Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Sociospatial Structures of Australian Aboriginal Settlements

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Sociospatial Structures of Australian Aboriginal Settlements

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article is concerned with the 'sociospatial patterns' of Australian Aboriginal settlements, which are herein defined as the division of settlements into spatial zones, each occupied by an aggregate of domiciliary groups and possessing some common social identity and characteristic social structure. It is argued that sociospatial structures occurred in large Aboriginal camps across the continent to facilitate various social functions. Drawing on 15 case studies in the anthropological literature which were researched between 1896 and 1988, the analysis considers the following principles as explanations or generating devices for sociospatial settlement patterns: kinship and economy, sociogeographic identity, class divisions, and the locational principle of camping in the direction of one's country.

Are such patterns being maintained under conditions of cultural change and sedentarisation? If so, how important is it to acknowledge and preserve these patterns? It is argued that the continuity of a sociospatial structure in an Aboriginal community enables traditional social groups to maintain distinct residential locations in relation to one another, which in turn contributes to the maintenance of a variety of customary behavioural features, including social identity and internal social control.

Introduction

This article is concerned with the sociospatial patterns of Australian Aboriginal settlements--that is to say, the division of settlements into spatial zones, each occupied by an aggregate of domiciliary groups and possessing some common social identity and characteristic social structure. Although the author has maintained an interest in this subject for many years, applied anthropological work in Alice Springs in the late 1980s catalysed the preparation of the original version of this article (Memmott 1990a). (1) The author's client was Tangentyere Council, an Indigenous organisation that provides housing as well as other social welfare services to the residents of 19 Town Camps in Alice Springs. Since the formation of Tangentyere in 1977, its architects had called for a culturally appropriate approach to the planning of new housing layouts in these camps (AHP 1977:2; Dillon 1986:2; Heppell and Wigley 1981:144-6).

Many aspects of the traditional sociospatial patterns of Central Australian camps continue to occur in the Alice Springs Town Camps. In summary, this involves: (i) tribal groups from the various quarters of Central Australia camping around the urban outskirts of its regional capital in the direction of their homelands; and (ii) within these camps, the formation of sub-camps representing further subunits of customary social organisation (Memmott 1994). Within these sub-camps there is a preferred high density of residents, while there is a parallel preference for considerable spacing between such sub-camps. Allied to this preferred residential pattern are culturally distinct concepts of crowding and privacy.

Trying to accommodate these patterns in settlement planning has at times drawn strong criticism from government agencies. In the first place, the wide separation of sub-camps, by necessity, has incurred the additional development costs of long service runs for housing. But more frustrating for the Aboriginal Town Campers was that their repeated applications for more lease areas during the 1980s were at times met with resistance among bureaucrats and politicians who seem to have had an ethnocentric perception of Aboriginal sociospatial structures. They argued that there was ample space for further housing on the existing larger leases, which they regarded as being underdeveloped. Such perceptions were not readily dissuaded by Tangentyere's arguments that such spaces were important buffer zones, required to facilitate (i) the continuation of Aboriginal socio-spacing, (ii) the accompanying minimisation of conflict in an increasingly sedentarised setting, and (iii) the retention and enhancement of cultural identities among Aboriginal groups. …

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