g. in fighting land claims), but often and simultaneously an embodiment of the state (e.g. in its status as a statutory corporation and its powerful functions including of determining the very identity of traditional owners). This apparent contradiction was navigated daily by NLC staff and seemed to challenge the accomodation/resistance dichotomy evident in much existing literature.
In this paper, I reflect on my recent ethnographic research at the NLC, which situates its employees as the principal subjects of study. It is here, where law and anthropology collide with the monotonous filling of forms, management of vehicle fleets, interpersonal relationship dynamics, and the processing of land use applications for everything from gravel pits to uranium mines that the complex and multi-scalar relationship between Indigenous peoples, their institutions and the state can be better understood.
Eclipsing rights: property rights as indigenous human rights in Australia
This paper explores the conspicuous silence in Australianist anthropology on ethnographic engagement with human rights. A critical focus on the diverse work of human rights brings into sharp relief the complex ways in which the State attempts to construct the contemporary citizen.
Since the early 1970s an abiding preoccupation of Australianist Anthropology has historically been on rights to land; beginning with the 1971 Justice Blackburn decision that culminated in the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976. Anthropologists were strong advocates for the recognition of Indigenous property rights and were instrumental in developing the categories at law that now define Indigenous Australian land tenure in these legally discursive contexts. Since 1992, with the recognition of native title, even more anthropologists are involved in writing claims for recognition of native title or assisting with heritage clearances to facilitate land use agreements. However, the comfort of this historical fit has since been called into question, principally from within the discipline. It is now clear that land rights have eclipsed other aspects of Indigenous human rights.
While land rights have encompassed "regaining some fraction of the personal and group autonomy which existed prior to colonisation" (Peterson and Langton 1983), the "performance of cultural continuity" (Povinelli 2002) required for the recognition of rights to land rarely transferred itself to other domains of Indigenous human rights. Indeed, in 1989 when the anthropologist Diane Bell raised the issue of Aboriginal women's human rights in relation to intra-racial rape in remote central Australia, she was a lone voice within and beyond the academy. This paper will argue that this focus on such a narrow form of cultural rights has decoupled the anthropological project from the broader set of human rights concerns, creating a legacy that is difficult to shift.
Tunnel vision: a critique of Australianist anthropology
I believe 'The unexamined discipline is not worth following' — with apologies to Socratic scholars. Intentionally provocative, I ask how and why the discipline has been dominated by a focus on the Aboriginal past, discouraging attention to other Australians and to postcolonial social dramas.
This essay is based on my conviction that Australian ethnography's narrow purview and anthropology's theoretical limitations need exploring and explaining. Given that social life everywhere offers a wealth of phenomena for ethnographers to observe and participate in, the preferred sites and social conditions that attract attention provide evidence of what disciplinary leaders consider valuable, significant, and worthy of study.
While internationally the discipline developed new sites, new theoretical fields and new political ideas in the postcolonial era from around 1970, classicism continued to dominate research in Australia. New forms of Aboriginal social life and politics created by changing 'postcolonial' conditions largely escaped ethnographic attention. Anthropology was rescued from irrelevance with the emergence of opportunities to assist the courts and Aborigines with land retrievals.
I show how, in the 1970s, anthropology and ethnography were defined in ways that refused attention to most Australian social groupings, as well as to incipient political strivings on the other side of the (post)-colonial frontier. Exceptions to the discipline's main trajectory will be cited to indicate the potential of other approaches. These suggest that an active monitoring of the discipline's boundaries took place within the Universities.
I hope to encourage reflection and expansion so that anthropology might realise its potential as the most radical and critical of the social sciences.
Regression, repetition, recognition? Governing Indigenous Australian difference today
This paper tracks the invocation of differing temporalities and periodisations as public understandings of the governance of Indigenous difference shift in contemporary Australia. How is the present imagined to involve regression, repetition, or progression towards a new future for the nation?
This paper is part of a larger collaboration with Tim Neale, which seeks to understand how public understandings of the governance of Indigenous difference are shifting in contemporary Australia. Dominant conceptual frameworks for analysing this topic were established in a past era, in which scholars accepted a positivist account of Indigenous difference and emphasised the particularity of the Australian historical experience.
This paper begins with recent debates about January 26 —commemorated as 'Australia Day' and 'Invasion Day'. We are particularly interested in tracking the invocation of differing temporalities and periodisations as commentators and scholars make sense of complex developments. Specifically, the past two decades have seen incarceration rates soar, moves towards constitutional recognition stutter along, and the chaotic implementation of interventionist social policies aimed at refiguring Indigenous labour and sociality.
Is the present effectively characterised as regression, involving the 'return' to assimilationist imaginaries and 'ration days'? Does settler colonial governance involve an essential repetition of the attempt to 'eliminate' indigeneity, only manifest in different guises? Why is it that self-determination is increasingly rendered an object of memory, retrieved both as an epoch of future-focussed optimism and experiment, and a period that demanded a melancholic attachment to an idealised Indigenous cultural past? Is the drive towards Indigenous incorporation into the constitution premised on a new future for the nation?
Contemporary trends suggest that existing conceptual frameworks for analysing these topics may have lost their relevance, and that new conceptualisations and renewed international comparison are warranted.
Avatar or interlocutor? Indigenous media and Australian anthropology
How has Australian anthropological scholarship addressed the relationship between the institutionalization of Indigenous media and the media artefacts and forms of circulation that such institutions have made possible?
This paper explores the distinctive relationship between Australian anthropological research and Indigenous media production. Since the late 1970s anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have been active interlocutors, as both analysts and advocates, in institutional worlds of Aboriginal art and media. Keenly aware of the 'Faustian' character ascribed to the Indigenous embrace of media, and attuned to the ironies of its governmental subvention, such work of necessity took shape in dialogue with specific institutional possibilities and Australian anxieties. This scholarship has also, to a somewhat lesser degree, embraced the formal exploration of Indigenous media makers and pursued an analytical project attuned to the power of expressive practices and media artifacts to make sensible both historical and emergent worlds. This paper thus canvases the ways that media scholars negotiate a tension between an institutional domain geared towards representation and recognition and those new forms of formal exploration and creative play that have accompanied the efflorescence of Indigenous media. To suggest how formal and material aspects of Indigenous media worlds offer some ground for critical reflection, the presentation draws from an ethnographic archive of extra-institutional, unauthorized media artifacts. The formal characteristics of this work, and its extra-institutional derivation, make it a privileged site from which to reexamine the recent history of Australianist anthropology in its relation to Indigenous media.
New subjects or old categories? An ethnographic critique of the intercultural
This paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork in Central Australia to argue that the concept of 'the intercultural', while a timely critique, runs up against its limits when deployed as ethnographic method, when binaries that have crumbled analytically remain significant in material terms.
In the now well-known special issue of Oceania (2005), the concept of 'the intercultural' emerged as a formal critique of the kind of anthropology that refused to meaningfully consider what was diacritically non-Indigenous, and simultaneously, suggested future avenues for productive ethnography. Over a decade later, citation of the concept has become somewhat obligatory (Lea 2012), while properly intercultural ethnography remains in its infancy. In this paper I draw upon fieldwork conducted in a setting that appears as axiomatically 'intercultural': an international NGO, with predominantly 'white' staff, working with Warlpiri people in Central Australia, and one in which my research participants persistently deployed a binary between Indigenous and non-Indigenous as a social ordering device. I trace my attempt at 'intercultural analysis', examining the tension between taking that binary seriously as an object of study while simultaneously asserting the conceptual primacy of a 'single socio-cultural field', as the social scientist with an apparently privileged, Archimedean perspective. To get to an intercultural analysis would seem to require that we substitute our ethnographic subjects with the apparently reliable coordinates of pre-colonial Indigenous life, or of Western modernity, before reinserting those same subjects as intercultural hybrids. This paper argues that this contrivance is borne of the provenance of the intercultural as primarily an anthropological critique, and subsequently questions the usefulness of the concept in doing and writing ethnography.
The (mis)functions of Australian anthropology: or, the schema of a conceptual dilemma
Fuctionalism and its opposites have had a long airing in Australia. Driven to distraction by epistemic debates Australian anthropology has neglected the possibilities indigenous intellectual traditions offer to transform the discipline. This paper proposes a redress to this oversight.
Australian Anthropology, and the discipline more broadly, has come under sustained criticism in recent decades both internally and from its former objects of scientific enquiry.
Postmodern criticisms with their analytical "weapons of mass-deconstruction" (Viveiros De Castro, 2015) are by now well known, threatening to paralyse the discipline. In the face of calls that the anthropologist is always too subjective to speak with authority about "others", Australian anthropology has gradually worked itself into its own opposite. From a highly functionalist branch of the discipline it has become misfunctional, seeking to make plain exactly how things don't work for the "others" of the discipline in an effort to "decolonize" conceptual spaces.
However simply replacing functional explanations of indigenous lives with an anti-functional vacuum of analytical practice creates a highly unproductive environment for taking post-colonial criticism seriously, which is to say, theoretically and metaphysically.
My contention in this paper is that both the orthodox and postmodern post-colonial threads of Australian anthropology unduly circumscribe the contributions of indigenous peoples by reducing criticism of the discipline to one of internal epistemic orientation, and in the process fixing the discipline and its "others" to the plane of inter-subjective discursiveness.
In order to move the discipline beyond these self-defeating criticisms and engage with indigenous intellectual traditions seriously, a theoretical operationalisation of post-colonial sentiments into a form of inter-objectivity is required. This paper seeks to make the case for this move in broad terms drawing on key examples from the discipline abroad and at home.
'It … should help in a very practical way.'
In 1944-46 Ronald and Catherine Berndt conducted a survey of Aboriginal labour for Vesteys. 'This case study poses questions about anthropology's roots in and relationship with colonialism, exploring how disciplinarity was shaped by this forge.
In History and Anthropology anthropologist Paul Sillitoe (2015) raised a pertinent problem: 'The discipline's history reveals that a concern for demonstrating its applicability has troubled it since its inception.' Picking up on this I want to examine the work of Ronald Berndt and Catherine Berndt when employed by Vesteys, a British family company. Vesteys leased cattle stations across northern Australia. When the Berndts undertook this survey work they had recently completed a diploma in anthropology under Elkin at the University of Sydney. The Vestey survey was 'a very practical means of solving a problem of national importance' (RMB & CHB 1946, 4). They were confident they could meet the demands of Vesteys, Elkin and the Northern Territory administration. It was not so straightforward although Elkin's explanation made it seem so: 'It will give you both great opportunities for research, and also should help in a very practical way.' They would 'free…to do research work, but the aim is applied Anthropology, and Vestey's will look for practical advice and practical help in keeping up their native labour.' The aim, Elkin said, was 'to build up a contented Aboriginal community in the regions to which they are accustomed, and around the Pastoral Industry, which they like. A wealthy firm like Vestey's gives us our opportunity.' This case study poses questions about anthropology's roots in and relationship with colonialism, exploring how disciplinarity was shaped by this forge.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.