`Studying man and man's nature’: the history of the institutionalisation of Aboriginal anthropology Nicolas Peterson

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`Studying man and man's nature’: the history of the institutionalisation of Aboriginal anthropology
Nicolas Peterson
Nicolas Peterson currently lectures in anthropology in the Department of Prehistory and Anthropology at the Australian National University. He has a long-standing interest in territorial organisation and land rights issues arising from his fieldwork in Arnhem Land and central Australia.
On the 5 March of this year the new Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Act came into force restructuring the governing body and membership of the old Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, established in 1964. The chief purpose of this restructuring is to ensure greater Aboriginal control over the Institute's activities now that the production and distribution of objectified knowledge about Aboriginal cultures and societies is of so much greater interest and significance to Aboriginal people than it has been in the past.

In the past the production and use of knowledge about Australian Aboriginal societies and cultures has been of principal, although not exclusive concern, to anthropologists and at certain periods it has played a central role in the creation of social theory. The restructuring of the Institute is an explicit recognition that institutional structures have an influence on the kinds of knowledge produced and the ways in which it is organised, used and distributed. Of course such institutional structures and arrangements are themselves shaped in complex ways by historically specific conjunctures of intellectual interests, personal and public agendas, and institutional histories.

It is these issues of history that I will address here. Specifically I want to consider why there was support for the establishment of the Institute given that anthropology had existed as an independent university discipline since 1926. In providing an answer to this question I will also answer some other related questions raised, but not dealt with, in the existing partial histories of the discipline.1 In particular why the first chair of anthropology was established in Sydney rather than Melbourne, the home of the most distinguished anthropologist in the country at that time; why the older generation of scholars in Adelaide believe the chair was really meant for them (Jones 1978, 72-73); and why American philanthropists should have played such a key role in funding Australian anthropological research and publication prior to the war.

These four interrelated questions raise issues not only of institutional history but also of intellectual history. In particular, the extreme fascination that Aboriginal studies and cultures have exercised over the European imagination from the moment of first encounter; and the perception of each generation of scholars interested in them that they were the last ones to have the opportunity to secure authentic information about these cultures and societies for posterity.

Studying Aboriginal societies and cultures has long been seen not simply as studying another regional type of small-scale society but as confronting the primordial, 'studying man and man's nature’ as Mr Wentworth put it in his original proposal for an Institute of Aboriginal Studies (1959). Aboriginal ways of life were seen as providing a privileged window onto the origins of religion, marriage and social life in a way that other societies did not. This interest drew much of its inspiration from the social evolutionary paradigm that dominated anthropology at the turn of the century. With the rejection of this paradigm such views were no longer academically respectable although they are still a flourishing part of popular culture. Academically they have been transformed into a more sophisticated view which sees Aboriginal ways of life as a paradigm of the relations between people and nature and Aboriginal societies as the sociological, ecological and evolutionary prototype of the hunting and gathering existence.

The significance of research on Aboriginal cultures and societies has continually been fuelled either by the belief that Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction by the operation of natural laws or by the belief that access to the authentic pre-colonial practices was about to disappear. The former view was clearly stated by Baldwin Spencer in the preface to The Native Tribes of Central Australia where he comments:

The time in which it will be possible to investigate the Australian native tribes is rapidly drawing to a close, and though we know more of them than we do of the last Tasmanians, yet our knowledge is very incomplete, and unless some special effort be made, many tribes will practically die out without our gaining any knowledge of the details of their organisation, or of their sacred customs and beliefs (Spencer and Gillen 1899, vii)
Such views, as will be seen, were echoed though out the last three decades of this century and again in the 1960s.

I will argue that although the history of the push to institutionalise Australian anthropology was driven by the intellectual fascination with Aboriginal societies and cultures, the only way government support for the discipline could be gained was by emphasising anthropology's uses to colonial administration in New Guinea and the Pacific. Thus from the outset Aboriginal anthropology was always in incipient danger of being overshadowed by research outside Australia, despite the real intellectual interest of the disciplines founders being within the country. This marginalisation did not come about until after World War II, when research in New Guinea and Asia came to dominate academic anthropology and Australia was no lounger seen as capable of providing a privileged source of understanding about the human condition. It was in this climate of the academic neglect of Aboriginal anthropological research that the move to establish the Institute arose.

In tracing this history I will follow a modified version of Elkin's original periodisation of the disciplines development.2 I shall by-pass the initial phase of unsystematic research between 1606-c1870, when the interest in Aboriginal life first manifested itself and turn to the period when it blossomed in a period of systematic research c1870-1925. The period from 1925-46 saw the establishment of professional anthropology and from after the war in 1946 to 1974 the rise of academic anthropology.

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