Obituaries: DAVID MCKNIGHT ; Empathetic Ethnographer of the Australian Aborigines
Joanna Overing, Guy Lanoue and Chet Creider, The Independent (London, England)
The anthropologist David McKnight, aleading ethnographer of Australian Aborigines, published four exceptional volumes between 1999 and 2005 that disclosed the drama, intelligence and humanity of their culture. He also detailed, systematically and with immense insight, the pain, violence and inhumanity of processes that have led to the loss of their distinctive ways of life. The first of these, in 1999, was perhaps the most brilliant work of his career, People, Countries, and the Rainbow Serpent: systems of classification among the Lardil of Mornington Island' then in 2002 came From Hunting to Drinking: the devastating effects of alcohol on an Australian Aboriginal community' in 2004 Going the Whiteman's Way: kinship and marriage among Australian Aborigines' and in 2005 Of Marriage, Violence and Sorcery: the quest for power in Northern Queensland.
McKnight intended these works to be read as a set. Together they are a sophisticated tour deforce, unfolding the richness and fascination of another world, a different way of thinking, acting and living from our own that could not survive the arrogant processes of Western colonisation.
Born in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1935, McKnight received his BA in English Literature and Philosophy at Bishop's University in Quebec in 1957. Arriving in Britain in the early 1960s, he studied Anthropology at University College London, receiving a BA in 1963 and a master's degree in 1965, for which he wrote and then published a highly applauded thesis, "A Comparative Study of Cults of the Dead with Reference to Selected African Societies". For his PhD from London University in 1977, his dissertation, on the intellectually intimidating marriage class systems of Australian Aborigines, was based on long field research among the Mornington Islanders of Northern Queensland.
Over the years, he continued field research among Aborigines. A teacher well loved by his students, he was on the faculty of the Department of Anthropology at Edinburgh University from 1968 until 1971 and the Department of Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics from 1971 until 1997.
His early training in the humanities was crucial to the directions in which his anthropology developed. Never fond of the jargon of social science, and suspicious of its grand narratives, McKnight remained faithful to his early training in philosophy and literary studies. This not only drove his theoretical development and achievements in social anthropology, but also provided his writings with a freshness, delicacy and innovative thrust. His intellectual depth, humour and graceful writing style were much admired.
In field research that spanned nearly 40 years, McKnight embodied the fundamental truth that you cannot do good anthropology if you do not have empathy for the people themselves. He listened to them, became their close friend, and thus was able to speak of them in very human terms. He was forever telling stories that illustrated that Aboriginals were not mere actors in some anthropological set- piece. For him, they were never material to illustrate this or that anthropological theory, for they were above all human beings.
This is one of the reasons that he was so committed to empirically grounded ethnographic fieldwork. He understood that theoretical insight must always emerge from the details, and not the other way round. His stories about his fieldwork, and his writings, captured the small events, the everyday relationships and arguments that allow the listener or reader to transcend the superficial elements of Aborigine culture. Australian Aborigines were, ultimately, always people caught in webs of their own making, trying their best to sort it all out.
It was McKnight's strength that he waited until the latter part of his life to write his major books, long after he had understood Aborigines in any conventional anthropological sense - when he had become wise enough to understand from his own life experiences how they felt. …