Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Mobs and Bosses: Structures of Aboriginal Sociality

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Mobs and Bosses: Structures of Aboriginal Sociality

Article excerpt

Abstract: A commonality of Aboriginal social organisation exists across the continent in communities as different as those from the Western Desert across to Cape York, from the towns of New South Wales and Western Australia to cities like Adelaide. This is found in the colloquial expressions 'mob' and 'boss' which are used in widely differing contexts. Mobbing is the activity where relatedness, in the sense of social alliances, is established and affirmed by virtue of a common affiliation with place, common experience and common descent, as well as by the exchange of cash and commodities. Bossing is the activity of commanding respect by virtue of one's capacity to bestow items of value such as ritual knowledge, nurturance, care, cash and commodities. Mobbing and bossing are best understood as structures in Giddens' sense of sets of rules and resources involved in the production of social systems, in this case social alliances. Mobbing and bossing imply a concept of a person as a being in a relationship. Attention needs to be given to the way these structures interact with institutions in the wider Australian society.

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Basil Sansom (1982:118),in his article on 'The Aboriginal commonality' stated his purpose as trying

   ... to explain how and why Aborigines of
   town and country, of mission settlement and
   pastoral station, of fringe camps, Bagot and
   Palm Island share widely and generally in
   sets of understandings that make them feel at
   home with one another.

A question arises as to what the sets of understandings that form the basis for such feelings comprises. Sansom described Aboriginal social organisation as characterised by formations he called 'Hinterland Aboriginal Communities', meaning Aboriginal groups that define themselves by virtue of their historic association with certain places, for example, cattle stations. These 'mobs' form 'fluctuating local groups', meaning groups of households or hearth-holds (1) of varying size and composition in particular defined places. The key behavioural principle of such groups is a distinctive manner of 'doing business'.

There are two aspects to this manner of doing business. The first is a characteristic sense of ownership in the way that a sacred site, a ceremony, song, story, dance, funeral, trouble or problem such as sickness (in fact an event or object of any kind), is owned by someone and aided in its performance by appropriate others. The other aspect is the kind of exchange that takes place. For example, exchanges of service whereby persons 'help' each other out and thereby participate in a system of ongoing debt and obligation; a 'grammar of service exchange', to be distinguished from the exchange system of the market wherein the transaction is seen as impersonal and complete once the requisite amount of cash is exchanged for the required goods.

Apart from Sansom several other writers, notably Peterson and Taylor (2003) Schwab (1995), Keeffe (1992), Dudgeon and Oxenham (1988), Coombs, Brandl and Snowdon (1983), and Chase (1981), have attempted to elaborate common features of contemporary Aboriginal society across the continent. Some features are alluded to by most of these writers. One is the importance of kin and kin networks. Dudgeon et al. (1988) uses one word for the commonality 'kindredness', by which she means a feeling present in interactions between Aboriginal persons which transcends differences. Another widely agreed upon characteristic is a distinctive culturally patterned practice of sharing (cf. especially Schwab 1995).

It is my contention that at the core of those sets of understandings whereby Aborigines feel at home with each other is a unique conception of what it means to be a person. This conception reveals itself in the colloquial expressions 'mob' and 'boss'. Examination of these terms will show that there are structures of Aboriginal sociality and that these structures are identifiable in situations as different as the communities of the Western Desert are from the towns of New South Wales and even cities like Adelaide. …

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