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Research politics and the production of anthropological ‎knowledge

The present and the ethnographic present: change in the production of anthropological knowledge about Aboriginal Australia

Nicolas Peterson

Note de l’auteur

I would like to thank Chris Gregory for a stimulating exchange on the topic of this paper.

Texte intégral

1Well first, I’d just like to thank the organizing committee and the museum invitation. It’s a wonderful chance to be here, I haven’t been here before. And also Phillippe Peltier and Anne-Christine Taylor and Jessica De Largy Healy for taking us around the museum yesterday, it was such a privilege and it was a wonderful experience, completely devoid of anybody else and with full access to the collections.

  • 1 The Territory was the focus of the Intervention for several reasons. While the Territory Aboriginal (...)

2My paper “The present and the ethnographic present: reflections on the production of anthropological knowledge about Aboriginal societies and cultures”. The period between the 23rd of September 2000 and the 25th of October 2001 is as good as any to take for the public transition in the production of anthropological knowledge in Australia. On the first of these dates, Peter Sutton, a linguistically oriented anthropologist working mainly in Cape York, gave the inaugural Berndt Foundation memorial lecture. And on the second date, Noel Pearson, a leading public intellectual from Cape York gave the inaugural Charles Perkins Memorial Oration. Broadly speaking they were saying the same things: there was a policy failure in remote Aboriginal Australia where 30 years of solicitous welfare State policies had led to wide spread but not universal demoralization and unacceptable levels of social problems. These two speeches enabled those both inside and outside Aboriginal affairs to speak out aloud about what had previously been only whispered, and be heard. Ultimately this led, on the 23rd of June 2007, to the Northern Territory Emergency Response known as the Intervention, when drastic measures aimed at a radical change of direction in Aboriginal policy were introduced, directed at similar social problems to those that had been found in Cape York.1

3This transition has given a dramatic emphasis to changes in the production of anthropological knowledge, marked by the change from an emphasis on the ethnographic present to the present. Broadly coincident with these changes are other changes that are going on in the social sciences in the Anglophone world. Two of the more significant are the marked feminization of anthropology, at both graduate and undergraduate levels and the huge growth in development studies courses and graduate research projects at much the same time.

4This table, compiled from the Australian Institute of Torres Strait Islander studies Library catalogue, which holds most, but not all PhD’s in Aboriginal anthropology, clearly shows the change at graduate level in terms of the production of knowledge by female anthropologists. In respect of the emphasis on development, lecture courses, essay topics, doctoral research projects, conference sessions and book publications are now dominated both directly and indirectly with issues of change in one way or another. The impact on the kind of anthropological knowledge produced is much more strongly marked at a national level, and is less visible as yet in the international literature. Another feature of this transitional period that I will not touch on here, but which relates to the focus on the present is the huge growth in research and publication on Aboriginal issues from people across the whole spectrum of disciplines outside of anthropology that until recently had largely ignored this field.

5In an attempt to see if I could in any way substantiate these observations and to see what else I might learn, I decided to turn to Google Scholar citations. I chose Google scholar mainly because it is very easy to use as compared to Scopus and The Web of Knowledge, even though there are well known criticisms of it and the other two as well. There is not time to go into all the criticisms of each of these databases except to note their Anglophone focus and that not all of the criticisms apply to the very simple way in which I have used it to generate the tables I will show you. I simply typed in the name of 87 Australianist anthropologists active today, and the principle ones from the past, and took the top two cited works for each, for single authored works (i.e. no edited volumes, one or two of which come out quite well, or theses), and treating Spencer and Gillen, and Ronald and Catherine Berndt as single authors. Only those people with more than 50 citations for one of their publications in mid-December 2012 have been included, making 65 people (only one entry for Godelier) in the database. I will not qualify all of my Statements with, ‘according to this database’ but that of course has to be borne in mind.

6Table 1 lists the items published since 2000 that appear in my research of the full 87 names and reflects both the importance of publishing by female anthropologists, 10 of 18 authors, and the emphasis on the issues of the present. Only 5 of 17 authors have a classical focus: Poirier on dreams, Dousset on kinship, Dussart on ritual and Morphy on art-land, and Layton on land respectively, with one author writing a historical article.This emphasizes that recent Francophone anthropologists who have worked in Australia have a classical focus, which if one adds Barbara Glowczewski’s work with Warlpiri, and Michael Houseman’s work on marriage networks both is even more marked. Bernard Moizo’s ethnography of Junjuwa bridges the classical and the contemporary, while only Marika Moisseeff’sfascinating survey of an Aboriginal village fits firmly into the contemporary grouping.

Table 1: Citations of new works between 2000-2009 reflecting some of the changes referred to

NAME

M

F

YEAR

ARTICLE

PUB

B

C

J

CITE

Musharbash, Y.

F

2009

Yuendumu everyday

A

B

26

Austin-Broos, D.

F

2009

Arrernte present, Arrernte past

US

B

38

Musharbash, Y.

F

2007

Boredom

US

J

24

Cowlishaw, G.

F

2004

Blackfellas, whitefellas and the hidden injuries of race

A

B

105

Kowal, E.

F

2008

The politics of the gap

US

J

32

Lea, T

F

2008

Bureaucrats and bleeding hearts

A

B

48

Kowal, E.

F

2005

 Ambivalent helpers

 N

J

38

Poirier, S.

F

2005

A world of relationships

C

B

38

Dousset, L.

M

2005

Assimilating identities

A

B

10

Lea, T.

F

2005

The work of forgetting

N

J

6

Morphy, H.

M

2004

Landscape and the reproduction of the ancestral past

C

143

Austin-Broos, D.

F

2003

Places, practices ,and things

US

J

58

Povinelli, E.

F

2002

The cunning of recognition

US

B

485

Myers, F.

M

2002

Painting culture

US

B

170

McKnight, D.

M

2002

From hunting to drinking

UK

B

64

Strang, V.

F

2001

Negotiating the river

UK

J

14

Sutton, P.

M

2001

The politics of suffering

A

B

145

Altman, J.

M

2001

Sustainable development options on Aboriginal land

A

J

124

Layton, R.

M

2001

Uluru: an Aboriginal history

A

B

80

Layton, R.

M

2001

Relating to country

UK

C

45

Wolfe, P.

M

2001

Land. Labor and difference

US

J

108

Dussart, F.

F

2000

The politics of ritual

US

B

68

Macdonald, G.

F

2000

Economies of personhood

J

C

45

7It is interesting to re-rank these publications by number of citations.This emphasizes a point that will be come clearer: books are more likely to be cited than journals, and journals than book chapters. This itself is interesting because on the basis of work done for the quality assessment of university disciplines, in Australia, the ERA (Excellence in Research Australia) for the period 2007-2011 by the ANU, where there are c40 anthropologists, journal articles in all years were the favoured place of publication making up in 2011, 60% of the total, book chapters c.28% and books c.5%. While there is a clear correlation between citation rates and how long a publication has been available, time alone does not account for the citation rates. It seems evident that publication in the US is also helpful. I think it would go unchallenged that as far as the nation as a whole was concerned the most high profile publication nationally about Aboriginal issues by an anthropologist would have been Sutton’s book, ‘The politics of suffering’ (2009).

Table 2: New works published between 2000 and 2009 ranked in descending order by citation.

NAME

M

F

YEAR

ARTICLE

PUB

B

C

J

CITE

Povinelli, E.

F

2002

The cunning of recognition

US

B

485

Myers, F.

M

2002

Painting culture

US

B

170

Sutton, P.

M

2001

The politics of suffering

A

B

145

Morphy, H.

M

2004

Landscape and the reproduction of the ancestral past

C

143

Altman, J.

M

2001

Sustainable development options on Aboriginal land

A

J

124

Wolfe, P.

M

2001

Land. Labor and difference

US

J

108

Cowlishaw, G.

F

2004

Blackfellas, whitefellas and the hidden injuries of race

A

B

105

Layton, R.

M

2001

Uluru: an Aboriginal history

A

B

80

Dussart, F.

F

2000

The politics of ritual

US

B

68

McKnight, D.

M

2002

From hunting to drinking

UK

B

64

Austin-Broos, D.

F

2003

Places, practices ,and things

US

J

58

Lea, T

F

2008

Bureaucrats and bleeding hearts

A

B

48

Layton, R.

M

2001

Relating to country

UK

C

45

Macdonald, G.

F

2000

Economies of personhood

J

C

45

Austin-Broos, D.

F

2009

Arrernte present, Arrernte past

US

B

38

Kowal, E.

F

2005

 Ambivalent helpers

 N

J

38

Poirier, S.

F

2005

A world of relationships

C

B

38

Kowal, E.

F

2008

The politics of the gap

US

J

32

Musharbash, Y.

F

2009

Yuendumu everyday

A

B

26

Musharbash, Y.

F

2007

Boredom

US

J

24

Strang, V.

F

2001

Negotiating the river

UK

J

14

Dousset, L.

M

2005

Assimilating identities

A

B

10

Lea, T.

F

2005

The work of forgetting

N

J

6

8Production of anthropological knowledge about the present might well be welcomed but it has had at least two unintended negative consequences, which is of itself of interest. Faced with public concerns around health, youth, law enforcement, employment, education and housing, the temperature of anthropological debate as reflected in some conference sessions, journal articles, book chapters, and aasnet, (the bulletin board of the Australian Anthropological Society, which is the national professional association) has risen hugely. The reasons for this are complex but one is certainly because much of this work would fall under the rubric of applied anthropology or at least with implied policy implications. In this context cultural relativism may suffer, and righteousness emerges, leading to accusation against those involved in applied work of being complicit in the subjugation of Aboriginal people, because of anthropology’s allegedly foundational role as a critic of the State (see Trigger 2012 et al). Thus some seek to create a sharp divide between ‘pure’ and applied anthropology, vilifying the latter. The second negative consequence is that far too much anthropological writing, often unintentionally, mistakes advocacy for analysis: indeed, sadly, this is now almost a trade mark of writing about Indigenous related issues adding to the confusion in public debate, among other things.

9So these changes leave the ethnographic present very much in the past. Nevertheless it is the knowledge produced in the hey day of the ethnographic present that still captures the imagination of the international world of scholarship, to the extent that it has an interest in Aboriginal Australia, and it would be wrong to suggest that there is no interest at all in classical topics such as kinship, land tenure, material culture or some limited kinds of ceremonial activity among active Anglophone researchers today, although the firm impression is that these subjects are dominated by older male anthropologists. That may not be surprising since male graduate students were the more numerous in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when it was still not only easier to work on such topics but the expected focus of research.

10Up to the beginning of the First World War, anthropological knowledge about Aboriginal societies and cultures played a crucial role in the production of anthropological theory. They were seen to be the sociological, ecological and evolutionary prototype of the hunting and gathering existence, a paradigm of the relations with the natural environment and to represent humans in the chrysalis phase. In the first 14 years of the twentieth century twelve major theoretical books drawing either entirely or extensively on Australian ethnography, and written by people who had not done research in Australia, appeared addressing what were understood to be universal issues relating to the history of human kind (Crawley 1902; Lang and Atkinson 1903; Van Gennep 1905; Lang 1905; Thomas 1906; Hartland 1909; Marett 1909; Frazer 1910; Wheeler 1910; Durkheim 1912; Malinowski 1913; Freud 1913). The ethnographic base was quite slim relying principally on seven or eight authors (Spencer and Gillen, Roth, Mathews, Howitt, Bates, Radcliffe-Brown, Parker). With the demise of the social evolutionary paradigm, interest and research in Australia declined dramatically. It was not until the establishment of the chair of anthropology at the University of Sydney in 1925 that a new round of research began. However, the new spate of publication by A. P Elkin, Lauriston Sharp, CW Hart, Ralph Piddington, WEH Stanner and Geza Roheim, much of it initially in the pages of the journal Oceania, and then later as monographs by Lloyd Warner, Phyllis Kaberry, and Radcliffe Brown, did not attract much more than local interest. Perhaps it was, as somebody has suggested, that Aboriginal people had too much social structure, making it a field for regional specialists with only the occasional international scholar venturing into this area of publication to tackle issues such as the Murngin problem.

11In the post WW2 a new group of scholars greatly expanded the ethnographic record, among them were the outstanding contribution of Ronald and Catherine Berndt, T.G H. Strehlow, Mervyn Meggitt, Les Hiatt, Fred Rose, Norman Tindale, and Nancy Munn. There was also the occasional striking engagement with Australian ethnography not based on field research that projected it back into the international world of scholarship, most notably Claude Levi-Strauss’s work on kinship and totemism.

12At the ‘Man the hunter’ conference in 1966, that revived the interest in hunter-gatherer studies, Australian ethnography was further distanced from the international world of scholarship by G.P Murdoch’s comment that:

I suggest that we recognize the near uniqueness of Australian social organization and pay more attention than before to attempts to explain their sharp divergence from similar societies elsewhere in the world (1968:336).

13He had in mind what he believed were the rigid residence rules, the common polygyny and the prevalence of unilineal descent.

14In the 1970s two contributions caused a flurry of interest: Marshall Sahlins’s (1972) essay on the original affluent society based on the time studies of McCarthy and McArthur and Maurice Godelier’s (1975) essay on the kinship mode of production, drawing substantially on the work of Aram Yengoyan.

15Aboriginal anthropology received a great stimulus from the formal establishment of the AIAS in 1964 and the huge boost to its funding, including for research grants in the early 1970s, which joined with the expansion of Australian universities at the same time lead to a huge increase in doctoral research. It also brought with it an influx of anthropologists who had trained in the United States moving Australian anthropology away from its roots in British social anthropology into the mid-Atlantic. The work with the most dramatic impact from this new orientation has been Fred Myers’s Pintupi country Pintupi self (1986) that was the first detailed and comprehensive cultural anthropological ethnography, although Bob Tonkinson had published a short case study in the Holt Rinehart and Winston series from a similar orientation in 1978. Myers’ volume has had an enormous impact on the research agenda of most subsequent work carried out in remote Australia.

16Since the 1980s, anthropology in Australia as elsewhere in the Anglophone world has become increasingly diverse and eclectic and broadly speaking, trends in Australia reflect movements in the discipline internationally. Thus there is evidence that phenomenological approaches are more common now partly brought about by a greater number of students and staff with a European background, and increasingly there is an overlap between anthropological and cultural studies projects.

17From 1979 to the present, the demand for Australian anthropologists to work on land and native title claims has been substantial and given anthropologists easy access to communities across Australia. While this has as yet had relative limited impact on publishing outside of technical writing about issues to do with this kind of work, the end of such applied work is in sight and it is possible that the support that anthropology has had from Aboriginal people may decline. But this work has generated a huge archive of material, much as yet legally restricted but which will eventually become available providing rich documentation on land related aspects of life since the 1980s.

Table 3: Top 30 most cited works

NAME

YEAR

ARTICLE

Myers, F.

1991

Pintupi country Pintupi self

Spencer & Gillen

1898

The native tribes of central Australia

Elkin, A. P

1970

The Australian Aborigines

Howitt, A.

1904

The native tribes of southeast Australia

Berndt R & C

1988

The world of the first Australians

Povinelli, E.

2002

The cunning of recognition

Meggitt, M.

1965

Desert people

Tindale, N. B.

1974

Aboriginal tribes of Australia

Bell, D.

2002

Daughters of the dreaming

Radcliffe-Brown

1930

The social organisation of Australian tribes 2

Warner, L.

1969

A black civilisation

Sharp, L.

1952

Steel axes for stone-age Australians

Kaberry, P.

2003

Aboriginal woman: sacred and profane

Rose, D.

1996

Nourishing terrains

Hart, CWM

1966

The Tiwi of north Australia

Morphy, H.

1992

Ancestral connections

Strehlow, TGH

1968

Aranda traditions

Tonkinson, R.

1991

The Mardu Aborigines

Maddock, K.

1973

The Australian Aborigines

Altman, J.

1987

Hunter-gatherers today

Goodale, J.

1971

Tiwi wives

Spencer & Gillen

1904

The northern tribes of central Australia

Peterson, N.

1993

Demand sharing

Munn, N.

1973

Walbiri iconography

Elkin, A. P.

1978

Aboriginal men of high degree

Langton, M.

1993

We, I heard it on the radio

Strehlow, TGH.

1971

Songs of central Australia

Wolfe, P.

1998

Settler colonialism

Sansom, B.

1980

The camp at Wallaby Cross

Roth, WE

1897

Ethnological studies among the north-west-central Queensland Aborigines

18Table 3 shows the top thirty works by citation. It confirms that books are still by far and away the most likely to be picked up as the most highly cited with only two journal articles in the top 30. Given the time span covered by this table it is not surprising that 22 of the 29 items (the joint R and C Berndt not counted) have been published by males, and that almost half of the items were published before 1970.  What this table does not show is the impression I get from reading and conference sessions that it is probably archaeologists, and people interested in optimal foraging and the like, who are among the biggest consumers of the classic ethnographic literature even though ethno-archaeological analogy is out of fashion.

19Regionally nine of the works are book length ethnographies of desert cultures and the six ethnographies from Arnhem Land, in its widest sense, are again all books. Six can be classified as textbooks if, Elkin and Tindale’s nationwide surveys are included in that category. While the four early volumes are clearly inspired by a social evolutionary perspective, ameliorated to some degree by the empirical orientation of the scholars involved, at least twelve are broadly speaking inspired by an ethnographic empiricism with a functionalist flavor and three by a cultural anthropological approach.  

Conclusion

20While there are many reservations that could be expressed about these tables and the methodology, intuitively they make reasonable sense in relation to anthropological interest in Aboriginal classical life. Table 3 focuses on the enduring ethnographic corpus that people turn to when concerned with classical Australian culture. What is completely invisible is the huge range of highly influential papers that have taken collective understanding at any point in time a step further. And because only two items have been taken for each person the impact of some few people whose fourth, fifth and sixth ranked publications would appear in this list if it were compiled simply on citations. Another category of contribution, which probably makes up the majority of writing on Aboriginal societies and cultures, are books, articles and book chapters on focused or limited topics, many of which are enormously important and influential in their field but mainly of interest to regional specialists. These tables raise interesting questions about our disciplinary citation practices, questions that are not investigated here but which deserve a much more sophisticated methodology than the one I have used for this paper.

Bibliographie

Crawley, E. 1902. The mystic rose: a study of primitive marriage. London: Macmillian.

Durkheim, E. 1912 see 1915. The elementary forms of the religious life. London: Allen and Unwin.

Frazer, J. 1910. Totemism and exogamy: a treatise on certain early forms of superstition and society. London: Macmillian.

Freud, S. 1913 see 1946. Totem and taboo. New York: Random House.

Godlier, M. 1975. Modes of production, kinship and demographic structures. In Marxist analyses and social anthropology (ed) M. Bloch. London: Malaby Press. Pp. 3-27.

Hartland, E. S. 1909. Primitive paternity: the myth of supernatural birth in relation to the history of the family. London: Nutt.

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Lang, A. 1905. The secret of the totem. London: Longmans, Green and co.

Lang, A. and Atkinson, J.J. 1903. Social origins and primal law. London.

Malinowski, B. 1913 the family among the Australian Aborigines. London: University of London Press.

Marett, R. R. 1909. The threshold of religion. London.

Murdoch, G. P. 1968. Comment under ‘Are the hunter-gatherers a cultural type?’. In Man the hunter (eds) R. B. Lee and I. DeVore. Chicago: Aldine. Pp. 335-339.

Sahlins, M. 1972. Stone-age economics. Chicago: Aldine.

Tonkinson, R. 1978. The Mardudjara Aborigines: living the dream in Australia’s desert.  New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Sutton, P. 2009. The politics of suffering. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Thomas, N. W. 1906. Kinship organisations and group marriage in Australia.. Cambridge: CUP.

Trigger, D. Comment on. 2012. Anthropological Forum 22(1).

Van Gennep, A. 1905. Mythes et legends d’Australie: etudes d’ethnographie et de sociologie. Paris: Guilmoto.

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Notes

1 The Territory was the focus of the Intervention for several reasons. While the Territory Aboriginal population of 56,779 is only 10.4% of the national Aboriginal population it forms 26.8% of that jurisdictions population whereas the highest elsewhere is only 4%, and for this reason looms large in national discourse about remote Aboriginal people. Equally important, however, is the legal status of the Northern Territory which is not yet a State and an area where the Federal Government has greater powers than in the States.

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Référence électronique

Nicolas Peterson, « The present and the ethnographic present: change in the production of anthropological knowledge about Aboriginal Australia », in Australian Aboriginal Anthropology Today: Critical Perspectives from Europe (« Les actes »), 2014, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 13 juin 2014, Consulté le 23 avril 2017. URL : http://actesbranly.revues.org/520

Auteur

Nicolas Peterson

Australian National University

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