Thursday, January 06, 2011

Anthropology, the Aborigines & the need to tell a story

There has been something of a spat recently in the American Anthropological Association over directions. The proximate cause was the deletion of the word science from a long term plan. However, it appears to have re-ignited a divide within anthropology.

In an article reprinted in the Australian Financial Review from the New York Times, Nicholas Wade quotes Peter Perigrine, President of the Society for Anthropological Sciences. Perigrine apparently suggests that the what he sees as an attack on science comes from two influences in anthropology: one is the so-called critical anthropologists who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism that should be done away with; the second the postmodernist critique of the authority of science.

The debate also seems to reflect a division between those such as archaeologists for whom science is central and those concerned with "soft" subjects such as culture or gender who see their role more in terms of overcoming perceived social or moral ills and who often adopt overtly ideological positions. One flash point in the debate has been the use of anthropologists in Afghanistan to support the war effort.

Whether anthropology broadly defined can ever be a science is open to question. However, and like history, anthropologists can and to my mind should apply scientific methods.

The issues raised in the United States are on my mind at the moment because of a post I have been trying to write for New England's History on future directions in my research on New England's Aboriginal peoples. As I wrote, I felt my enthusiasm draining away.

At a purely personal level, I don't like fire-fights and am suspicious of those who adopt overtly ideological positions. At a purely personal level, I think that research integrity demands that you follow the evidence even where you dislike the conclusions. At a purely personal level, I have been burnt by those who dislike my research because it challenges their own pet views and ideological nostrums.

When I first became involved with Australian prehistory all those years ago, it was still a clean slate. There were no special positions beyond the purely academic. Yes, we all thought that it was important than we illumine the Aboriginal past. Yes, it was impossible to study the evidence without become somewhat partisan, pro-Aborigine. But there was still a joy in doing something new, in extending the knowledge boundaries.

Four years, ago my private research drew me back into Australian prehistory. I was a bit appalled at what I found.

Public archeology - research for the sake of illumining the past - had been replaced by private, contracted, archeology driven by current needs. At one level this was good in the sense that it supported many more archaeologists. At a second level, it introduced distortions into the discipline in terms of what was studied, how it was studied.

The what was determined by things such as heritage requirements. The how by the need for consultation, the need to take stakeholder needs into account, the time horizons associated with the study, the placement of restrictions on what should be studied. Beyond these limitations, there was a further problem: the material generated from the studies was less available, less useable. Australian prehistory had been effectively privatised.  

As I looked at the broader material, I found the same problems. Prehistorians such as John Mulvaney, a doyen of the profession, now had to devote time to the question of what could, what should, be studied and how. I don't know that Professor Mulvaney would agree with my interpretation, but that's the way I saw it,

These types of problems are not unique to Australian prehistory, but affect all aspects of the study of Aboriginal history.

Take, as an example, the work that I have been doing on New England's Aboriginal languages. Some would argue, indeed do argue, that each Aboriginal language belongs to a particular Aboriginal group and that, consequently, I should not be researching in this area without explicit approval of the relevant elders. But which elders?  Further, how can I maintain research integrity if my work has to be vetted in some way independent of the standard of that work?

This is a very real problem. In his extremely good PhD thesis on Tindale tribes, James Knight states quite explicitly that there were certain aspects of research that he did not pursue because his respondents stated that they did not want him to do so. Isn't this, in fact, censorship? 

The key problem with Aboriginal Australia is that past and present are inextricably entwined. Non Aboriginal guilt and Aboriginal responses play out in a complicated pattern of official, cultural, legal and  political responses that affect every aspect of research and writing.

It is now over forty four years since I did my original honours thesis on the economic structure of Aboriginal life in Northern NSW. When I moved back into the Aboriginal history I was astonished, but also a bit flattered, to find that my work was still alive and being cited all those years later. There are not many honours students who can say that!

Part of the reason for the survival of my work is political. The growth in Aboriginal heritage studies and in land rights' issues meant that my work maintained relevance. However, part of the reason lies in shifts in fashion; people focused on the evils done stopped writing about the Aborigines as Aborigines. As best I can work out, my work has never been updated, although specific aspects have. 

My Aboriginal mentee argues that I should continue my research and writing. I now know, she argues, more than most. Aboriginal people need access to their specific pasts.

Certainly I now know more than most. I don't think that I am being egotistical when I say this. Certainly, I know that there is a deep hunger among Aboriginal people for the type of material I write. Yet it remains hard.

I get so tired. I really don't want to have to steer between all the reefs of current conflicts. I just want to research and tell a story, to follow the evidence wherever it may take me.

This brings me back to my starting point, the fight in the American Anthropological Association. I really don't want to go down that route. I accept that there are substantive professional issues. But really, I just want to write!

Sources on the AAA spat


Anonymous said...


This is really interesting commentary. You really have mastered this "writing business"; and I totally agree with your mentee - just keep writing!

I am about to dive off into your suggested links for my own interest, but I wonder if you could expand upon your following words: "it was impossible to study the evidence without becoming somewhat partisan, pro-Aborigine"

I am sure there is a reason, but it sort of clashes with the general "mood" of your post. (Or so I think - he states politely)


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD. I first studied prehistory in 1963 and, I think, went on my first survey mission in that year.

While Aboriginal advancement was already a major issue in Armidale, I knew no Aboriginal people. The perspective was that Aborigines belonged to the past even though I actually had, for example, more primary school exposure to traditional Aboriginal culture than is the case today. I had no idea of the complexity of Aboriginal life, nor of the extent to which parts of it had survived. The Aborigines I saw were ftinge dwellers.

So, in a sense, I came to the material without today's overlays. It is, I think, absolutely impossible to study a subject in detail as I and my fellow students then did without developing a degree of empathy. I still remember my sense of shock on reading an Oceania article that suggested that problems in the Aboriginal community at the time were in fact a mirror image of the attitudes in the broader community towards the Aborigines. This is the mirroring that I still write about.

I hope that this explains a little.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jim

Switching from "partisan" and pro-Aborigine" to using the word empathy as I understand that word makes much more sense.

Those links (and links from those links) are very interesting. A layman's summary might be that there is a seeming division between the study of living as opposed to "dead" cultures - with the latter necessarily more heavily reliant upon "scientific" as opposed to "cultural or psychological" approaches.

Says this layman, and sorry to divert.


Anonymous said...

And a layman's conclusion might be that the AAA church is too broad to cover members' varied interests.

They need a good schism, and you just need "to keep writing".


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, KVD. I will try to do that - keep writing. The AAA may need a schism; I struggle to see how they can reconcile the irreconcilable.