Anthropology at Home in Australia

Anthropology at Home in Australia

John Morton

This introductory essay takes ‘anthropology at home’ to refer to the conduct of fieldwork and other kinds of anthropological research in or about communities which Australian anthropologists regard as culturally familiar. In that sense, anthropology at home raises two interrelated questions: 1) ‘What is an appropriate anthropological object?’ and 2) ‘What are the appropriate methods for studying that object?’ I argue that anthropology remains overdetermined by its colonial heritage and that it is still overly concerned with the study of ‘the other’ through long-term fieldwork. My feeling is that we should displace the idea of ‘the other’ in favour of an anthropological object construed in terms of self-other relationships. This not only implies that anthropology at home should cease to appear as an oxymoron, but also suggests that a more comprehensive employment of various study methods should displace long-term fieldwork as metonymic of the discipline.

The title of this volume, and the Australian Anthropological Society Conference session [1] of which the volume is an outgrowth, was inspired by two previous publications–Anthony Jackson’s (1987b) edited volume, Anthropology at Home, published from Europe, and Donald Messerschmidt’s (1982b) collection, Anthropologists at Home in North America. The phrase ‘anthropology at home’ could mean any number of different things, but in both of the aforementioned publications it was clearly intended to convey the idea of anthropologists coming to study groups or sub-groups which are in some sense to be regarded as their own. That sense is problematically preserved in the title used here.

There are two main problem areas that I wish to concentrate on in relation to the idea of anthropology at home. The first pertains to focus and to the question of what makes the idea of home-as-object problematic in relation to the practice of anthropology. The second relates to method and to the implications of the first question for an understanding of what the practice of anthropology actually ought to be. I suggest that the legacy of ‘othering’ which anthropology inherited from its earliest institutional days in the nineteenth century remains surprisingly strong at the present time, in both Australia and other parts of the world. I suggest, too, that this legacy continues to be implicated in a sense of discipline which some anthropologists use to patrol the boundaries of ‘proper’ study, in spite of moves in the direction of postmodern pluralism, interdisciplinary cooperation and multi-sited ethnographic sensibilities.

I argue for the erosion of this sense of discipline. Anthropology is not, I suggest, the study of ‘the other’ requiring a special method (‘real fieldwork’) for its true realisation. Rather, it is the study of self-other relationships. Such relationships can naturally be found anywhere and include forms of exchange which are not comprehensively studied by traditional ethnographic methods.

Home and away

Anthropologists are turning in increasing numbers to the study of modern American society. When I was in graduate school in the sixties, it was virtually unheard of to get the blessings of the department (not to mention a grant) to do American fieldwork. The only project in my era to get such backing was a study of American drag queens…, and one could argue that this was only because drag queens were seen as so exotic and ‘other’ that they might as well have been Australian aborigines. (Ortner 1991:163)

The phrase ‘anthropology at home’ gains its force from implicitly appearing as an oxymoron. As Gupta and Ferguson point out, anthropology has largely depended on a geographical construction of cultural difference, so that, as far as ‘proper’ study is concerned, ‘there follows the built-in necessity of travel: one can only encounter difference by going elsewhere, by going to “the field”‘ (1997:8). Hence:

The distinction between ‘the field’ and ‘home’ rests on their spatial separation. This separation is manifested in two central anthropological contrasts. The first differentiates the site where data are collected from the place where analysis is conducted and the ethnography is ‘written up’. One kind is done ‘in the field’ … The other sort [is] done ‘at home’…. Moreover, the two forms of activity are not only distinct, but sequential…. Temporal succession therefore traces the natural sequence of sites that completes a spatial journey into Otherness.

The second place the sharp contrast between ‘field’ and ‘home’ is expressed is in the standard anthropological tropes of entry into and exit from ‘the field’. Stories of entry and exit usually appear on the margins of texts, providing the narrative with uncertainty and expectation at the beginning and closure at the end. According to Mary Louise Pratt (1986), the function of narratives of entry and exit is to authenticate the material that follows, most of which used to be written from a standpoint of an objective, distanced observer. Such stories also form a key piece of the informal lore of fieldwork that is so much a part of socialization into the discipline…. The image of arriving in ‘another world’ whose difference is enacted in the descriptions that follow, tends to minimize, if not make invisible, the multiple ways in which colonialism, imperialism, missionization, multinational capital, global cultural flows, and travel bind these spaces together. [While] most anthropologists today recognize this…, even as we reject ideas of isolated peoples living in separate worlds, the tropes of entry and exit and the idea of a separation of ‘fieldwork’ from ‘writing up’ continue to structure most contemporary ethnography. (1997:12-13, my emphasis)

Anthropology at home, then, still bears a halo of impropriety, just as it did during Ortner’s time in graduate school. The ‘very distinction between “field” and “home” leads directly to… a hierarchy of purity of field sites’ (Gupta and Ferguson 1997:13, original emphasis), where the most ‘proper’ anthropological field location is always the most culturally distant.

Yet ‘anthropology at home’ volumes, like those edited by Jackson and Messerschmidt, give the impression that the study of people who cannot be defined as distant, exotic or wholly other has increased in recent decades. Certainly, there appears to be an ever-increasing willingness on the part of many anthropologists to turn their analytical and critical gaze to ‘the west’, but it is important to remember that the very idea of ‘the west’ is an outcome of the same spatialisation of difference that leads to what Gupta and Ferguson call the ‘hierarchy of purity of field sites’. In spite of reservations expressed about ‘Occidentalism’ (Carrier 1992), and the noting of the plural histories that have characterised colonialism (Thomas 1994), essentialist stereotypes of the ‘us and them’ variety continue to dominate anthropological discourse, appearing in the innocent guise of categories like ‘indigenous people’, ‘migrants’ or ‘modernity’. Such categories continue to depend on largely unquestioned, and often unstated, binaries like indigenous/settler, migrant/mainstream, and modem/pre-modern, all of which are historically related to (and sometimes even identical with) the savage/civilised or simple/complex oppositions of yesteryear.

It follows, therefore, that anthropology’s recent concern with ‘ourselves’ and what is going on ‘at home’ may be a less radical reorientation than it seems. Rather than representing a major shift in the object of anthropological study (‘others’), contemporary concerns with ‘us’ (including the history of anthropology) might be seen to be more of a reflexive reaction conditioned by post-colonial conditions. When the Empire struck back, ‘our’ representations of ‘them’ were called into question, so that ‘we’ came to look more closely towards home in order to facilitate our understanding of the way in which ‘they’ had been constructed (in both on-the-ground history and in various forms of representation). The seminal critical text in relation to ethnographic writing was, of course, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), which suggested that ‘the other’ was an underground adjunct produced through the obsessively self-conscious identity of colonial nations. But as Carrier (1992) implies, the move towards understanding t he relationship between ‘self’ and ‘other’ in this context did little to question the master opposition: ‘the west’ and ‘the rest’ remained.

A cursory glance at journals from Australia, Britain and America in the past thirty years or so would, I believe, bear out the idea that the ‘proper’ object of anthropological study is still ‘the other’, even where the peoples involved are seen to be largely an effect of colonial history. In other words, anthropology at home is arguably still marginalised in the discipline. For example, this journal (TAJA) is an Australian publication which sometimes carries articles whose focus is Australia. TAJA’s authors are usually, although not invariably, Australian academics. I estimate that, since its inception in 1990, the majority of TAJA’s content has related to the region bounded by south-east Asia, Australasia and the Pacific, (the rest being devoted to purely theoretical/historical issues or other regions–south Asia, east Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean). Approximately 13 per cent of the total focused on ‘home’ (Australia), although this figure would considerably increase if Australia w as defined to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. One might argue that Australia’s physical and cultural proximity could make it an especially attractive proposition for local anthropologists, but these figures, in spite of indicating substantial interest, perhaps suggest otherwise.

Although situations overseas might be somewhat different, the evidence suggests that old binarisms continue to underlie anthropological projects there too. For example, Gupta and Ferguson note that, in America, there is a complex intersection of the taxonomy of ‘culture areas’, the definition of ‘fields’ of research, and the structure of funding. They conclude that:

The more culturally exotic and geostrategically embattled parts [of the world] become proper ‘anthropological’ field sites, whereas western Europe (which, besides having ‘less culture’ [cf. Rosaldo 1988], is part of NATO) is a less appropriate ‘field’, as many of the Europeanists who struggle to find jobs in anthropology departments can attest. (1997:9)

They go on to suggest that:

It seems to be the case that doing fieldwork in Europe is much more acceptable in anthropology when it is a second field site developed later in the career, rather than a dissertation site…. It is also true that southern and eastern Europe seem to be distinctly more ‘anthropological’ than northern and western Europe. (1997:41-42)

In other words, in America there remains a sense that anthropological fieldwork belongs in the ‘least modern’ or ‘least mainstream’ of any particular domain (cf Fricke 1998; Trouillot 1991:19). In addition, ‘more modem’ domains become more credible only after the anthropologist has already borne the scars of a previous encounter with ‘aliens Similarly, Judith Okely (1996:1, 17) has noted British resistance to the idea that anthropology could become anything more than fundamentally an encounter with the exotic, particularly citing the case of Maurice Bloch (1988). In Australia, I have heard at least one professor similarly complain about a perceived upsurge of postgraduates doing anthropology at home, on the grounds that this represents a severe dilution of the discipline. This illustrates how, in spite of widespread and longstanding acceptance of ‘home work’ (Fricke 1998) in English-speaking countries (cf Varenne 1999), such work is still in danger of being labelled second best.

In this respect, it is instructive to consider Gillian Bottomley’s (1998) recent discussion of Australian anthropologists’ attitudes towards the study of migration. Citing Appadurai’s suggestion that anthropology’s ‘principle source of leverage’ has been ‘sightings of the savage’ (1991:209), she believes that

… anthropologists have demonstrated relatively little interest in the massive immigrations to Australia and the marked heterogeneity of the population. Few anthropology departments have offered courses of study in this area, and research projects have usually focused on Aboriginal Australia or other parts of the world (rarely including Europe–perhaps not sufficiently Other?). (1998:37)

She adds that the neglect is partly due to anthropologists finding the Pacific, Melanesia, South-East Asia and Aboriginal Australia more ‘exciting’ and to the fact that ‘disciplinary limits … between anthropology and sociology … became more marked’ (1998:37-38) after the 1950s. In Australia, anthropology precedes sociology in the institutional sense [2] and there have been many attempts, recent and not so recent, to combine them into a single disciplinary area. Bottomley cites the case of Professor S. F. Nadel, who, at the Australian National University in the 1950s, staked out joint territory for anthropology and sociology, saying that “‘Primitive” and “advanced” cultures, “exotic” societies and our own society are regarded as being in equal measure appropriate fields of research for the anthropologist’ (Nadel, in Bottomley 1998:38).

One of Nadel’s students, who had also studied anthropology at Sydney University under A. P. Elkin, was Jean Martin, who completed a study of migration to a large Australian country town for her PhD. Bottomley notes that similar studies had been done as early as 1944, to which one might add that it was during a similar period that a number of anthropologists began (for the time) innovative studies of Aboriginal people in ‘settled’ Australia (Keen 1988). But while the anthropologists who looked at Aboriginal communities in Victoria and New South Wales (Marie Reay, Jeremy Beckett and Diane Barwick among them) were unusual, they remained anthropologists. Jean Martin, on the other hand, was the foundation professor of the Department of Sociology at La Trobe University and is now viewed retrospectively as a sociologist, albeit in a department which has long incorporated a minority anthropological presence into its structure. [3] Perhaps the conclusion to be drawn is obvious: doing anthropology at home comes to be seen as doing something else (sociology). It is interesting to note that there are or have been other sociologists in the Department of Sociology at La Trobe University who began their academic lives as anthropologists but came to be known as sociologists, most notably Ken Dempsey, Fiona Mackie and Ron Wild (who have all conducted their work ‘at home’). The Department is also home to Rowan Ireland, a sociologist who conducts ethnographic fieldwork in north-eastern Brazil and publishes in the area of religion. While being trained in sociology, Ireland says that he is regularly ‘mistaken’ for an anthropologist (although the distinction means little to him). Similarly, Chris Eipper, who conducted anthropological fieldwork in Ireland, says he is often ‘mistaken’ for a sociologist! Hence the idea that anthropologists working at home are really doing ‘something else’ remains strong and pervasive. Conversely, if sociologists encounter anything remotely exotic, then they, too, are likely to be placed elsewhere.

Some of the implications of this prescriptive division of labour can be illustrated by the ongoing popularity of Horace Miner’s (1956) celebrated study of the Nacirema, which is often still regarded as an amusing and effective introduction to anthropological consciousness. Miner’s fertile contribution to anthropology should, however, be read in new and critical ways. One could argue, for example, that the paper rendered explicit, many years before the appearance of Edward Said, the fact that the known self and the strange other are paradoxically two of a kind. All one needs to make the self different, Miner seems to suggest, is a strategically crafted written intervention called ethnography. By implication, we might assume that, while very much against the rules of discursive production in the discipline, writing could equally well make the other the same. However, this strategy tends to be left to biologists or the minority group of marginalised anthropologists who are inclined towards biological and species-wide explanations of human culture.

Dan Sperber (1985:62-63) has noted that a certain form of written intervention has come to dominate anthropology less because ‘the other’ has been found to be radically different during fieldwork, and more because the return from fieldwork creates a new sense of alienation from familiar persons and situations. In that sense, the strongly contrastive elements of ethnographic writing have been therapeutic, creating distances between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which are greater than experience would have led us to have believed at an earlier time. Bailey (1977:17) has even gone so far as to suggest that the ethnographic ‘screen of exotic and bizarre fact’ is often only a way of disguising ‘a void of ideas’, a mental vacuum which possibly mirrors the empty cultural or moral space between self and other in the classical ethnographic genre. After all, when their true identity dawns on the reader, the Nacirema do seem trivialised, reduced to an alien parody of human life, perverted as well as inverted (cf. Rosaldo 1989:52). One might suggest, therefore, that there are good grounds to resist the resistance to anthropology at home, since the ‘view from afar’ (Levi-Strauss 1985) distorts as much as it reveals. By the same token, one suspects that near-sightedness could be a virtue.

Cheater (1987:167) reminds anthropologists who work ‘at home’ that they are still involved in self-other relationships. The only difference from the classical ethnographic situation may be that the ‘anthropologist as citizen’ (as Cheater calls this domestic creature) and the other (as subject of study) are both likely to be committed to the same social system. This account reminds us not only that the other is always another person, rather than some kind of abstracted social or cultural form located ‘elsewhere’, but also that, to a good degree, every place in the world is a part of ‘the same social system’ (and to some extent always has been during the lifetime of professional anthropology) (Wolf 1982). Moreover, as Cheater, citing Benita Luckmann, is keen to point out, so-called ‘modern man’ is not ‘a full-time member of one “total and whole” society’, but ‘instead a part-time citizen in a variety of part-time societies … to each of which he owes only partial allegiance’ (1987:164). In that sense, the fragmentation of the self which has come to be seen as essential in canonical formulations of ‘culture shock’ is no more than a reproduction or exaggeration of normally experienced social processes of adaptation and adjustment (cf. Cheater 1987:176), even though the experience of ‘shock’ has consistently been touted as a unique methodological device after Malinowski found himself ‘alone on a tropical beach close to a native village’, with ‘nothing to do, but to start at once on … ethnographic work’ (1922:4).

But it bears repeating, too, that it is no longer convincing to suggest that Malinowski’s Trobriand Islanders lived in a closed, uniform and undifferentiated world. That discredited functionalist pretence can now be viewed as an essential part of the alienating abstraction of otherness, allied to the denial of time in the anthropology of ‘modern man’ (Fabian 1983). Indeed, in spite of what has been said by Cheater and Luckmann (1978), the fictitious presentation of small scale isolates was largely a reflection of the equally fictitious assumption that ‘the west’ was itself fundamentally uniform (Okely 1996:1). The reification of the opposition is what led to what Trouillot (1991) has called anthropology’s occupation of ‘the savage slot’. But once we understand that ‘otherness is always specific and historical’ we also have to admit that others ‘cannot be encompassed by a residual category: there is no savage slot’ (Trouillot 1991:39, my emphasis). Similarly, we must admit that others are also ‘proximal’–if not actually at home, then at least ‘next door’ (Auge 1998:37-53). One wonders, however, if traditional ideas of fieldwork are sufficiently neighbourly to deal with this relocation.

Playing the field

Social anthropology depends crucially on a tradition of fieldwork in which a researcher lives in a society for an extended period, learning the local language and immersing himself or herself in the customs and values of the community… I f social anthropology should ever lose this tradition of intensive fieldwork, usually but not always carried out overseas, it would lose its distinctive character. (Royal Anthropological Institute publicity pamphlet, November 1998)

What has been said so far largely assumes that anthropology should be identified strongly with ethnography. As Gupta and Ferguson say in relation to America and the UK ‘fieldwork, together with its associated genre, ethnography, has perhaps never been as central to the discipline of anthropology as it is today, in terms of both intellectual principles and professional practices’ (1997:1). Diane Austin-Broos has recently defended this situation in the Australian context, arguing that ethnography–albeit in radically new forms–should remain ‘central to a continuing and distinctive identity for anthropology’ (1998:295). Similarly, James Weiner has averred (in connection with the infamous Hindmarsh Bridge affair): [4]

Anthropologists, because they go and live in a community, are both participants in it and yet always an outsider [sic], have the opportunity to see connections which the members of that community do not see, or which are institutionally or otherwise concealed from them. I maintain that such an approach, essential to anthropology, is what is missing in oral history, which inevitably equates a living culture with a set of documents one can reduce it to. For myself, I prefer this more difficult task of reconciling the inevitable slippages between language, assertion, contestation and avowed knowledge through long-term observation and interview. And I would hope that anyone contemplating what must result from such long-term involvement in people’s lives realizes that this implies more than recording people’s stories: it means being entailed in and by their lives and bearing the inevitable consequences of having the effects of those lives impinge upon one’s own. (1995:6)

‘The whole rationale of anthropology’, Weiner suggests, ‘stems from the constructive dilemma of managing descriptive veracity in the midst of profound engagement in a community’s life’ (1995:6).

Lurking in the background of statements like this are perceived threats to the discipline, whose boundaries have to be ridden in order to mend fences broken by inside scholars trying to escape ‘real’ anthropology or by outside scholars trying to encroach on anthropological turf. A number of matters intersect here. There is, for example, the question of virtue. The virtuous anthropologist is, like any scholar, bound by truth and committed to an effective search for that truth. In this regard, Weiner is perfectly accurate: there is indeed virtue in long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the way he describes it, which is why the archetypal fieldworker, Malinowski, compared by Stocking (1983) to Jason in the story of the Golden Fleece, is a character who deserves to be endorsed. Directly knowing people, and knowing them well over a long period of time, remains an effective strategy to accurately reveal complex relationships. In the contemporary context, this necessarily involves excitingly new forays into historica lly unfamiliar terrain (Austin-Broos 1998; Marcus 1998). However, two other matters have to be taken into consideration, both of which bring into question the heroic stature of the long-term fieldworker and impact on the idea of home.

In the first place, classical fieldwork is, in itself, no guarantee of a lack of distortion. As the case of Miner’s Nacirema suggests, ethnographic writing, performed from afar and after the fieldwork has already been conducted, is performed with ‘other’ concerns in mind. This matter was, of course, almost raised to the level of a subdiscipline by the ‘writing culture’ debates spawned by the seminal works of Clifford and Marcus (1986) and Marcus and Fischer (1986) and it is now widely understood that the ethnographic truth to which Weiner points can never be more than partial, and perhaps even ethnocentric. As Joel Kahn has pointed out, this is no less so even when the ethnographic project is self-consciously dialogical, because the written ethnography, apart from implicating the analyst in the culture of the people being examined, remains to be ‘consumed by the community of “scientists”‘ and ‘its validity as interpretation [is] established by the criteria of “western” cultural practice’ (1989:14). But as Kahn also points out, what is primarily at stake is the concept of culture itself, which, in the words of Clifford, comes to be seen as ‘contested, temporal and emergent’ (1986:19) in the very particular dialogues of the anthropological author. Yet, in spite of this, ‘most [anthropologists] continue to write as though cultures were bounded entities’ (Kahn 1989:14). Ten years on this is still the case, reflected in the very idea that the anthropologist is typically a creature who crosses the borders of those bounded entities to study ‘elsewhere’. As Weiner says, the anthropologist is ‘always an outsider’. But such description perhaps too easily lapses into prescription.

We have not, it seems, moved very far from the general idea that the classical fieldwork method is primarily applicable to anyone other than a community of strangers, the implicit assumption being that ethnographic immersion is not really required close to home, where ‘the culture’ is supposedly already well-known. This is not to say, of course, that the ethnographic method is not applied by anthropologists to local communities in Australia. It is–and there is ample evidence of that in this volume. But it is to say that the employment of ethnography ‘at home’ is tacitly, yet wrongly, recognised to be an impoverished version of the ‘real thing’. Moreover, the ‘real thing’, measured against the standards of the archetypal hero, is in any case a hyperbolic construction. As Hamilton has said with specific reference to the situation in Australia

…anthropologists are somewhere between tourists and migrants. They speak the language, if at all, with the grammatical and syntactical sophistication of an eight-year-old child. Their personal relations, although close, sometimes intimate, are always hedged about by their origins, the mysterious source of sustenance, the fact of being members of one or other sex group, of being part of the invading cultural system. They pick up rumours, hints, suggestions; become enmeshed in factions, power struggles; and inevitably see things as outsiders. (1982:103)

In other words, anthropologists have the same messy and partially inadequate relationships with informants as they do with everybody else. So why should ethnography particularly target complete strangers?

There is implicit disagreement here with Eipper’s contention that ‘dialogue between emic and etic understanding is… always in danger of being pre-empted or short-circuited when one works “from home” and “at home”‘ (1998:315)–this because we tend to ‘assume we know what we know’ and because ‘we don’t recognise or we misconstrue the degree to which and the ways in which we are strangers to ourselves’ (1998:314-315. This, however, does not register the extensive use of anthropology as ‘cultural critique’ (Marcus and Fischer 1986). Indeed, it seems to me that anthropology at home exhibits a very strong tendency to undo the ethnographer’s taken for granted assumptions about his or her familiar world. Often it is actually motivated in the first instance by such domestic alienation. As Marcus and Fischer (1986) imply, the anthropological claim to know ‘the other’ actually corresponds to its critique of ‘home’. The alienating tendencies of anthropology are, in fact, well known and lie behind the suggestion, made to me many years ago by an English anthropologist, that the discipline might more accurately be called ‘misanthropology’.

A further issue arises in relation to the applicability of ethnographic methods to ‘complex’ societies. This, of course, touches on conventional distinctions between the methodological orientations of anthropologists and sociologists, and more recently on anthropology’s relationship to history and cultural studies. Such distinctions and relationships are fully institutionalised and are a key part of the political landscape in the academy, such that the ability to profile anthropology as being in possession of a distinctive method (as well as a distinctive and relevant object) is constantly a matter for anxious concern. Ancestral identification with the ‘Trobriand model’ is part of this concern and it is also often a purely pragmatic strategy in arguing for resources, including funding from the agencies which control research. Messerschmidt noted that all the contributors to Anthropologists at Home in North America ‘demonstrate the importance of maintaining the traditions of the participant observer method’, [5] but he noted, too, that these had to be ‘combined with new and different methods’ (1982a:6-7). Though these new and different methods’ have been used by some anthropologists for decades, to a large extent they are associated with other disciplines, like sociology and history, where they have long been stock-in-trade. Anthropologists at home must, of course, break out of the Trobriand mould to some extent, since the classical method of participant observation was in part conditioned by the scale and narrative style of societies like those of the Trobriand islanders. Anthropologists now working at home in Australia have to more readily supplement participant observation with (at the very least) survey techniques, structured interviews and archival research.

For some, this heralds an identity crisis, made worse by the plundering of time-honoured ethnographic or anthropological techniques by sociology, history and cultural studies. As we have seen, sociologists now often ‘do ethnography’. In addition, historians, sometimes inspired by anthropologists like Geertz, do something called ‘ethnographic history’, while cultural studies has vigorously laid claim to the (also partly Geertzian) program of reading culture as text. It is worth remembering that distinctions between anthropology, sociology, history and the study of representations meant little to the likes of Marx, Durkheim or Weber, but common theoretical ancestry may mean little or nothing in the context of institutional boundary maintenance and the related elevation of methods to totemic status. In this sense, ethnography becomes a part-for-whole representation of anthropology, just as archival research signifies history, as surveys and interviews signify sociology, and as the neo-archival movement of ‘text gathering’ signifies cultural studies. As the phrase ‘part-for-whole’ implies, such metonymic representation is as partial as any ethnographic writing project. There is, for instance, no good reason to suppose that, to be a ‘real’ anthropologist, one must ‘do ethnography’ in the classical sense. [6]

There is much constructive cooperation across disciplines like anthropology, sociology, history and cultural studies in Australia, but tensions between them are nevertheless the subject of gossip and legend. As alluded to earlier, in Australia there has been a number of attempts to integrate anthropology and sociology, with varying degrees of success. While some joint departments, like the one at La Trobe University, are currently very harmonious, there are or have been others where lines of fission have opened and become entrenched. Tension between anthropology and history is far less marked. These two disciplines are rarely formally combined in Australia (unless one classifies archaeology as a branch of history), yet there has recently been a great deal of interdisciplinary cooperation, with relative harmony probably due to both disciplines having their own historical depth based on relatively discrete methodological traditions. The story of the relationship between anthropology and the recently formed dis cipline of cultural studies is, however, another matter, since many anthropologists now seem to feel that the new ‘culture-readers’ are stealing their thunder.

One prominent Australian anthropologist has said to me that he regards the fight between anthropology and cultural studies in Australian universities as a battle for institutional survival. I recall, too, that, when the cultural studies account of Australia, Myths of Oz, was published by John Fiske, Bob Hodge and Graeme Turner in 1987, it was heralded by some anthropologists I then knew as being ‘really anthropology’, on the grounds that it used methods of analysis derived from structuralists like Levi-Strauss. More than a decade down the track, my sense is that perceptions have shifted. [7] As intimated by Weiner, cultural studies accounts are now much more likely to be viewed as ‘thin’ on account of them not being ‘properly’ ethnographic (cf. Peace 1998). Of course, a common charge levelled against Levi-Strauss was that he divorced ‘texts’ from their social context. (He is also often remembered for not having done ‘proper fieldwork.) Yet, for all that, he remained an anthropologist. Those who ‘read culture ‘ in cultural studies are now more definitely not anthropologists, thus affirming the boundary between ‘our’ truly ethnographic discipline and ‘their’ shallower and less anchored appreciation of culture. Since pressure on humanities and social science faculties is likely to increase in Australia in the immediate future, we can expect this disciplinary boundary to continue to be the subject of much critical debate.

Yet some anthropologists continue to do what Levi-Strauss did in works like Mythologiques. That is to say, they look at objectified forms of social communication and often read them as ‘discourse’ without explicit or expansive reference to relevant on-the-ground social relations. To what extent is this legitimate, especially in the case of anthropology at home?

The first thing to note, perhaps, is that the textualist’s common insistence on a partial reading of forms of communication mirrors the intrinsic partiality of all ethnographic accounts. The perspective of the textualist observer is therefore not unique, so any problem must lie elsewhere. A more important point relates to the actual status of the data. Obviously, objectified forms of social communication (like newspaper articles or works of art) are intended to be read: they are, after all, texts (or pseudo-texts) which are in any case intended for non-anthropological readers in their natural settings, just as the myths analysed by Levi-Strauss in Mythologiques were originally intended for native listeners. To a large extent, people in cultural studies or anthropologists ‘at home’ are already implicated in the circulation and reception of these texts, which they may both create and read as participants in the social system which happens also to be the object of their scrutiny. In other words, analysts in suc h cases already have an intuitive grasp of complex exchanges without having to travel to participate in them.

What they say about the relevant texts is no less partial for that, but the primary danger, I would argue, is in the potential to totalise such partiality, so that it appears as the structure of a supposedly universal and all-pervasive discourse. This is precisely what happens in many structuralist accounts (including many neo- or post-structuralist ones), when analysts objectify themselves in the allegedly prescribed and pre-formed universal subject positions of discursive regimes (cf. Bourdieu 1977). However, this error is theoretical, not methodological, and nothing would change if ‘real’ fieldwork were to displace, however partially, an exclusive concentration on texts. Paying attention to what Weiner calls ‘the inevitable slippages between language, assertion, contestation and avowed knowledge’ has less to do with the necessity of ‘long-term observation and interview’ in this case and more to do with a genuine openness to pluralism in one’s view of what the world consists of. And if ‘real’ fieldwork is no guaranteed antidote to the excesses of structuralist totalisation, neither does there seem to be any reason to make it definitive for the subject position of the ‘real’ anthropologist. This implies that the instability of the boundary between anthropology and cultural studies (as well as other disciplines) should be seen as opportunity rather than threat.


In 1987, Jackson suggested that the increasing interest in anthropology at home was due largely to the intellectual realisation that the ‘exotic might be only five miles away’. ‘It was’, he suggested, a grave mistake to think that the distant “savage” had more to give… than one’s local compatriot’ (1987a:8; also see Okely 1996:5-6). On the other hand, there were practical pressures which led to this supposed revelation. Jackson (1987a:8-9) names six: a decrease in funding; an increase in student numbers; objections to field studies raised by gatekeepers in decolonised parts of the world; the relative ease of entering the field in one’s own society; the awareness of ignorance about conditions ‘at home’; and a developing interest in anthropology by other disciplines, like history. Of these, the first three seem primary, leading to an ideological climate in which the necessity of gazing homewards can become an intellectual virtue. As Acciaioli, Robinson and Tonkinson point out:

Given current financial constraints on postgraduate support, the trend towards research ‘at home’, including multi-sited ethnography with a ‘home’ component, will doubtless intensify. This trend should lead to staff appointments and curriculum changes that provide more relevant teaching and expert supervision in these area [sic]. Common interests and complementary methodologies in the study of Australian society and culture should bring anthropology, sociology and cultural studies closer together. (1999:72)

However, the tensions born of such proximity are still being worked through.

When Messerschmidt put together Anthropologists at Home in North America in

1982, he found it pertinent to note that we were ‘witnessing and participating in the efflorescence of a new sort of anthropology–an anthropology of issues’ (1982a:5). While this movement has certain messianic tones more pronounced in America, [8] the move towards anthropology at home in Australia has also seen increased concern with matters of overt political and ethical significance. It is surely not the case that anthropologists are still purely and simply ‘folklorists of the exotic’ (Jackson 1987a:8), in spite of disciplinary continuities which help to centre the idea of difference. The studies presented in this volume reflect this and show a keen concern for issues like race relations (Madden, McKenzie), nationalism (Mewett, Smith), conservation (Newton, Smith), public recreation (Henry, Lancashire, Mewett) and community politics (Henry, Newton)–all matters which fail to stack up against a seemingly obscure research interest i n, say, matrilateral cross-cousin marriage or increase ritual. Of course, it may be patronising to suggest that this latter type of interest is not relevant; [9] but it is certainly decreasing, indicating some rejection of the exoticism to which anthropology at home is a foil. While ‘modernity’ (or even ‘postmodernity’) may not be the best way to describe the reflexive object of contemporary anthropology, critical concern with that object, and its association with globalisation, does arguably represent a significant movement in the history of the discipline. As Jonathan Friedman (1994) has pointed out, our contemporary anthropological sense of the local should be balanced by our appreciation of the global trends which condition the emergence of specific local forms.

As this volume illustrates, Australia is proving to be an interesting testing ground in the reworking of anthropology’s colonial heritage. The reader will find here plenty of ‘others’, some Aboriginal (Lancashire, Madden) some Vietnamese (McKenzie), some ‘mainstream’ Australian (Lancashire, Mewett, Newton, Smith) some ‘fringe’ Australian (Henry), and some not even human (Smith). It is interesting to note, though, that the authors begin and end their studies in country Victoria, in what Okely calls a ‘geographic space which has been obliterated or defined as the ethnographic periphery for orthodox anthropology’ (1996:3). It is thus symptomatic that one author (Madden) is working with Aboriginal people who were all but ignored by anthropologists for many decades, while the other (Mewett) is located in a field site which, because of its perceived lack of indigenous associations, would also have traditionally been ignored in anthropological research. Similarly, McKenzie’s and Newton’s studies place Victoria’s ca pital city, Melbourne, on the anthropological map, where it, too, did not once belong. While Lancashire and Henry take us to more familiar anthropological territory in Australia’s ‘Top End’ and north Queensland, they join Smith, whose scrutiny is essentially national, in shifting their gaze from the apparently exotic to the seemingly familiar. As a whole, however, the contributors to ‘Anthropology at Home in Australia’ call that once easy distinction into question.

Four of the contributors to this volume locate their work in places which are, or have been, their usual places of residence–Madden in western Victoria, McKenzie in Melbourne’s western suburbs, Newton in Melbourne’s eastern fringe, and Henry in Kuranda, north Queensland. The remaining authors switch their foci between local situations and the national contexts of which they are necessarily a part. Hence, while Lancashire and Mewett are respectively concerned with Kakadu National Park, in the Northern Territory, and with Stawell, in Victoria, they join Smith in scrutinising contemporary and historical values which are in key respects general to Australian people. Between the main subjects of their concern–Aborigines, Asian migrants, conservationists, tourists, suburbanites, hippies and athletic bearers of the Anzac spirit–there is a shared concern defining both familiar and unfamiliar places in Australia which these native anthropologists call home.

Their methods of study are diverse, although the focus remains largely ethnographic in a (semi-)conventional sense. Madden and McKenzie, for example, begin with papers which give a strong sense of ‘being there’ (Geertz 1988) and having personal encounters with ‘others’. Yet neither endorses the idea of the anthropologist as ‘professional stranger’ (Agar 1980) or ‘marginal native’ (Freilich 1970). Strangeness and marginality, they suggest, cannot be adequately captured by such phrases, because familiarity and unfamiliarity are not stable constructions, either ‘in the field’ or outside it. Madden found that his fieldwork engendered ‘culture shock’ partly because he discovered that he had much in common with the Aboriginal people with whom he worked. Similarly, McKenzie came to the conclusion that the boundary between Vietnamese and other Australians (including himself) was subject to constant realignment, even to the point where it could disappear from view. The ‘here and there’ logic of the distinction betwee n fieldwork and ‘writing up’ does not make sense of these two contributions, which are necessarily reflexive in orientation and geared towards an understanding of the emergent nature of identity.

This theme of emergent identity is revisited time and again in the remaining contributions to the volume, sometimes in relation to a ‘being there’ theme, but as often as not in relation to historical and textual interpretation. For Smith, the theme is totemic: he is interested in the way wild and feral animals (particularly cats and dogs) throughout Australia are coordinated with the contradictions of post-colonial identity. Like Lancashire, he explores the ideological implications of the view that wilderness is unpopulated space mirroring a particular sense of self, although Lancashire’s absentees are Aboriginal and belong specifically to Kakadu National Park. The indigenous wilderness recurs in Newton’s study of Valinda, where, amongst other things, people have grafted native species and native people onto an anti-suburban ideology. This same ideology, with its gemeinschaftlich orientation, is examined by Henry in her study of the Kuranda amphitheatre, although she is at pains to point out that ‘community’ in Kuranda is achieved largely through (or in spite of) conflict and competition. Finally, Mewett, too, is interested in the relationship between unity and diversity, but the focus is broader. His study of the Stawell Easter Gift is part of a larger project which aims to show the paradoxically heterogeneous nature of national identity in Australia.

As far as home is concerned, then, these studies move between the general and the particular. I look forward to a day when the heterogeneous nature of anthropological identity means that it is no longer necessary or interesting to position them as the products of anthropology undertaken in a special location.


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(1.) The session was titled ‘The Anthropology of Australia’ and was convened by John Morton and Janice Newton as part of the Australian Anthropological Society Conference held at Albury, NSW, in 1996. This volume contains only a selection of papers from the session.

(2.) As is well known, the first anthropology department in Australia was at Sydney University. It opened in 1926, with Radcliffe-Brown as professor, and dominated the scene for decades afterwards. The first sociology departments in Australia did not open until the 1960s.

(3.) Bottomley says that Martin was the foundation professor of ‘the department of sociology and anthropology at La Trobe University’. In fact, the department did not become the department (or school) of sociology and anthropology until 1994. My judgement that Martin is remembered as a sociologist is based on my experience of the department since 1990 (where my office is in the Martin Building).

(4.) ‘The Hindmarsh Bridge affair’, as it has come to be known, relates to a 25 year ban which was placed on the construction of a bridge which was interpreted under federal legislation as representing a threat to an Aboriginal sacred site. The site and its associated mythology (restricted to women) had been researched by an Australian anthropologist, but the ban was overturned after accusations suggesting that the mythology was a ‘fabrication’. The affair has spawned a large body of anthropological literature. Both legal action and the publication of anthropological opinion in relation to the affair remain ongoing.

(5.) Similarly, Jackson (1987a) argues for the continuing centrality of ‘community studies’ for anthropologists. Julie Marcus (1990:11-12) specifically objects to Jackson’s claim that some semblance of bounded communities remains the ‘real subject of anthropological enquiry’ (1987a:13) and I endorse that objection.

(6.) This introduction is not intended as a reflexive piece. However, I should perhaps point out my own personal stake in this matter, since I have never ‘done ethnography’ in the classical sense. My fieldwork in central Australia has always been of the short stay variety; in spite of knowing a reasonable amount about local vocabulary and pronunciation, I make no claim to ‘speak the language’; and, with few exceptions, my short stays ‘in the field’ have seen me retreat most evenings to a hotel or friend’s house in Alice Springs. I have to confess that, while I often find myself self-consciously explaining to people that I have not done a stint of uninterrupted, long-term fieldwork in central Australia, my sense of lack seems not to have harmed my career.

(7.) However, I do not want to suggest that most anthropologists readily embraced cultural studies in the 1980s. Indeed, it is quite clear that many reacted sharply against it from the start. Julie Marcus, for example, has noted how, during a conference on the anthropology of Australia held during the Bicentennial Year (1988, the focus of many papers on “culture” rather than “society” provoked heated debate…. [T]he studies of Australian “culture” that were presented were sometimes seen as being anecdotal, disengaged from social structure, and as sliding into the trap of reproducing those cultural categories and practices which the authors exposed and attempted to critique. A frequent response was “where have all the people gone'” (1990:14).

(8.) Messerschmidt thought in 1982 that ‘we may be witnessing our profession’s revitalization movement; we may be on the verge of a new “golden age” in anthropology’ (1982:5). Jackson (1987a:10) also remarks on this shift in the United Kingdom, but treats it more in terms of personal therapy. The social and psychological dimensions of anthropological redemption do, of course, mirror each other.

(9.) Such interest still reflects local relevance in particular communities, although this is often forgotten in the corridors of the academy. Also, this local relevance, and the skills needed to research it, are often required in less local contexts. Heritage protection is one such context dealt with by some of the authors in this volume. Another, which often involves Australian anthropologists like myself, is Aboriginal land claim research.

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