Locating an Australia-Wide Anthropology

By Cowlishaw, Gillian; Gibson, Lorraine | Oceania, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Locating an Australia-Wide Anthropology


Cowlishaw, Gillian, Gibson, Lorraine, Oceania


The collection emerged from a conference' of the South East Australia Network of Anthropologists (SEANA), a title that expresses our regional ethnographic focus, but that conceals our larger ambitions. (2) What nudged us into action was the conviction that ethnographic work based in the south of the continent is relevant to the recent public disputes about conditions in Aboriginal communities. Work among Aboriginal people in the south of the continent is relevant because it has always attended to the disruptions and changes to what anthropologists had mostly represented as a coherent, unified entity called Aboriginal culture. Now that this entity is being recognised as conceptually problematic (Sullivan 2006), work that dealt with its earlier challenges merits revisiting. In what is often called 'settled Australia'--meaning places settled earlier than others--Aborigines' relationships with colonial forces came into ethnographic focus and observations were not limited to 'cultural change'; evidence of Aboriginal people's dismay at their colonised conditions, of systematic responses to white employers and fellow residents of country towns, as well as anxiety about cultural loss, was documented. For instance, one theme in Dianne Barwick's research was Aboriginal people's awareness of the need to actively participate in their own future (Barwick 1972). Here also the boundaries between Aboriginal and white society, sometimes porous, sometimes impenetrable and sometimes violent, have been an insistent focus of ethnographic attention. Throughout the continent relationships between anthropologists, government officials and government policy were a constant (Gray 2007), but they were not regarded as matters for anthropological interpretation in the north. In the south the effects of these relationships inevitably came into focus.

A further motivation for the conference was dissatisfaction with the ethnographic and geographical reach of Australianist anthropology. Not only is it almost entirely confined to Indigenous studies, but these are predominantly identified with the north of the continent where ethnographic research is mostly conducted in what are known as 'remote Aboriginal communities'. The combination of the three terms, 'remote', 'Aboriginal' and 'community' are among the tropes that congeal conventional thought within the heavy baggage of an earlier era of anthropology. (3) The ongoing unquestioned usage of this phrase threatens to fix racial boundaries, exceptionalism and the holism of classical ethnography into the very foundation of our thinking. If we want to conceive of Aborigines as full participants in a modern citizenry, it is necessary to discard the established language that purports so neatly to describe the troubling entity that seems to be there before our very eyes--the 'remote Aboriginal community'. We want to draw attention to anthropologies in Australia that are located in places that are not particularly remote, not solely or unequivocally Aboriginal, and where the notion of 'the Aboriginal community' has become problematic. Other people are important in remote places, and further, Aborigines are everywhere in Australia. Ideally, we would like to see the geographical division between different kinds of anthropology dissolved.

It was in 1939 that Malinowski said that the anthropologist 'is now forced to restate his problem and recast his methods' because cultures everywhere are 'under conditions of change' (Malinowski 1939). While it may appear that problems and methods have been radically recast since then, there are tenacious and troublesome ways that the discipline continues to frame the lives of contemporary Aboriginal Australians in obsolete language. While extreme and invasive 'conditions of change' have characterised Aboriginal lives since anthropology began in Australia, anthropologists have always privileged the relationship with an original 'culture' as the sine qua non of Aboriginal people, even when giving recognition to their colonised conditions. …

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