Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sport, cultural change and problems in Aboriginal research

I have got quite behind in my reading over the last week, including material by my fellow bloggers. This morning I devoted a little time to just catching up, reading papers and blogs.

I was in Bathurst when Australia played Germany in the world cup, and actually got up to watch. This became sufficiently depressing to send me back to bed. I felt that we were out-played, that the Germans were just so much faster on the field. It was actually quite a bit like some of the hockey I had been watching.

The reaction here to the loss has been a bit over the top. Unsporting might I say? New Zealand this time is where Australia was last time, just glad to be there. New Zealand's opening 1-1 draw with Slovakia rubbed salt into Australian wounds because of the sibling rivalry between the two countries. Australians were both glad and sorry!   

Back in May I used examples from New England to discuss the pattern of social change in Australia with a focus on the 1970s (here then here). The first post led to a conversation with Winton Bates about the room visiting imbroglio at the University of New England, something featured in Matthew Jordan's history of the University as a change marker. Winton has now read the book and responded in Does history give undue prominence to scribblers?. 

In his post, Winton included a quote from an editorial he wrote:

‘Perhaps the concept of freedom in a university needs further explanation. It is not a freedom to do what you want to, full stop; nor is it a relentless search after personal happiness. The college regulations in the “free” university would be framed by members of college with a view to restricting violation of the rights of others.

Surely this is an ideal worth working for. ...’

It seems hard to believe today just how much emphasis there was then on the role of universities. Not universities as training the vocational cannon fodder necessary for economic efficiency, not universities as economic entities, just universities as universities in an intellectual and cultural sense. 

Don Arthur had two interesting posts on Club Troppo - What the unemployment rate doesn’t show and Eat it and smile — Why unskilled men reject service work - dealing with the changing role of men in work. This is another aspect of the social change process, the way that economic restructuring combined with changes in social attitudes has had significant gender and specific human effects. 

Australia is in the midst of a growing election fever just at present. As always, I find The Poll Bludger interesting for its detail on the entrails. I generally steer clear of detailed analysis on electoral matters, although like most people I have a sort of morbid fascination with just how bad things are for Labor in NSW. This weekend sees the by-election in the NSW state seat of Penrith. The only issue seems to be just how much Labor's vote can fall. 

I have continued to monitor Aboriginal Art and Culture: an American Eye, although my heart isn't in it. Not that this is a criticism of Will, simply that I feel reluctant to write on Aboriginal issues. In a post last October, A fit of depression, I concluded:

As a writer, historian and sometimes policy adviser, I simply cannot deal with all the sensitivities and complexities involved in any form of research and writing about Australian Aboriginal issues. The most that I can do is to try to research and write in a professional manner following my own interests.

This issue is still very much on my mind.

In my last post I mentioned that I took a PhD thesis to Bathurst to read in gaps.

James Knight's 2003 UNE PhD is entitled Testing Tindale's Tribes: A re-assessment of Tindale's work on the Aboriginal Tribes of Australia, with reference to the written records of the south-east of South Australia. I know that this must sound very dry, and indeed much of the detail would be to the non-specialist. However, to my mind it is actually an important piece of original work along a number of dimensions.

Norman Tindale (1900-1993) was a pioneering Australian archaeologist and anthropologist who, among other things, attempted to map the distribution of Aboriginal "tribes" across Australia.

Tindale's "tribal" map has been very influential. Knight shows how it has affected other mapping efforts and had practical and very important effects on the approach to public policy at a conceptual and structural level, especially since the Land Right Acts. The only problem is that Tindale's "tribes" did not in fact exist. Indeed, there were no such things as tribes.

I will spell the argument out here in more detail in a later post, probably on the New England history blog. For the moment, the key point is that the structure of traditional Aboriginal life involved over-lapping sets of relationships between people and land such that many different and overlapping boundaries were possible. Further, those boundaries were often shaded and changed with time as relationships changed.

By imposing one set of geographically defined boundaries that then became built into thinking, Tindale's work effectively excluded other options. The use of Tindale boundaries in Government structures and in Land Rights cases, the Land Right Acts themselves have European style boundaries built in, created a straight jacket that in turn affected structures and relationships in Aboriginal communities.

From my perspective, one of the most difficult and problematic issues in Knight's work lies in his perception of the relationship between the researcher and Aboriginal peoples and communities. Again, this deserves a full post in its own right, for it lies at the heart of my discomfort in my own work.

We can think of this along two dimensions.

The first dimension is the way in which the results of any research work can become a player in current events and relationships. If I present evidence that group x, however defined, had different boundaries or relationships from those commonly accepted or argued, then this may flow on to have practical and current impacts.

In normal circumstances, a researcher might argue that he/she is concerned with evidence. However, this brings us to a second dimension.

Knight saw his work as a relationship, an interaction, between he and current Aboriginal groups. This transcended the research. Knight negotiated the scope of work (his phrase) as he went along with his teachers (again Knight's phrase). Implicit in his approach is the assumption that Aboriginal people own all aspects of their culture and that, consequently, those researching any aspect of that culture from whatever data source must have appropriate approvals.

I really struggle with this. I am presently researching New England's Aboriginal languages and hope to present a paper on this in Armidale in July. If I accept Knight's position, then I should not be writing on this without the explicit approval of the custodians of those languages, assuming that we can find who they are.

I really can't accept this. Yet I know that I might be challenged. You see why it takes some of the fun, the joy of discovery, out of the work?

Enough, for the moment. I have other things that I need to do. 

No comments: