Aboriginal essay thesis

Les Hiatt represented the past and Jeremy Beckett the future of Australian anthropology and I did not want to follow one by discarding the other. Hiatt, anarchist and libertarian, was politically conservative but a radical thinker who occasionally and deliberately shocked moral orthodoxies. This was not a productive political strategy! Aboriginal studies had become politically fraught. My fellow students conducted fieldwork elsewhere and the new ethnographers in Australia were mostly overseas scholars. Established Australian anthropologists were resisting the influences of poststructuralism, postmodernism and postcolonialism as well as that of the incoming Indigenous scholars.

Scholars and intellectuals do not lead, but follow social change, and it was the loss of colonial authority that led to the emergence of postcolonial critique. Before the s, anthropologists, as individuals, were not postcolonial or neo-colonial, but they tended to be anti-colonial. In W. While contributing to the acceptance of difference, Stanner unwittingly conveyed a sense of inevitable tragedy — that Aboriginal traditions will not adapt and survive in changed forms, but rather will be misunderstood, trampled on and destined to disappear.

Fierce rivalries occasionally erupted among anthropologists about the proper direction of government policy. They were accused of protectionism and separatism, or of trying to keep the Aborigines in zoos in order to study them. Others, such as Elkin and Ronald Berndt, promoted the then progressive policy of ensuring Aborigines access to schooling and other mainstream institutions.

They were later reviled as assimilationists. For some, the discipline had been politically progressive in trying to give responsible advice to the Australian states, whose longstanding oppressiveness was being laid bare, initially by Charles Rowley. It should be noted that the Aboriginal people with whom ethnographers engaged before were largely remote from government processes; their own languages, literally and metaphorically, were barriers to their engagement in public debate.

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While the ambiguities of individual morality may be rendered irrelevant in the face of two centuries of invincible colonial rule, individual culpability cannot be ignored. Elkin, professor of anthropology from until , was never a popular figure among anthropologists.

But Elkin, like all of us, was not simply one thing. His passionate reformism aside, he demonstrated that the ethnographic imagination is able to transcend the constraints of its cultural milieu.

Medicine men are not impostors. They practice their profession in the way that they and their fellow tribesfolk have inherited, and that they believe, and have found, to be effective. Another example is Norman Tindale, infamous for his painstaking measurements of Aboriginal bodies, who demonstrated that the popular images of Aborigines as nomadic wanderers unattached to places were quite mistaken.

But this method appears to contradict conventional ideas of proper scientific method, and anthropology has always had an ambiguous relationship with science and scientism. Earlier ethnographers such as Warner, Thomson and Kaberry wrote rich and descriptive accounts, although their faith in precise observation and description was entirely empiricist and realist, expressed in exhaustive and often exhausting detail.

In the s and 60s more impersonal, objectivist styles of writing emerged as anthropologists attempted to give their work more authority by mimicking the biological sciences.

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It was not, though, the writing style that led to the overturning of anthropological authority in Australia. The very notion of anthropological authority became anathema as colonial authority frayed — or appeared to. When the Commonwealth took responsibility for Aboriginal policy after the referendum, a large body of racist legislation was rescinded, formal equality before the law was established, and state-funded Aboriginal organisations were launched across the nation. But severe tensions emerged as the agendas of the Australian government, academic anthropology and Indigenous activists moved in different directions.

Historians became the primary scholars recognised in the burgeoning academic field known as Aboriginal Studies. Powerful and revealing Aboriginal autobiographies that emerged at this time remained largely outside the purview of history scholars, as did classical Indigenous cultures. The pres anthropological imagination lacked the sense that Aboriginal societies could be incorporated within the state and become participants in the Australian nation without being destroyed.

Postcolonial thought simply rejected this idea and paid little attention to the profound adjustments Aboriginal societies throughout the continent were making to colonial conditions. Anthropologists became embarrassed about claiming expertise above the expertise of Aboriginal people themselves. Yet they were, of course, experts on particular matters on the basis of their scholarship and their relationships with senior Aboriginal men and women who represented traditions that had been largely destroyed in the south.

A new literature, now known as native title anthropology, began to detail Indigenous connections with country in relation to Australian law. This work does not question the authority and good will of the state.


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The postcolonial literature deconstructing the intellectual paradigms of colonialism has aimed to nail the moral and epistemological flaws that pervaded the era rather than to appreciate what was accomplished despite those burdens. Rereading the earlier Australian ethnographies, mining them for the gems buried there, seems too high a hurdle for current scholars who show little interest in the Aboriginal societies that were the subject of these works, but whose unique histories are not fashionable in social science departments.

The intellectual movements of postmodernism and poststructuralism developed as part of the fraying of the power and legitimacy of colonial empires.

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Postcolonialism refers to an aspiration named, though not invented, by intellectuals. Fuelled by the empowerment of colonial subjects, a set of liberating ideas became a popular platform for research and writing across the social sciences.


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It was during — and perhaps owing to — the growth of this movement in Australia in the s that anthropology was rebranded as fatally flawed because complicit with colonialism. But I am arguing that the colonial context of the earlier Australian ethnography makes the work more, not less valuable. While the foundational flaws in that literature are now obvious — exclusive attention to classical Aboriginal traditions and a tendency to objectify human subjects — it nonetheless provides rich information about a social world that has never been properly recognised, respected or related to as the original Australian culture.


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The wholesale condemnation of anthropological research as exploitative and worthless is, I believe, childish, superficial and wrong. A body of knowledge — however flawed and limited — is condemned unread, a positive approach to social variation is ignored, and important forms of social life can continue to be dismissed as merely primitive and anomalous in the contemporary world. The political myopia of earlier times is easily condemned.

A lack of intellectual generosity refuses recognition of what the ethnographers did achieve. My aim is to counter a popular hubris that takes pleasure in its own enlightenment by remaining ignorant of the past. What has been lost when new generations of Australian students can learn nothing of the genius of small-scale social organisation, linguistic complexity and Indigenous ontologies? The ethnographic classics merit respect and their enduring significance should be recognised.

To understand the complexity of contemporary Aboriginal politics, some knowledge of the gap between traditional Aboriginal values and normative mainstream assumptions about social life — family relationships, authority structures, moral regimes — is surely necessary. The refusal of radical difference is a deeper sign of poor race relations, particularly in remote Australia. Topics: anthropology history Indigenous affairs. After taking up photography at forty-eight, Julia Margaret Cameron produced a remarkable and distinctive body of work, writes Richard Johnstone.

Victoria and Albert Museum. About Support Sign up Search Search. Friend or foe? Gillian Cowlishaw. Right: Rembarrnga children learning to dance at Bulman Rembarrnga children learning to dance at Bulman Subsection skin diagram adapted from L.

aboriginal culture essays

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