Cowlishaw, Gillian: anthropology and Aborigines

Cowlishaw, Gillian

Friend or foe? anthropology’s encounter with Aborigines‘, Inside Story, 19 August 2015

A reassessment of classical anthropological research (1890s to mid twentieth century). Condemnation of objectionable aspects of colonial power structures should not preclude appreciation of this research. The article explores the history and disputes in Australian anthropology during the middle decades of the twentieth century, with particular focus on AP Elkin.

The pre-1970s 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. But speaking of “traditional culture” gradually became anathema – it might imply that Aboriginal people were fixed in traditional worlds that carried the taint of the primitive …

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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