Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

A Recent History of the Professionalisation of Australian Applied Anthropology and Its Relevance to Native Title Practice

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

A Recent History of the Professionalisation of Australian Applied Anthropology and Its Relevance to Native Title Practice

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper describes collective efforts over the past 30 years by Australian anthropologists towards achieving national representation and accreditation for applied practitioners. The intention is to better understand the viability of various strategies aimed at strengthening a community of practice for native title anthropologists today. The 'professionalisation" issue has recently re-emerged as a topic for discussion and debate in the context of an identified shortage of suitably qualified and experienced anthropologists in the area of native title research. This shortage is reportedly contributing to delays in the processing of native title claims and raises concerns about professional standards. The potential consequences for those Aboriginal groups seeking recognition of their native title are profound. Drawing on a range of historical sources, this paper documents the rise and fall of a number of professional networks, organisations and training programs for applied anthropologists established since the early 1980s, including the Professional Association for Applied Anthropology and Sociology, the Queensland Association of Professional Anthropologists and Archaeologists, and the Australian Association of Applied Anthropology. What this short history reveals is that past efforts to organise and accredit applied anthropologists coincided with significant changes to the political, legal and commercial frameworks in which they were required to work, with the uncertainties and anxieties that accompanied change driving the desire for a more robust and supportive community of professional practice. The ultimate failure of these organisations suggests that improving the professionalism of applied practice in native title anthropology cannot be achieved solely from within the discipline itself. Rather, it will require engagement with and the support of external stakeholders who also have interests in ensuring high quality native title research outcomes.

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In May 2010, in response to a 2008 departmental review of 'blockages' in the native title system, the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department (AGD) launched a funding program for native title anthropologists. The Native Title Anthropologist Grants Program (NTAGP) was established to address an identified shortage of experienced native title practitioners and difficulties attracting and retaining early career anthropologists (AGD 2010:1). The extent of this crisis was first described in a report into the capacity of anthropologists working in native title authored by David Martin (2004a). Drawing on data gleaned from a national survey of anthropologists, Martin's report identified that less than 30 percent of Native Title Representative Body (NTRB) anthropologists had higher degrees, or more than five years' experience in native title work, and a quarter of them had less than one year's experience (Martin 2004a:1). Anthropologists working as consultants were considerably better qualified and more experienced. And yet only 20 percent of consultant anthropologists saw native title work as potentially enhancing their careers; almost twice as many considered it a limitation (Martin 2004a:3). Although Martin had insufficient data to determine whether there was an actual shortage of anthropologists to do native title work, he reported anecdotal shortfalls and chronic difficulties on the part of NTRBs in locating consultants and recruiting and keeping staff anthropologists (Martin 2004:5) (1)

One of the key challenges identified in Martin's (2004a:6) report was the professionalisation of native title anthropology. He argued that this is an area of anthropological specialisation that requires a range of skills and knowledge beyond what is usually taught within the academy. The allocation of $1.4 million over three years to the NTAGP suggests that the challenge of professionalisation is increasingly recognised by major stakeholders such as the AGD as a matter for concern, and reflects a growing awareness of the significance of anthropologists as authors and assessors of native title reports, as well as contributors to other areas of native title business such as agreement making and governance. …

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