Ethnography and the production of anthropological knowledge: essays in honour of Nicolas Peterson
Location B
Date and Time 11th December, 2008 at 08:30


Francoise Dussart (University of Connecticut)
Yasmine Musharbash (Sydney University)
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Short Abstract

In his work Nicolas Peterson has advocated the intimate connection between ethnographic data and anthropological knowledge. We seek contributions that will build on the dialogical relationship between ethnography and theory.

Long Abstract

Celebrating Nicolas Peterson's role in shaping Australian anthropology, this session solicits contributions inspired by the inquisitiveness of his work. Since his original fieldwork in Arnhem Land, Peterson has explored a broad range of issues critical to larger anthropological debates such as: • Indigenous and cultural rights; • The History of Aboriginal Studies and the Production of Social Theory; • Matters of Indigeneity and Citizenship; • Photographs of Aboriginal Peoples and Cultural Appropriation; • Myths, Songs, and Ritual Organisation in Arnhem Land and Central Australia; • The Politics of Fourth World Peoples and The Nation-State; and • The Interplay Between Culture and Economic Factors (including theoretical deliberations on demand sharing and the moral domestic economy). In his own writing as well as in his exemplary and insightful mentoring, Peterson has advocated the intimate connection between ethnographic data and anthropological knowledge. We seek contributions that will build on the dialogical relationship between ethnography and theory. Paper presenters are encouraged to examine mediated processes of ownership and appropriation in light of Peterson's anthropological analyses of the socio-economical, political and visual factors.

Discussant: Howard Morphy, Francoise Dussart, Fred Myers

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Ecological, cultural and social flows: relations to country in the Riverine

Author: Gaynor Macdonald (University of Sydney)

Short Abstract

I examine Peterson’s insightful observation of the relationship between ecology and cultural blocs as it applies to the Riverine area of south eastern Australia, demonstrating how social and local relatedness are written on to the rivers and creeks, giving rise to distinctive cultural practices.


When Nic Peterson proposed the relationship between ecology and cultural patterns three decades ago, he did so with a broad brush. Yet my historical and contemporary ethnography points to its applicability at a micro level as well. The Riverine region, identified as one of these cultural blocs, is constituted by many localised groupings and 'divisions' which support and give greater value to his thesis. Indeed, it is argued that cultural discriminations are inextricably linked with ecological distinctions and that, in the Riverine, water flows play a large part in these. I will argue that these waterways are kinship written on the land and propose an explanatory for both the distinctiveness of totemic matrimoieties as well as the curious absence of patriclans in the Riverine.

Domestic moral economies of the borderlands: an analysis of transformations in the social relationships between Torres Strait Islanders and Papua New Guineans

Author: Kevin Murphy (Australian National University)

Short Abstract

This paper applies Peterson’s model of the “domestic moral economy” to analyse the changing structure of relationships between Torres Strait Islanders and Papua New Guineans since the introduction of the international border that now divides them.


Peterson proposes the "domestic moral economy" as a model of the intersection of culture and economy that can account for the persistence of kinship and sharing as fundamentally important to the structure of economic distribution among indigenous peoples. This paper applies the analytical model of the domestic moral economy to consider social interaction and the structure of relationships between Torres Strait Islanders and Papua New Guinean visitors who regularly cross the international border to Australia under the Torres Strait Treaty. I extend the domestic moral economy model by using it to analyse the interface between an indigenous people, welfare dependent and encapsulated in a first world state, and neighbouring citizens of a "third world" country, who are economically independent and experience minimal direct involvement of their own government in day to day life. One of the effects of the introduction of the international border between Australia and Papua New Guinea has been an attenuation of relationships between people from opposite sides of the border. As a result, Papua New Guineans today are largely excluded from the domestic moral economy of Torres Strait Islanders as Islanders have in turn withdrawn from participation in the domestic moral economy of Papuans. I explore how it is that Islanders are now able to say "no" to Papuan demands, and how the possibility of such refusals characterises contemporary social relations in the border area.

Christianity, Personhood, and the Domestic Moral Economy at Galiwin'ku (Northern Territory)

Author: Carolyn Schwarz (State University Of New York)

Short Abstract

Based on Nicolas Peterson’s model of the Indigenous domestic moral economy, I examine the role of Christianity in the coordination of sharing practices and market behaviors at Galiwin’ku. I explore how re-appropriated Christianity responds to new cultural values of individualism and to traditional tensions between autonomy and relatedness.


Nicolas Peterson's model of the Indigenous domestic moral economy accounts for the ways in which Aboriginal people continue the centrality of sharing practices as they engage with the cash economy to reproduce social relationships. Personhood in this social context, Peterson argues, is constituted through the tensions between Aboriginal individual autonomy and relatedness as opposed to the individualism that emerges from affluence and high consumer dependency. In this paper, I examine the role of Christianity in the coordination of sharing practices and market behaviors in the Yolngu Aboriginal settlement of Galiwin'ku. Over the last six decades, Galiwin'ku inhabitants have taken part in ongoing re-appropriations of missionary Christianity to produce the "Yolngu-conceived Christianity" that is practiced in the settlement today. I explore how this Yolngu-conceived Christianity responds to new cultural values of individualism and to traditional tensions between autonomy and relatedness. Yolngu-conceived Christianity, I argue, creates new potentials for relation-making and encourages the growth of individualism.

"Nothing ever changes": historical ecology and environmental memory in Arnhem Land, Australia.

Author: Marcus Barber (CSIRO)

Short Abstract

I describe archival and ethnographic research about recent environmental change in Arnhem Land. Nicolas Peterson’s influential research and knowledge of Arnhem Land facilitated this study, which focuses on indigenous perceptions of change and their significance to present and future challenges.


This paper describes the results of, and the relationship between, archival and ethnographic research about recent environmental change in Arnhem Land. Historical records of the region were examined for information about past environmental conditions, and these records included; accounts by explorers, travelers, and missionaries; the photographs of the anthropologist Donald Thomson; the records of the 1948 multidisciplinary scientific expedition; and recent aerial photographs and scientific data. This archival review, combined with previous long term ethnographic field experience, provided the foundations for conversations with contemporary eastern Arnhem Land residents about environmental stasis and environmental change in the region. A critical aspect of Yolngu cosmologies is the idea that, at the level of myth and ancestry which is described as the most fundamental form of reality, nothing ever changes. I explore how this belief articulates with memories and observations of stasis and change in important places in the region. The strong indigenous rights regimes in the Northern Territory (NT) situate indigenous people at the centre of local and regional management responses to negative environmental changes, including declines in important species, the impacts of mining, and the more diffuse challenges posed by phenomena such as climate change. This paper considers how such environmental changes are perceived, remembered, and explained. Nicolas Peterson's influential research, his personal archives, his knowledge of Arnhem Land history and of Arnhem Land environments significantly facilitated the research presented here.

Innovation in Arnhem Land: Archaeology and Donald Thomson's collection of spears and spearthrowers from northern Australia

Author: Harry Allen (University of Auckland )

Short Abstract

Archaeological evidence for innovations in spear technology in northern Australia comes from archaeology and rock art studies. Analysis of the Thomson collection of spears held at Museum Victoria reveals further dimensions of innovation and challenges the currently available picture of technological change derived from archaeology.


Archaeological evidence for spear technology in northern Australia is limited to the hard evidence of stone projectile points. This is modified somewhat by the information contained in rock art, where at certain periods, Aboriginal artists choose to emphasise material culture elements in the art, particularly spears, spearthrowers and bodily decoration. Both lines of evidence have been used to produce sequences of changes in spear technology where forms replace each other , with an assumption of increasing efficiency over time. A material culture study of the spears and spearthrowers in the Thomson collection at Museum Victoria, however, suggests that change in these technologies was additive rather than substitutive. The paper concludes with a discussion of the continuing importance of ethnographic and material culture studies to archaeological interpretation in northern australia and elsewhere.

Demand sharing and unsolicited giving: Addressing an apparent paradox with recent data from Arnhem land, north Australia

Author: Jon Altman (The ANU)

Short Abstract

Nicolas Peterson’s notion of demand sharing has become part of the anthropological orthodoxy in Australia and has been used by the bureaucracy to partially justify income quarantining in remote Aboriginal Australia. This construct is re-examined with data from Arnhem Land on distribution of harvested game and arts income.


Negative and positive reciprocity are diametric opposites. In the former, one looks to benefit from exchange in an asymmetric way. In the latter people give goods or services irrespective of balance in an apparently altruistic way. Historically, this spectrum was covered by Sahlins' schema explained by kinship distance. But in 1993, Nicolas Peterson introduced the new notion of demand sharing into the anthropological lexicon to describe a particular mode of distribution based on a very direct demand. The term 'demand sharing' has now been adopted in policy discourse in Australia to partially explain the absence of individual or household control over resources and to partially justify the quarantining of people's welfare income in Australia's Northern Territory.

This paper re-assesses the notion of demand sharing with evidence from Arnhem Land. Examining information about wildlife harvesting by Kuninjku people in 2002 and 2003 the extraordinary effort made by successful harvesters to distribute game to kin residing far way without any explicit demands is documented. And examining information on the earnings of artists producing for the market, it assess why artists would expend effort in arts production if sharing risked immediate dissipation of returns? Is demand sharing a dominant mode of distribution or just one mode among many utilised by Aboriginal Australians today. Demand sharing might be an important corrective to the notion that hunter-gatherers share property altruistically. But has this term now unintentionally become a gloss for any Indigenous forms of sharing that challenges western individualistic notions of property and sensibilities?

The Demand-Share Market: Indigenous economies and Aboriginal art

Author: John Carty (Australian National University)

Short Abstract

Anthropologists have struggled to tie the economic success of Contemporary Aboriginal artists with any rigour to questions of cultural transformation and reproduction. Inspired by Peterson’s notion of the demand-share economy (1993), this paper examines how artistic income in Balgo is translated into the reproduction, testing and transformation of social relationships.


Aboriginal art is the most successful engagement that Indigenous people living in remote areas have been able to make with the broader Australian economy. Yet Anthropologists have struggled to integrate this economic success with ethnographic descriptions of cultural transformation or reproduction. Most accounts of Aboriginal artistic production make token acknowledgement of the importance of artistic income, and then proceed to elide the economic to focus entirely on the ritual, religious or aesthetic dimensions of that art object. This emphasis is partly a retreat from the categorical novelty and theoretical challenge that this complex emergent phenomena of Aboriginal art presents; sitting as it does at the intersection of cultural, political and economic systems. In this intercultural context, it has proven difficult for anthropologists to frame, describe and analyse painting for money in terms of cultural practice.

My research in Australia's Western Desert region seeks to preserve the quotidian unity of 'economic' and 'cultural' practice by framing Balgo acrylic painting as a form of Indigenous labour. What is received in exchange for that labour is money, and the power to invest or redistribute it according to social principles and priorities. Inspired by Peterson's notion of the demand-share economy (1993), I examine how the money produced though painting is translated into Indigenous value and the reproduction, testing and transformation of social relationships. By showing how the income from Balgo art circulates in the daily dynamics of Balgo social life, this paper seeks to provide an ethnographic description that reintegrates economic and cultural interpretations of contemporary Desert art.

Demand sharing, nutrition, and Warlpiri health: the social and economic strategies of food choice

Author: Eirik Saethre (University of Hawaii)

Short Abstract

Focusing on Nicolas Peterson's work examining demand sharing, welfare colonialism, and the politics of indigeneity, this paper will explore the ways in which Warlpiri food narratives and choices reflect social, economic and political relations.


Despite policies and initiatives aimed at improving Aboriginal health, life expectancy for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory continues to be almost twenty years less than that of non-Aboriginal people. One of the primary causes of morbidity and mortality among Aboriginal Territorians is chronic and lifestyle diseases. Many health care professionals believe that the rates of Aboriginal ill health could be significantly reduced simply by improving nutrition. In the Warlpiri community of Lajamanu, residents contrast the health benefits of hunting and gathering with the dangers of eating foods containing high levels of sugar and fat, while continuing to purchase large amounts of prepared foods from the takeaway. To explore the ways in which food narratives and choices are situated within the context of social and economic relations, this paper will draw from, and build upon, Nicolas Peterson's contributions to Australian anthropology. Focusing particularly on Peterson's work examining demand sharing, welfare colonialism, and the politics of indigeneity, I argue that while praising bush foods for their health benefits is one way of demonstrating the value of Aboriginal tradition and identity, practical considerations such as a lack of cooking facilities, low income, and reciprocity ensure that prepared foods from the takeaway continue to be a favoured source of sustenance.

Some recent changes in the organisation of a Warlpiri initiation ceremony

Author: Georgia Curran (University of Sydney)

Short Abstract

In recent decades Warlpiri initiation ceremonies have expanded significantly. In this paper I will discuss how demographic changes are influencing the roles of participants and in turn the organistion of these rituals.


In a 2000 paper Nicolas Peterson shows that wider regional sociality in the Central Desert of Australia is being constructed through the expansion of initiation ceremonies. Peterson concludes that the reasons for the focus on initiation ceremonies in more recent decades are that "they are neither bound to locality nor to specialised knowledge under the control of senior men" and that they "give prominence to younger men in their thirties as the organisers and key participants" (Peterson 2000: 213). Nowadays, young men no longer go through a secondary phase of initiation rites called Kankarlu which in the past prohibited them from marriage until the age of around thirty. As a result men are having children at a much younger age and may only be as young as thirty when they have to perform the rites for their sons to become young men.

In this paper I will describe the organisation of the initiation ceremonies that I saw being performed in Yuendumu over the summers of 2006 and 2007. I will discuss the emphasis on the active roles of the younger generations through organisation around generation moieties (yulpurru and rdiliwarnu) rather than the owner and manager roles (kirda and kurdungurlu) which are the basis for the site specific ceremonies. I will show that the change in the age demographic in Yuendumu over the last few decades is influencing the organisation of initiation ceremonies such that the active roles of the younger generation of participants are being emphasised more than ever.

Women, Fire and 'Fiends Escaped from Hades': Revisiting Central Australian 'Fire Ceremonies'

Author: John Morton (La Trobe University)

Short Abstract

This paper builds on Nic Peterson’s analysis of a Warlpiri fire ceremony and his discussion of its method of conflict resolution through ‘trials by fire’. While Nic emphasises structural tensions in the local system of kinship and affinity, I deepen his analysis by looking at how and why this resolution occurs through the aggressive use of fire.


Thanks in no small measure to Nic Peterson, the Warlpiri 'fire ceremony', in its various guises as 'Ngatjakula', 'Buluwandi' and 'Jardiwarnpa', has become ethnographically famous. In his 1970 paper on 'Buluwandi' (in Ron Berndt's 'Australian Aboriginal Anthropology'), Nic clarified the meaning of the fire ceremony's conflict resolution, teasing out the pattern of ceremonial interaction and relating it to tensions between matrikin and patrikin in the bestowal of nieces/daughters. But why should tension between matrikin and patrikin be mediated by the aggressive use of fire? Why is it appropriate for certain people to be 'torched' in a manner which caused Gillen to think of such ceremonies as populated by 'fiends escaped from Hades'? Although Nic once suggested to me that the work of Géza Róheim seemed to be 'right for all the wrong reasons', it is through Róheim's equation of fire and femininity (in 'The Eternal Ones of the Dream') - together with the general association which Aborigines make between (what George Lakoff calls) 'women, fire and dangerous things' - that I seek an answer to these questions.

Constructing visible difference: towards an anthropological demography of Indigenous Australian populations

Author: Frances Morphy (Australian National University)

Short Abstract

The standard demographic categories of the mainstream dominate Australian policy discourse, rendering it irredeemably ethnocentric. This paper argues for an anthropologically informed Indigenous demography, nascent in Peterson’s 'Australian Territorial Organization' but not yet fully realised.


As a subdiscipline, anthropological demography is very underdeveloped in the Australian context. The standard socio-demographic categories of the mainstream invariably frame the collection of demographic data on Indigenous Australians, rendering policy discourse irredeemably ethnocentric. This paper contemplates an anthropologically informed Indigenous demography—nascent in Nic Peterson's 'Australian Territorial Organization'—that would create a 'recognition space', making Indigenous categories visible to the state. There are two distinct projects involved.

The first concerns the 'tyranny of numbers'— it is only that which is quantifiable that is deemed 'real'. Since many of the categories that structure the socio-demographic characteristics of Indigenous populations are invisible to the gaze of the anthropologically uninformed demographer, the view that emerges from data collections such as the national census is fundamentally incoherent. Ethnographic enquiry and anthropological analysis can reveal the categories that pattern Indigenous socio-demographies, rendering them measurable so that they begin to count as 'data'.

The systems of value that underpin these categories are not easily captured through methodologies that rely on measuring what people say they do as opposed to one that observes behaviour in context. The second kind of contribution that anthropology can make to the demographic 'recognition space' is through its systematic methodology for the collection of 'qualitative' data. Such data are no less real, but are devalued in a society that seems able only act in terms of the quantifiable. This is a more challenging project, since it asserts the equality of anthropological analysis rather than accepting its role merely as demography's handmaiden.

The "narcissism of minor differences": the appropriation of the other's difference by native title claimant groups in indigenous Australia.

Authors: Anthony Redmond (ANU)
Diana McCarthy (Native Title Services Victoria)

Short Abstract

This paper explores how native title claimant groups in north-western and south-eastern Australia produce and respond to the elicitation of inter- and intra-group differences despite their strong assertions of commonality with their close neighbours in many other contexts.


Co-author: Simon Correy, NTSCORP

Freud (1918) drew on the work of the nineteenth century ethnologist, Ernest Crawley, to explore how intersubjective and intergroup identities are constituted through a focus on seemingly very minor differences discerned against a background of overwhelming similarity with significant social others. Indeed, Freud found that "it is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them". Prefiguring by nearly half a century, Levi-Strauss' notion of the importance of "differences that resemble" in totemic thought, Freud attributed the conflict over minor differences to the threat they represent to processes of individuation and the sustaining of autonomy.

This paper follows in the tradition of Nic Peterson's life-long concern with the irreducible importance of ethnographic data and concomitantly its constitutive role in the production of empirically grounded anthropological theory and often within the context of mediation by the nation state. This concern is present in his early work on Aboriginal tribes and boundaries, the significance of the role of terminological definition in claims under the Aboriginal Land rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth) and continued in his contributions to an anthropological understanding of the native title era in both remote and settled Australia.

During the native title application process in Australia, the state seeks out iconic differences between groups in the indigenous polity as well as between the indigenous and settler domains as bounded wholes. However, any acknowledgement by claimants of the contingent nature of these domain separations is strongly discouraged since reflexivity on these maters is seen to undermine the claimant group's cultural integrity. This paper explores how claimant groups in north- western and south-eastern Australia produce and respond to the elicitation of differences in native title claims despite their strong assertions of commonality with their close neighbours in many other contexts.

Indigenous Education and Citizenship: Ethnographically Investigating State Appropriations

Author: Laura Burmeister (University of Connecticut (USA))

Short Abstract

This paper applies Nicolas Paterson’s criticisms of Thomas Paine’s theory of welfare colonialism to Territory educational initiatives. Ethnographic examples from a culturally diverse school are intended to demonstrate the State’s subversive intentions of training “responsible” citizens and reproducing a low-wage labour pool.


In explaining persistently low levels of indigenous material wealth, Jeremy Beckett (1988) characterized Aboriginal Australia in terms of Thomas Paine's theory of "welfare colonialism" (1977.) Welfare colonialism posits that granting citizenship rights to fourth world peoples is debilitating because it perpetuates State dependence. Nicolas Peterson criticized Paine's concept as inadequate in explaining socio-economic relationships between the State and Aboriginal peoples (1999.) Peterson insightfully identified welfare colonialism as theoretically limited because, amongst other things, it ignores subversive State intentions embedded in policies that recreate indigenous social capital in colonial terms.

In this paper, I illustrate some of the shortcomings Peterson charges welfare colonialism with by drawing on 14 months of research in a Territory school. Following Peterson's emphasis on the importance of theory informed by ethnography, I provide research examples from a culturally diverse educational context outside of Darwin that are intended to demonstrate subversive State goals underlying educational policies. I assert that contemporary State intentions include appropriating Aboriginal childhoods in terms of victimhood, thereby ensuring "responsible" citizenship training and the reproduction of a low-wage Australian labour pool.

Japanese Anthropology and Nicolas Peterson

Author: Sachiko Kubota (Kobe University)

Short Abstract

The paper will talk about how Nicolas Peterson has been contributed on the development and internationalization of anthropology in Japan especially on Aboriginal and Hunters and Gatherers studies.


In Japan, although the anthropology had been one of the important discipline since the early 1900s, the studies on Australian Aboriginal people were not very active until the end of 1970s, when the scholars in National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka organized the research team on Australian Aboriginal people in accordance with the collection of materials for the museum. At the beginning of this project, the head of the team then visited ANU to seek the possibility of the research and it was the beginning of the long and fruitful connection between Dr. Peterson and the anthropology in Japan. Over the years, he has provided solid and reliable support and practical advices for many scholars and students of anthropology from Japan. He visited Japan for many times helped to organize the symposiums and exhibitions, edited the result of them collaboratively with Japanese scholars. At the same time, through Dr. Peterson, the relationship between Japanese and Australian scholars flourished. All of which, as a result, contributed tremendously for Japanese anthropology especially on Aboriginal Studies.

Citizenship and Aboriginal differences: discrepancies between the sovereign and the relational self.

Author: Sylvie Poirier (Université Laval)

Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic work from an Aboriginal community of the Australian Western Desert, I will discuss the differences between Indigenous and no-Indigenous notions of self and agencies. I will address the discrepancies between Aboriginal social order and civil society.


In Australia, the granting of citizenship and equal rights to Aboriginal people (in the 1960s), the politics of self-determination and the Native Title have all represented major steps in the recognition of Aboriginal people within this modern Nation-State. However, matters of Indigeneity and Citizenship still remain unresolved and much debated issues. In 1998, Peterson had written that the question of the recognition of membership in their own indigenous social orders had remained unaddressed. Drawing from my ethnographic work in the Aboriginal community of Balgo (Western Desert), I will address that question and argue that such membership draws from ontological and cosmological principles and entails knowledge and set of responsibilities that come into conflict with those found in mainstream society and expected from the State; in other words, they represent differences that disturb. More specifically, I will start with a reflection on the concept of "difference" (and alterity) which is pivotal in our discipline; present an analysis of Aboriginal forms of agencies and subjectivities; discuss the distinction between a "relational self" and a "sovereign self"; and explore avenues for their negotiated coexistence.

Peterson's Impartye: A short Appreciation

Author: Diane Austin-Broos (University of Sydney)

Short Abstract

This paper discusses a range of conceptual 'footprints'left by Nic Peterson's work. Among them are his critique of Levi-Strauss, his research on the domestic cycle and composition of domestic groups, and his writings on capitalism, change and land rights.


I came to Australian anthropology as a practitioner schooled in a Geertzian interpretive method tempered by my own brand of critical anthropology. My first engagement with Australianists was at Sydney and I found them, forgive me, rather foreign. Nonetheless, I determined to pursue field research in Central Australia. This course led me into a new intellectual world in which I picked by route according to concepts and arguments I found engaging. Fred Myers, Nancy Munn, TGH Strehlow and Les Hiatt were important. So was Annette Hamilton's work. Nicolas Peterson, however, engaged me with many ideas spread across a range of ethnographic interests. In this paper I discuss five of these 'footprints,' and sketch how each one influenced by own work. These insights range from Nic's critique of Levi-Strauss through issues domestic groups, capitalism, change and land rights.