Research on the South Pacific: Australian Postgraduate Theses, 1964-2006

Article excerpt

Australia was once home to several of the world's leading Pacific research centres or schools and Australian based scholars led the way in many fields. In the 1960s 1970s and 1980s this seemed a natural expansion of Australia's role in a region that was decolonising. The last ten years have seen a worrying trend develop as Australia's output of postgraduate degrees on the Pacific has declined and Pacific studies research has become marginalised or stagnant. This essay argues that Australia needs to expand the body of expertise it has on the Pacific and to revitalise higher degree research across the nation's universities, museums, galleries, archives and libraries.

The Records of Historical Scholarship

Every year since 1966, the Journal of Pacific History (JPH) has published an annual bibliography of theses and publications in Pacific history and the social sciences generally. World-wide since 1964, it notes that 3,028 Masters and PhD theses were awarded. The JPH bibliography remains a unique indicator of the state of humanities and social science research in Pacific Studies over the last four decades. The bibliography is the most comprehensive list available and tells us a great deal about the state of the academic market for Pacific Studies in Australia, even though its primary emphasis is on history. While the list is close to complete for Australia and New Zealand and is an excellent source of English language theses, it is not a full list of theses on the Pacific in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences produced in universities in Europe, Africa, the Americas or Asia. The JPH list covers history theses, as well as theses from archaeology, anthropology, geography, politics, education, linguistics, economics, literature, law, theology and a few from the sciences. Earlier catalogues exist, (Dickson and Dosser 1970; Coppell 1978; Coppell and Stratigos 1983) as well as the more recent Pacific Islands Dissertations and Theses from the University of Hawaii, 1923-2008 by Lynette Furuhashi, and the Bibliographic Index of Pacific Theses in New Zealand Universities (2009) which includes all theses back to 1900, by Pollyanna Rasmussen-Paese. The British Library also has a new service called EThOS, a centralized archive of digitised theses from British institutions. The new Australasian Digital Theses Project will in future provide a comprehensive list and digital access to theses from Australia and New Zealand, although only from participating universities.

Graphing the Australian theses output against world output in Pacific History and related disciplines indicates that between 1964 and 2006 Australia produced around 456 Masters and PhD theses on the Pacific, about fifteen percent of the world total. The population of Australia in 1964 was approximately eleven million and to keep pace the output should have doubled in size by 2006, rather than remaining constant. However, this is also true for Pacific island-related theses output from North America and Europe, which have also failed to keep pace with population growth. In the statistics there is no sign of dramatic increases anywhere, and there was a universal downturn in Pacific theses production during the 1980s and 1990s.

The 1960s and 1970s were the years when the Pacific Islands were moving from colonialism to independence and academic interest in that process was high and Pacific Studies was in an expanding across the tertiary sector. During the 1980s and early 1990s, except for instability in Bougainville, Fiji and New Caledonia, the region was reasonably prosperous and developing according to internationally set standards, however, the rate of take-up and thesis completion declined. A decline in postgraduate output in the 1980s and 1990s probably reflects increasing concentration on Asia, and the diversification of disciplines, so that 'history' in now often incorporated into gender, media, film, peace and conflict or development studies, governance, anthropology or economic studies. …