Abrogating Responsibility? Applied Anthropology, Vesteys, Aboriginal Labour, 1944-1946

By Gray, Geoffrey | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Abrogating Responsibility? Applied Anthropology, Vesteys, Aboriginal Labour, 1944-1946


Gray, Geoffrey, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Abstract: Towards the end of the Pacific War, two young anthropologists began work on a survey of Vesteys northern cattle stations. Ronald Murray Berndt and Catherine Helen Berndt were employed, between August 1944 and April 1946, by the Australian Investment Agency (Vesteys) to conduct a survey of the conditions and treatment of Aboriginal labour to advise on these matters, to assist in the recruitment of new Aboriginal labour, and to make recommendations for the better management of Aboriginal labour. This was a departure for Vesteys, who were universally seen as taking little interest in Aboriginal labourers and their dependants. The survey is considered, especially by the Berndts, as the first applied anthropological study conducted in Australia. This article examines aspects of this survey and the effect it had on policy and practice on Northern Territory cattle stations. It also addresses two concerns expressed by Ronald Berndt: the direct and indirect use of applied anthropology and its benefit for Indigenous people, and whether, by leaving others to implement their recommendations, anthropologists were abrogating responsibility.

Introduction

   The contradictions inherent in fieldwork as an enterprise [are]
   contradictions mediated through habits of concealment, deception and
   dissembling. While all social encounters may entail some deception,
   fieldwork is also a professional practice, and anthropologists'
   interpretations are authorized by powerful institutions ... The
   anthropologist in the field is also an emissary from the white world, an
   instance of an encounter between colonial and indigenous cultural realms, a
   fact which those we encounter in the field recognize more often than do the
   anthropologists. (Cowlishaw 1997:111)

   The real questions are whether we [anthropologists] have the courage to say
   and use what we know. (Gouldner 1964:205)

In 1976 the eminent Australian anthropologist Ronald Berndt made the following observation about anthropology and its purpose; `our discipline', he declared:

   stands or falls on the degree to which it can be directly and indirectly
   used for the benefit of someone. Who that someone is--that is, who should
   benefit--is a question that can nearly always be easily answered, but it is
   often outside the control of the anthropologist to ensure that
   recommendations are put into effect. And this raises a number of ethical
   issues with which anthropologists have been concerned for a long time ...
   [and] continues to be a major problem area and one with no easy solutions.
   (Berndt 1976:30-1, original emphasis)

He made this observation partly in response to the charge of anthropology being a product of colonialism, and partly because the anthropological enterprise was portrayed as being complicit with the colonial enterprise (see Berreman 1968; Gjeesing 1968; Gough 1968; see also Asad 1975). This also, unwittingly, problematised the relationship between anthropologists and indigenous peoples.

Ten years later, Berndt (1984:173), still concerned about the predicament in which anthropologists found themselves, added a moral stricture: `Many of us [anthropologists] would agree that it is not anthropologically ethical to present recommendations and leave it at that, abrogating to others the responsibility of making a decision'. Earlier, when reviewing Lucy Mair's Applied Anthropology, he had been critical of an anthropology that stopped short at `pointing out the changes brought about by alien impact, their implications, the possible results of various courses of action and at recommending without weighing alternatives, and most certainly without influencing administrative and political judgment' (Berndt 1958; see also Gouldner 1964).

These themes appeared to interest him for some time before the 1970s, but I argue that, at this point (the early to mid-1970s), Ronald, and presumably his partner Catherine, were faced with a crisis in their ethnographic enterprise brought about not only by international and local critiques of the discipline but also by recognition of a series of changes occurring within Aboriginal Australia: the Yirrkala bark petitions in 1963, the Wave Hill walk-off in the mid-1960s, the Gove dispute, the Freedom Ride of 1965, the 1967 Referendum which gave the Commonwealth government power to legislate on Aboriginal affairs, self-determination replacing assimilation and integration as government policy, the introduction of land rights and so on--all altered the relationships between anthropologists, Aboriginal people and government (Barnes 1988). …

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