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Drid Williams: The Australian Papers


Reflections on Doing Anthropology 'At Home'

Drid Williams

In his introductory article to the ASA 25 volume, Jackson (1987) makes these remarks, all of which are relevant to the following discussion:1

[M]ost anthropologists still hanker after the more romantic, the unexplored parts of the world—if they can get there and stay there. One obvious reason why the term 'anthropologist' is so unwelcome is that it is associated with colonialism (and the preservation of tribalism—the anathema of all modern states). . . . This leads on to an enquiry of why it is that social anthropologists are so keen on finding ever more new and unknown societies to investigate. Why do they never even bother to re-examine the societies that have already been studied? This would surely be the procedure for natural scientists to follow: repeat the experiment. However, anthropologists rarely do this. Are they afraid that they will 'lose' another society that is about to become extinct? Are anthropologists simply, then, the conservers of cultures—like folklorists? This curious reluctance of anthropologists to reexamine societies already studied suggests one of two things:

  1. Anthropologists are extremely 'possessive' about 'their' societies and regard them as simply an expression of themselves, of their personal knowledge and credit-worthiness for a job—far removed from 'their' people.

  2. Anthropologists are simple romantics at heart who only wish to contribute their own individual coloured chip of knowledge to that kaleidoscope of different human societies that constitutes mankind.

Both such views receive a dusty answer if one is to examine one's own society since one can neither claim absolute rights nor novelty since there have been others there before. Hence anthropologists have generally taken themselves off abroad if they could. Why stay at home, then? (Jackson 1987: 7)

     The question is: are Australian anthropologists and ethnomusicologists who work in the field of Aboriginal Studies working 'at home,' and, if they are, what are the implications and consequences of doing so? The question was posed at a superficial level in Williams (1988). Circumstances have since forced deeper concern over such matters with regard to a research project to the Cape York Peninsula, where I discovered to my cost that the anthropology with which I am familiar, which includes doing anthropology in one's own or a parallel culture and in so-called 'exotic' societies, seems to conflict sharply with some prevailing ideologies about doing anthropology in Australia, where, on the whole, anthropologists work in other cultures and not their own. The situation is complex, but it exists, I think, partly because Aboriginal people themselves have not so far become anthropologists.2

     In time, perhaps there will be more than one (or a few) trained anthropologists of Aboriginal descent. If that happens, we might look forward to having the benefit of insights like those of Mascarenhas-Keyes (1987), an Indian woman who makes valuable contributions to the notion of becoming "a multiple native." She says, for example,

Outsiders attempt during fieldwork to become 'marginal natives' . . . and to negotiate a temporary 'social space' within the society. However, the problem is reversed for the native anthropologist who has to transcend an a priori ascribed social position in the society in order, like the Outsider, professionally to relate to the whole spectrum of native social categories. The problem is compounded when the native anthropologist is located in a very complex society [like India]. (1987: 180–81)

Mascarenhas-Keyes discovered that she was

dismayed to find that I courted considerable criticism and ridicule and it became apparent that, as a neophyte, I was unprepared 'for the more sophisticated task of studying [her] own society'. . . . Furthermore, initially I told my critics the truth and said I found walking around the village alone and familiar relationships with low status people very stimulating and enjoyable; not surprisingly, this only served to increase my ostracization. I experienced a great deal of coldness and withholding of information and this in turn increased my anxiety as, by losing rapport with certain sectors of society, my investigation was suffering. (1987:187–88)

She talks at length about the strategies that she developed in order to deal with the problems, and, indeed, they were strategies without which she would not have been able to do any anthropology at all.

     I find it easy to identify with this anthropologist's evaluation of her situation because I had similar problems doing fieldwork in a parallel culture (England), especially with notators, choreographers, and dancers in the Royal Ballet.3 These experiences, and others resulting from work I have done in my own and parallel cultures, cause me to wonder what it would be like for an anthropologist of Aboriginal descent to try to do anthropology in an Aboriginal community here in Australia. The discipline (at least where I was educated and trained) purports to provide the means for doing that, as I shall later indicate, and there are many successful 'native' social anthropologists throughout the world.4

     I also find it easy to identify with the problems and implications of writing texts for native and academic audiences—not only because I have had that experience many times (namely, my work with Carmelite nuns and Dominican friar-preachers and with groups like the Guardian Angels in New York City) but because I am acutely aware of those implications for Australian colleagues of mine who are confronted with the problems of ethnographic writing and publication in the face of an ever-increasing population of Aboriginal people who are literate:

In producing an anthropological text for an audience which includes natives, the native anthropologist shares the concerns of the Outsider about respecting confidentiality, protecting individuals, and keeping the field open for further research. . . . However, there are additional issues. Natives, like everyone else, want to be portrayed in the most advantageous light and will feel betrayed if this is not done. Furthermore, the demands of science must be finely weighed against those of humanity . . . as publication of certain material may lead to long-term disruption of the anthropologist's personal relationships . . . as well as those of his kin with other natives. (Mascarenhas-Keyes 1987: 189)

     I have initially drawn attention to literature which I believe to be as relevant to Australian anthropology and ethnomusicology as it is to American, British, or French anthropology. With the comments above, I have merely tried to 'set the stage,' so to speak, for an exegesis of some current Australian problems as I see them—interestingly, perhaps, as an 'Outsider.'

     Because such matters are extremely complex, I want to say at the outset that I will agree with critics who think that I present an incomplete view of Australian anthropology writ large, but this is a risk that has to be taken; for my aim is simply to identify what I conceive to be key elements of an imminent crisis in the Aboriginal Studies area in Australian anthropology.5 I have concentrated on those aspects of existing features of the situation which seem to represent significant points of stress which are visible in a set of social relations which only narrowly avoids breakdown in many ways.

     There are significant points of stress in the relationships of Aborigines among themselves, which exists by virtue of the asymmetry of gender relations and the use and expression of knowledge. This is a traditional feature of these cultures which is causing serious discontent, especially among members of younger generations of Aboriginal women. There are points of stress between Aboriginal people and 'Outsider' (that is, 'whitefella') anthropologists, which exists by virtue of the asymmetry of socio-political relations between an anthropologist working in the field and his or her informants. Finally, there are points of stress in the relations between ethnographers themselves, by which I mean ideological differences concerning what the discipline is all about and the role of the anthropologist in society. To make matters worse, there are many unresolved problems in the relations among anthropological investigators and politicians,6 who formulate state and federal governmental policies with regard to minority groups in Australia.

Asymmetrical Relations between Men and Women

With reference to the traditional Aboriginal societies which I have encountered first-hand, Aboriginal women have ambiguous statuses with regard to knowledge on many levels: the access to knowledge and 'knowing' in general.7 There are several older women in Aurukun and Edward River, for example, who 'know' as much as the men, but they cannot often express what they know, because, being women in those communities, they have no right to know, according to the beliefs held by the community. This is to say that women may 'know' as much as men, but the truth value of what they know can be denied by members of their own society. This is something which may also happen to younger men who know things as well, but it is not quite the same thing. Traditionally, women have no right to know because they are women. Men may have no right to know because they are not initiated or because they are unfortunately placed in terms of birth order or because their family group is politically not the most powerful family of a particular ceremonial group, for examples; but their access to knowledge is not ultimately controlled by their sex. Women's access to knowledge, their expression of knowledge, and their 'right to know' are controlled in that way.

     The problem is acute with regard to the study of dances, 'performance,' ceremonies, 'art,' and the like, because of the relationship between fieldwork and authoritative sources of ceremonial knowledge in the community. In particular, it makes a difference whether the 'whitefella' anthropologist is a man or a woman. Furthermore, while there now exist danced knowledges and performances which have been opened to public viewing in Cape York and which have been made accessible to documentation, research, and preservation at the request of Aboriginal communities for their future benefit and the benefit of everyone else involved, these performances by no means include all of the dances or ceremonies known or used in these societies now or in the past. It is doubtful if more than a small percentage of the secrets will ever be known—even to the majority of people to whom the dances and rituals belong, because, except for comparatively few old men in each group, no one has access to this knowledge.

     In my judgment, male anthropologists who are 'whitefellas' find themselves in a distinctly unenviable position in these contexts: stated simply, the position is that of literally being classified and then treated as one of these old men. Given this assigned status in the Aboriginal context, we may usefully ask: where do the anthropologist's loyalties and allegiances, his responsibilities and obligations lie? Do male anthropologists have equal obligations to the Aboriginal communities they have studied, to anthropology itself, and to the global society to which they (and it) belong? If so, can they successfully discharge these obligations without 'betraying trust'? Are they (because of conflicting demands for protection of secrecy) impaled on the horns of a dilemma which in the end has no rational or viable solution?

     To me, all of the issues involved rest on questions of knowledge, rights to knowledge, and access to knowledge (1) between members of the Aboriginal community themselves; (2) between the community and 'outsider' anthropologists, whether male or female; and (3) between anthropologists and the academic community at large. Let us suppose, for example, that a male/female research team undertakes a limited research project in an Aboriginal community, and for the purposes of discussion, let us assume that that the research centers upon danced and ceremonial materials. What are the parameters involved in the 'rights to know' in that kind of situation?

     In strong contrast to traditional beliefs and practices held in the Aboriginal context, women ethnographers, like women in general in our own society, have come to expect that they will partake of the democratization and secularization of knowledge in English-speaking and European societies. We are not accustomed to being denied access to knowledge, either in the field or at home:

There is an old notion in anthropology of female ethnographers becoming 'honorary males' in the alien cultures under study. This notion has been unmasked as the expression of a particularly Western, academic view of maleness—and of anthropology. (Okely 1975: 176)

However, the general question still remains whether the sex of the anthropologist makes a difference in fieldwork, and at what level. The very idea of the 'honorary male' covers more than a technical problem of data collection, it also points to the implicit view of male spheres of culture being generalized (and hence 'larger '), while female spheres are specified (and 'smaller,' and included in the male view). . . . (Hastrup 1987: 95).

Contrary to Okely's beliefs, or to what she thinks anthropologists have unmasked, I contend that it does make a difference in Australian Aboriginal contexts whether an ethnographer is male or female, simply because it makes such a difference with regard to access to knowledge in those societies whether an individual is male or female:

The Wiradthuri myth and rite of separation typify Aboriginal practice in several ways. Firstly, women are deceived—at least that is the appearance. Secondly, deception is conveyed dramatically through ritual as well as inculcated as belief. . . . [N]ovices are led to believe that they will suffer an encounter with a power. They are made ready for this meeting, which often is thought to involve their destruction, by being separated from the women and children among whom they have spent their lives. Then, accompanied only by a few men—others are in hiding or disguised—they go out to meet their fate. But instead of a direct encounter with a power, they are confronted with symbols made and handled by men. . . . Between man and the powers in whom they believe is interposed a screen of deception and symbolism. (Maddock 1982: 109)

Maddock later points out that

Cape York, Arnhem Land and Central Australia have their distinctive arrangements for ritual control and local access. It is evident that powers may be socially and locally limited, and yet be enlarged upon with some originality by Aboriginal imagination (1982: 113).

The one feature that seems to remain structurally constant in all of the "distinctive arrangements for ritual control and local access" in Aboriginal societies is the asymmetry of gender relations with regard to ceremonial knowledge.

     That asymmetry carries over, I believe, to ethnographers,8 in the parallel which may be seen in the notion of anthropological 'initiation.' That is, women ethnographers who have not undergone their 'fieldwork initiations' in exotic societies and who have gained access to ceremonial knowledge through their male anthropological colleagues because they have no access to such knowledge otherwise are undoubtedly second-class citizens. This is why I believe that the insights of those anthropologists who have worked in their own or parallel societies to be extremely valuable, because their work points to a paradigm of social and cultural anthropology itself which is not confined solely to study of 'others' but includes studies of ourselves. We need to explore the epistemological implications of doing fieldwork in both contexts in depth. We also need to maintain and, above all, use our privilege and our rights of self-criticism, personally and as members of a shared discipline.

     For now, suffice it to say that there is no doubt that a return to the field after several years have elapsed is a difficult experience for any ethnographer who has only worked in another, exotic, society. As Jackson pointed out, many anthropologists avoid such encounters, first, because they are faced with enormous problems which have to be resolved, usually in comparatively limited time-frames. Second, it is clear that, in a short-term research situation, the returning 'whitefella anthropologist' will still occupy the position of 'big man' in an Aboriginal context: indeed, the newer research project may only be legitimated in the community's eyes because of his past contacts, friendships, and familial obligations, all of which are renewed, however temporarily. Often, there will be expectations on the part of the community that these will continue beyond the duration of the research project.9 Unfortunately, the individual is placed in a network of obligations which many anthropologists know cannot permanently be resumed and which they know that they can only resume on a temporary basis for the purposes of the research. The emotional and psychological prices which some anthropologists pay resulting from the host community's classification of them as 'big men' are extremely high.

     These male ethnographers have become 'big men' because they gained access to knowledge which relatively few others in the society itself possesses,10 for a start, and because they have money, materials, and all the trappings of their own culture which are desirable to the communities in which they work. They can get things done. They have authority, and in this context, they are symbols in a traditional Aboriginal semiotic, of White Australia. I have observed that they are perceived as conduits for relations with the dominant culture and that they are expected, as 'big men' and as initiates to provide all manner of vaguely defined relations with all other white people into the bargain.

     I have also observed that a dominant feature of the social organization of Cape York Aboriginal societies consists of their complete dependence on one 'big man' (or on a few 'big men') around whom everything else revolves. Without these focal males, the group as a whole seems virtually to be paralyzed. This is the feature of traditional Aboriginal social organization which thus represents an extremely hazardous situation for male anthropologists and, ultimately, I believe, for Aboriginal anthropology itself (see Stanner 1979: 39). How?

     Individual male ethnographers become 'big men,' and because of this, they risk suffering from all of the emotional stresses that are caused by conflicts of value when they come out of the field, although this is usually justified simply as 'the hazards of the profession.' However, their extreme identification with the communities of which they have become functioning members can cause them to adopt attitudes which are, in the end, anti-anthropological: that is, they can become intellectually paralyzed and unable to write or to do anthropology at all.

     There are several ways of handling this, of course, the most successful one of these being that of counter-transference, an attitude which allows the investigator to experience the anger, frustration, and bitterness that are generated in (and by) the situation,11 but then deals with the control of its expression by the adoption of what Mascarenhas-Keyes calls a "professional attitude":

The stresses of fieldwork are legion . . . and anthropologists have resorted to various measures to alleviate stress such as short vacations, excessive eating, social isolation of Self. . . . However, since stress seems to be the sine qua non of fieldwork rather than escape from it I suggest that we could usefully integrate it into fieldwork methodology. Simultaneously, the strategy [of a professional attitude] helps to maintain emotional balance as it reduces the vulnerability of Self and increases resilience to adverse comments (1987: 189).

These vexed questions (of concern, I think, to all ethnographers on an international level) are also endemic in Aboriginal Studies of any kind—but they are particularly apparent, I think, with reference to Aboriginal art. They comprise sufficiently widespread problems in Australia to generate learned papers devoted to their discussion at annual anthropological meetings (for example, "The Anthropologist as Entrepreneur" and others which were delivered at the recent CHAGS conference in Darwin at the end of August 1988).

     I do not flatter myself that I am talking about anything new, but so far, the talk that I have heard about these problems in Australia either tends to be very 'abstract' (or, on the other hand, it is too 'personal'), and I would like to see the locus of these methodological issues removed from discussions of personalities (which, frankly, usually includes a lot of damaging idle gossip) into their appropriate area of study in the discipline, that is, the anthropology of knowledge, where personal problems involved in fieldwork may serve to inform, but do not need to prevent, useful public discussion and debate.

     In sum, I am convinced that our common methodological difficulties in Aboriginal contexts turn around the notion of access to knowledge on the one hand and ownership of knowledge on the other. These questions seem to me to be particularly vexed with regard to Aboriginal singing, music, dancing, rituals, or painting. There are at least three points of view involved: that of (1) the Aboriginal community, (2) the anthropologist 'of' that community, and (3) the anthropologist who is interested in a particular feature of the cultural repertoire of that community—in my own case, it happened to be the dances—but this person could be an ethnomusicologist, a writer of human-movement texts, or a linguist, for that matter. The fourth point of view is a disciplinary one which involves the notions of 'policy research' in contrast to 'action research,' which I will discuss later.

The Australian Case

The weakness of the position of anthropologists whose specializations are in Aboriginal Studies or Aboriginal area studies in anthropology in this country is broadly twofold. Historically, Aboriginalists have consistently got themselves mixed up in the social policies of Australian government to the extent, I believe, of giving consent to 'assimilation policies' in the past, for example, which, in the light of the present desires of Aboriginal communities to establish their individual identities (and also to a kind of pan-Aboriginal identity) puts present-day anthropologists at a distinct disadvantage with regard to discourse with Aborigines.

Much of the interest [in Aborigines] has been administrative, for white settlement, by uprooting and dispossessing the original inhabitants, created 'the Aboriginal problem,' as it used to be known. Something had to be done with or about these unfortunate people. Most of what was done makes sad reading today. It is only quite recently that the idea has become at all widespread that things might be done by Aborigines, instead of to them, and that the best policy was to enable them to live their own lives. But alongside these preoccupations with administration and policy, there has been an interest inspired by less practical concerns. It aimed to understand what Aboriginal society was like and what ideas were held by Aborigines (Maddock 1982: 1).

     This interest in understanding our own and other cultures is a peculiarly (and perhaps uniquely) anthropological interest, and it is the aim behind a significant portion of anthropological writing, including Maddock's. Why understanding should be considered to be 'impractical' with regard to inter-subjective relations in modern, multi-cultural societies will forever remain a mystery to me.12

     The point is this: even though a present-day anthropologist might not advocate social policies from the past, even though the policies might be totally irrelevant now, the individual anthropologist is subject to public (and private) abuse because of them. I have been able to find no other explanation for the kind of blatant anthropology bashing which goes on in this country or for the general distrust which seems to exist about the whole anthropological endeavor.13 Coping with the burden of the past for many anthropologists in Australia today is a very difficult matter indeed, but this is also a problem which derives from the very character of the discipline of anthropology itself.

     It is, by its very nature, a social science which is exposed directly to the surrounding ideology of the culture which produced it, and it is exposed directly to the ideology of the society/culture which the anthropologist studies. Many white Australian governmental policies and the often-changing ideologies which inform them, I think, are in some fundamental sense opposed to the anthropological effort. Like all nationalistic governmental policies, it is comparatively narrow in its aims and ideals. Sometimes governmental policies are more in line with the ideology of anthropology itself, sometimes less, but in any case, governmental aims can be depended upon to be self-serving and based upon expedience or short-term views of what is 'right' for the whole of Australia. In the past, the interests of native Australians have not noticeably been very well served—and with regard to questions of land rights, they are still not properly recognized.

     Speaking again of the past, there can be reasonable doubt, for instance, that Elkin had the same kinds of problems with research or with 'the Aboriginal question' that present-day anthropologists have, partly because his aim, surely, was to encourage a period of stability in the discipline, which was very new to Australia at the time.14 It is likely that socio-cultural anthropology in his day was surrounded by the heady atmosphere of creating something new, something which, given enough time, research, and money, could (perhaps) solve some of the problems—hence, his and his successors' involvements with government, with social policies and all the rest.

     I have no doubt that Elkin—or, later, Stanner—acted from a basis of consensus within the young discipline. And my comments will only be misconstrued if they are taken as a criticism of these historical figures. Nor do I mean to imply that they could have acted in any other way. I am simply saying that I think that, during Elkin's—and, later, Stanner's—times in Australian anthropology, there was an ideological unity and a consensus about what doing anthropology amounted to which does not now exist and which probably hasn't existed for some time.

     A lack of consensus within the profession of anthropology is certainly not unique to Australian anthropology; it is a feature (in modified forms) of what is studied as social anthropology, at any rate, anywhere it is to be found in the world. Right now (and certainly during the period of my tenure in England as a student during the years 1970–76) the lack of consensus was highly visible. It manifested itself in a proliferation of conflicting inter-disciplinary tendencies which were even then splitting up into a number of 'anthropologies' with specific qualifiers, although most of these still maintained close connections within the domain of anthropology proper: my own specialization is perhaps a good example of this, that is, an anthropology of human movement. At the time, however, there were books being published on Marxist anthropology, psychological anthropology, structural anthropology, bio-social anthropology, the anthropology of women, and just about everything else one could imagine.

     Not all of these maintained a close connection with the parent discipline which generated them: some of them were anthropologies which, under the guise of being specializations, really subjected anthropology (and anthropologists) to non-anthropological or anti-anthropological concerns.

     In my opinion, the present problem with Aboriginal Studies (and with much of the anthropology that is called 'Aboriginal' in order to identify it as an area study within the discipline) stems from pressures from its own ideological environment (that is, 'Australian society' and Australian government), and various 'activisms' which have grown up around perfectly legitimate, very deep concerns over a group of extremely disadvantaged people in that environment. It is perhaps because of this concern that a great deal of what I have heard touted about as 'anthropology' at Aboriginal Studies conferences15 and elsewhere is not anthropology at all, but a host of imported, mainly political dogmas which are, to me, simply very poor substitutions for the principals, aims, and tenets of social or cultural anthropological research.

     And there is another problem: the anthropological community in Australia (although larger relative to the total population of Australia than the proportion of anthropologists in other countries) is, I think, weaker than it is in Great Britain or the United States, mainly because it lacks a professional organization, which is an obvious—and vitally necessary—organ of consensus.16 The efforts of several anthropologists to form a professional organization in Australia have not been successful so far, and I would explain this phenomenon as one which derives from the impossibility of recognizing, in one organization, 'socio-cultural anthropology' as it might be conceived to be an organization of specialists who practice a specialized discipline within a like-minded international community of specialists, and all of the 'activism anthropologies,' many of which are, in fact, anti-anthropologies. What I presently wonder about (and I could be wrong, of course) is whether 'Aboriginal Studies' or 'Aboriginal Anthropology' is not, on the whole, in danger of becoming such an 'anti-anthropology.' Let me be more explicit, and understand that I speak from limited personal experience, since I came to Australia recently (1986) and I am not an 'Aboriginal anthropologist,' although I presently work in that field.

     Social anthropologists are required by their discipline to honor the ideologies of the people whose customs, culture, and modes of life they study.17 In the terms of this discussion, they must be exposed to the surrounding ideology of the Aboriginal—or any other—community in which they work. At the same time, they have responsibilities toward the wider anthropological community itself; they are obliged to publish their findings, and they are committed to an ideology of social anthropological scholarship and research; otherwise, their studies (excellent though they may be) are carried out outside of the discipline and become, as it were, simply part of a mass of individual/personal expressions of interest in Aboriginal (or any other) group's affairs, which may or may not have any particular value in the anthropological scheme of things.

     What is indicated here is an anthropological Self which is contained within a larger totality which claims membership in a wider society, which also includes other disciplines, other activities, other cultures—that Self is a citizen of the world, so to speak, one among many others.18 Not only are anthropological Selves exposed, because of this, to the ideology of the people they study, but they are exposed to the ideology of the global society to which they belong in general and to the particular national ideology of the country in which they happen to be working at any given time, in this case, Australia. What is at stake here is the effort to keep the anthropological Self alive, which was the problem to which Mascarenhas-Keyes alluded and which was cited earlier.

     Keeping this Self alive amid pressures of conflicting ideologies during periods when the discipline is comparatively stable is difficult enough. Keeping it alive while working in a country where the discipline itself is not stable is very difficult indeed, particularly when the protection of a professional society is lacking, which means, in effect, not only that anyone can call themselves 'anthropologists' on the whim of the moment, but, when one is not solely committed to 'Aboriginal Studies' or to 'Aboriginal Anthropology' per se, additional problems crop up: that is, where one does not define the whole discipline by one of its area studies and where the whole of the anthropological Self is defined in broader terms than that of the anthropologist's adopted culture, there exist possibilities of acute misunderstandings with one's colleagues.

     From my standpoint, my adopted culture is that of dancers, choreographers, and teachers of dancing wherever they are to be found in the world. I was encouraged to study anthropology by Evans-Pritchard precisely because I was a 'native,' defined as a native of a 'tribe' of dancers-movers, who happened to be verbally articulate (and sufficiently literate) to be able to survive in an academic, an intellectual, and generally literate world. The kind of anthropology to which I am committed19 purports to possess enough universals to cope with Aboriginal or any other kind of dancing, with sign systems and other structured systems of human movement. It possessed (and still possesses) enough theoretical capital to transcend particularities; it is an anthropology which, apart from accommodating my own specialization, has, over the past eight decades, certainly played a central role in the rehabilitation of indigenous ideologies all over the world as against our own, but it is not an anthropology which has ever postulated the ascendency of a particular political or ethnic or governmental policy over the ideology of the discipline itself. All of these considerations are contained in the situation or function of the anthropologist, and no one, to my mind, enunciates this situation any more clearly than Dumont:

[S]ocial facts are, and are not, things; the anthropologist must 'translate' one mentality into another; he [or she] identifies himself [or herself] with the observed while still remaining an observer; he [or she] needs to see things both from within and from without, etc. At the heart of all these formulas is hidden our opposition, and this is what gives them their full meaning; on the one hand, we have the modern individualism cum universalism, in which alone anthropology's ambition is grounded. . . . [O]n the other hand, we have a society or culture closed in upon itself and identifying humanity with its own specific form. . . . Here it is that anthropology begins. It modifies and combines the two terms of this encounter. . . . We sift, so to speak, the discourse that comes to us from the society we observe (supposing it to be a non-modern one). We accept the claim of those people to be men, but we reject their claim to be the only men, that is the naive devaluation of the outsider. In other terms, we reject the exclusivism or absolute sociocentricism that accompanies every holistic ideology. (Dumont 1987: 206–7; italics supplied by author)

It has taken some explanation on my part to reach this statement of Dumont's, but the rather circuitous path taken to reach the conclusions I have made about the present situation in which Aboriginal anthropology finds itself leads to some inquiry into symptoms of intellectual paralysis which afflicts individual anthropologists and which presently exists throughout the discipline.

     Why, for example, does Maddock's work, first done in 1972, appear to be an outstanding (although somewhat unusual) example of attempts at comparison? Why are so many ethnographies of Aboriginal communities confined to descriptions of the ethnicity alone? The symptoms manifest themselves in many ways: why, in doing anthropology, do some anthropologists identify themselves so strongly with the society under investigation that other considerations are excluded? Is this a reflection among ethnographers of the same philosophy of exclusivism which is so characteristic of Aboriginal cultures themselves? To an Outsider, the side of anthropology which pertains to the discipline and to the culture which produced it seems to be sadly neglected or ignored.20

     In searching for some explanation for this, I again had to turn to anthropology itself and, in so doing, came to the conclusion that it is possible to so completely muddle the relationship between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, between holism and individualism that the discipline effectively no longer exists.21 On a less high-flown level, one would want to say that an excessive and basically misguided permeability to Aboriginal ideologies of exclusivity and ethnocentrism can lead to a naive devaluation of the Outsider to the extent that doing anthropology at all becomes impossible.

'Action' Anthropology

Vulnerable minorities among the Australian Aboriginal population who are trying to carry out successful land claims have commissioned the services of anthropologists and linguists. While one offers sympathy and support to those anthropologists (and the linguists) who are involved—because anthropology has never been a discipline which has claimed 'academic neutrality,' and, for many of us, this is a feature of the discipline that causes it to command further loyalty—there are extremists who see the discipline as if it were totally geared toward producing change for abused third-world communities at a grass-roots level, and it is this attitude, unmitigated by balancing factors, which simply generates a pars pro toto fallacy which, as I have argued, is ultimately damaging to the discipline itself.

     No one would deny that the concerns of particular disadvantaged peoples are important, but it is equally important that the nature and aims of anthropology itself should not be lost in the pursuit of 'action anthropology.' Because these comments are easily misunderstood, one would want to say that anthropologists have documented

the loss of control over the reading and presentation of our writing, especially when it is published in the country of the people concerned. But, at the same time, publicity may bring the work to a wider 'relevant' readership. The anthropologist working at home is not cosily cocooned from questions of commitment. (Okely 1987: 71)

And Aboriginal anthropologists are, after all, working 'at home' in that sense in Australia. Policy research (generally regarded as being 'pro-government' or 'pro-establishment') or 'action research' (called by some "applied anthropology") which are current names for the kind of anthropology practiced by ethnographers who are involved in minority-rights issues pertaining directly to bringing about social change (as, for example, land claims) confronts anthropologists with a wide range of questions only partially, I think, discussed (if they are discussed at all) in Aboriginal Studies, Aboriginal Performing Arts courses or, for that matter, in standard Anthropology courses—at least at Sydney University. I think that we all suffer and that the discipline suffers, not only from a noticeable lack of theoretical, methodological, and ideological discussion but from the fact that there is no professional organization, hence no professional protection from the kinds of media and other abuses, for example, with which we are all familiar.

     In particular, I think, will anyone who is interested in 'art,' 'performance,' 'theater,' 'sculpture,' 'painting,' 'dance,' etc., become involved in these issues—whether they are anthropologists or not and whether they want to become involved or not. Questions of allegiance, loyalty, and trust are not usefully argued in some kind of personal or moral vacuum. There are always conflicting obligations. Aboriginal anthropology is full of them. To those who currently work in the field in any capacity, nothing I have said here will be new, but I am not talking about these matters because I think they are new or because I think that I have discovered problems that no one else is aware of. I have attempted to articulate some recently encountered problems which appeared with full force in a recent field situation and about which I am deeply concerned. Because I do not think that I am unique, I believe that there are others who share these concerns and an equally great need to share perceptions about them.

     Up to now, anthropology (together with linguistics and ethnomusicology) has been able to use its academic skills, theories, and knowledge to the advantage of peoples who, like the Australian Aborigines, are, without doubt, disadvantaged; but I also think that some anthropologists, in their zeal to promote these aims, have a tendency to forget the source of their inspiration, which is the discipline of social and cultural anthropology itself. We are all concerned about the grave dangers inherent in the possibility that the written material we generate will be misappropriated, under the rubrics of 'syndication.'22

     Then, too, anthropologists often have to argue their case for participant-observation, qualitative methodologies, and generally 'holistic' methodological approaches (not to be confused with 'holist' ideologies) to the study of culture and society at every stage of research and at every turn. The subject risks misunderstanding and censorship, not only by government agencies but law-enforcement officers (in the case of land claims) and the Aborigines themselves. Given all of this, it hardly seems sensible that anthropologists attempt censorship—or censure-ship—of each other as individuals or as groups.

     Unlike other researchers, perhaps, we do an ethnography of the whole,or a micro-study of part of a culture. We go first to the people who are involved for an analysis and a grasp of what is going on, but eventually we move off to see this reality for ourselves. At least, this is what I have done in connection with Carmelite nuns, Dominican friar-preachers, and the Royal Ballet. I get the impression from some of my Australian colleagues, however, that now (finally!), I have an opportunity to do some real anthropology23 —as if doing anthropology in a parallel culture to that of my own was not real. Apparently, I have crossed some kind of a line which defines real anthropology (exotic culture) from an inferior substitute (parallel culture), but I am unwilling to 'wear this' (to use the Australian expression) because the weight of anthropological (and fundamentally masculine) prejudice behind such an assessment is one that I cannot share or easily tolerate, largely because my over-riding concern is, I admit, for the discipline itself, which I think suffers immeasurably in the end.

     Finally, I would like to return to the question asked at the beginning of this essay: are anthropologists at work in Australia doing anthropology 'at home' or are they not? I have provided no answer to the question in the previous discussion, but I would welcome comments about it from others, not only on the question itself but upon the views I have expressed regarding the problems and dilemmas involved.


1 This essay was first presented as a Special Purpose Report (7/3/89) on the Wanam Project to the Research Section, AIATSIS, Canberra.

2 With the exception of one woman whom I met recently at a conference in Darwin, who is not doing anthropology, but working with a land council in the central desert region.

3 On the one hand, my years of training and professional status as a dancer were advantageous—I knew their idiom of body language 'inside-out,' for example, and was familiar with all the levels of spoken language which they use, but there were disadvantages, starting with the fact that they had difficulty understanding why their dance form required research other than familiar literary and quasi-historical kinds of approaches. I was criticized by some for looking at the ballet as an 'ethnic' form of dancing (see Keali'inohomoku 1980). My colleagues were sometimes bemused to the extent that one of them who sat next to me at a London performance of Checkmate said, "My God! I just realized that these are your people!"

4 I trained with several of them and was privileged to meet Francis Deng, who was Dinka, along with many others from Japan, Malaysia, China, India, Africa, and elsewhere.

5 Perhaps "crisis" is too strong a word; however, I believe that eventually it will come to that, because parochialism, provincialism, and lacks of intellectual and academic freedom generally do culminate in crises at some point in their histories, if they are the dominant attitudes in a field of study.

6 Who, to a large extent, control allocations of research funds to agencies and who, because of their control of 'the purse strings' have direct influence over the image of field ethnographers as their representatives, whether they are conscious of such representations or not.

7 The status of women in Cape York Peninsula is different from that of women in the central desert, where Diane Bell, for example, has been able to document a clear-cut set of ceremonial knowledges which are 'women's business,' indicating that male exclusivity with regard to the possession of such knowledge is equaled by women in some aboriginal contexts; however, such 'equality' does not, in my opinion, solve but only compounds the anthropological problem of access to knowledge in fairly obvious ways.

8 Female ethnographers who work in Aboriginal contexts where much, if not all, of traditional ritual and ceremonial knowledge has been lost are in a different situation altogether.

9 And they do, with regard to obligations that pertain to copyright, royalties, etc., but these are not the only kinds of obligations involved.

10 Moreover, they have broader, more comprehensive knowledges available to them, because of their anthropological education and training, which transcends local, 'folk' knowledge of particular communities in somewhat the same way that an astronomer's knowledge transcends local knowledge of moon, tides, stars, etc.

11 These feelings are frequently taken out on someone else, not unusually a wife or a colleague who accompanies the person into the fieldwork situation, which causes additional stress of another kind.

12 If understanding ourselves or others really has nothing to do with the practicalities of administration and policy formation, then it is easy to comprehend the nonsensical ideological premises from whence not only Aboriginal but our own problems are generated as well.

13 There are other explanations, of course: in a media-dominated international society, anthropology has recently suffered from a lot of bad press through the controversy, for example, about Margaret Mead's work in Samoa, but this is less important, I think, than a prevailing lack of knowledge on the part of the general public in Australia about what anthropology is and what anthropologists do. Some of the 'secrecy' which surrounds ceremonial knowledge in Aboriginal societies has perhaps permeated the discipline to the extent that anthropologists feel no need to share their preoccupations with the population at large.

14 The discipline was only three years old when he assumed the chairmanship of Anthropology at University of Sydney in 1927. Australian social anthropology is only sixty-one-years-old this year.

15 My first experience of this was at an Aboriginal Studies conference held at Nepean College of Art in 1987; the second was at an Aboriginal History conference held at A.N.U., also in 1987.

16 There are people who will be quick to correct me on this point. They will say, "But there is a professional organization," and that is true. However, a professional organization which possesses the power to impose sanctions, which can directly influence matters affecting the profession, is what I am talking about. Even though there is a professional organization here in Australia, it does not seem to possess much 'clout.'

17 In the technical language of the discipline, this manifests itself as the 'folk model of events,' without which an ethnography is not an ethnography at all, but something else; however, the folk model of events does not, by itself, constitute an anthropology of the society, community, or group which is investigated. The fact that anthropologists begin their analyses by finding out from people in the group what is going on does not (a) make the people in that group into anthropologists or (b) mean that the anthropologist's knowledge is entirely 'derivative,' i.e., derived from accounts by natives of what the community is about.

18 Pedagogically, the consciousness of this anthropological 'Self' is encouraged from the beginning in some departments and schools through the concept of a 'personal anthropology' (see Pocock 1973 and Williams 1976), which also implies a different concept of 'objectivity' (see Varela 1984) and which provides a firm basis for the notion of a self-reflexive kind of anthropology.

19 Specifically 'semantic anthropology' (see Parkin 1982) for more thorough discussion.

20 The area-study specialization which I undertook at Oxford was that of African ethnography. One could not usefully make these statements or ask these kinds of questions with regard to the literature from that area, because the same kinds of intellectual insularity and a philosophy of exclusivism simply did not apply.

21 "I had this kind of thing in mind when I spoke of the 'dusty encounter.' It is as good a phrase as any, though I might well have said, in Tonnies's words, that European and Aboriginal were 'associated in spite of separation' and 'separated in spite of association.' That is what it means. It is what one expects when Gemeinschaft meets Gesellschaft, when segment meets function, in such conditions of collision" (Stanner 1979: 62).

22 This has happened recently to John von Sturmer and me, when a Sydney University News article about the Wanam Project was syndicated and then misrepresented, misquoted, exoticized, and changed by other journalists, notably in The Australian.

23 Some, I am told, consider that I am "field-shy," meaning that I have not spent several years living in Cape York, Arnhem Land, or somewhere, but even if I did (not a reasonable possibility at my age), being a woman, my ethnographic efforts would be severely constrained by Aboriginal ideologies regarding sex and gender. This means that one must be able to depend upon male colleagues for certain types of information—and if not for information, then for verification of one's perceptions about matters which long linguistic exposure, for example, provides evidence.

References Cited:

Dumont, Louis
1987. Essays on Individualism: Ideology from an Anthropological Perspective. University of Chicago Press.

Hastrup, Kirsten
1987. Fieldwork among Friends. In Anthropology at Home (ed. Anthony Jackson). London: Tavistock, 94–108.

Jackson, Anthony (ed.)
1987. Reflections of Anthropology at Home and the ASA. In Anthropology at Home. ASA Monographs 25. London: Tavistock, 1–16.

Keali'inohomoku, Joann
1980. An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as an Ethnic Form of Dance. JASHM 1(2): 83–97.

Maddock, Kenneth
1982. Australian Aborigines: A Portrait of Their Society. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Mascarenhas-Keyes, Stella
1987. The Native Anthropologist: Constraints and Strategies in Research. In Anthropology at Home (ed. Anthony Jackson). London: Tavistock, 180–96.

Okely, Judith
1975. The Self and Scientism. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 7(3): 171–88.
1987. Fieldwork up the M1: Policy and Political Aspects. In Anthropology at Home (ed. Anthony Jackson). London: Tavistock, 55–73.

Parkin, David (ed.)
1982. Semantic Anthropology. ASA Monographs 22. London: Academic Press.

Pocock, David
1973. The Idea of a Personal Anthropology. Paper presented at the Decennial Conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists. Oxford, July.

Stanner, W. E. H.
1979. White Man Got No Dreaming (Essays 1938–1973). Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Williams, Drid
1976. An Exercise in Applied Personal Anthropology. Dance Research Journal (CORD) 9(1): 16–30. Reprinted in JASHM 3(3) (1985): 139–67.
1988. Homo Nullius: The Status of Traditional Dancing in Northern Queensland. Paper presented at Fifth Annual Conference on Hunters and Gatherers (CHAGS), Darwin, NT, August 31.

Varela, Charles
1984. Pocock, Williams, Gouldner: Initial Reactions of Three Social Scientists to the Problem of Objectivity. JASHM 3(2): 53–73.



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