Blood and water: ownership, kinship and conflict
Location D
Date and Time 9th December, 2008 at 13:30


Patrick McConvell (Australian National University)
Mary Patterson (University of Melbourne)
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Short Abstract

The pragmatics of kinship related to ownership , and implications for changes in systems, including :agency and structuralist models; variants of kinship systems in different rights contexts; multiple and hybrid kinship systems; transformations in kinship linked to changes in ownership systems.

Long Abstract

The late Les Hiatt brought abstract modelling of Australian kinship relations down to earth with analysis of how people actually lined up in disputes over rights. Kinship was paramount but its interpretation and usage was flexible This panel looks at the pragmatics of kinship assignment and terminology in micro-contexts especially relating to ownership systems, and implications for longer-term changes in systems.

Among general issues that could be discussed are :

*Micro-analysis of agency and pragmatics in kinship usage and its relation to structuralist models of systems;

*Variants of kinship systems in one language activated by different discourses related to rights ;

*In multicultural/multilingual and borderland societies, more than one system operating and hybrid systems emerging

*Major transformations in kinship linked to changes in ownership and inheritance systems recently and in prehistory,

While ethnographic and historical examples from any part of the world are welcome there is a focus on the Pacific and Australia. In Australia, kinship terms and ideologies are among the prime ways of articulating traditional ownership, but these may be impacted by Land Rights and Native Title codifications, as well as the influence of English/,mainstream kinship and legal systems, and government pressure to extend private ownership (eg of houses). In a broader Pacific context the interface of state and customary laws and wider and more local kinship systems give rise to similar multiple, flexible and potentially conflicting systems.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Contemporary socialities and historical perspectives on differentiation and affiliation among Aboriginal families

Author: Sally Babidge (University of Queensland)

Short Abstract

This paper will present research into the practice of everyday relations among Aboriginal family and a micro-history of social action in corporate and bureaucratic contexts to elaborate on processes of belonging to family.


The emphasis on proof of connection to place and group in the legal context of native title permeates relationships among interdependent members of Aboriginal families in a northern Queensland rural town. The ideological power of state recognition may be seen in the pervasiveness of a kind of fetish for 'blood' and descent in native title claimants' reckoning of belonging. However, Aboriginal people also use corporate structures and processes relating to native title as opportunities to arrange and play out interpersonal and interfamilial politics which have intended consequences in social relatedness quite outside of native title. The paper will present research into the practice of everyday relations and a micro-history of social action in corporate and bureaucratic contexts. In doing so, I seek in part to elaborate on recent discussions regarding the processes of affiliation and social differentiation among and between Aboriginal families.

Making and Avoiding Trouble: Kinship and the Management of Conflict

Author: Asher Ford (ERM)

Short Abstract

Kinship systems play an important role in shaping in how and why conflict is practiced in traditional Aboriginal society. This paper examines the tensions between kinship, concepts of ownership and conflict using historical examples.


Concepts of ownership within human societies play an important role in determining the practical distribution of resources. In traditional Australian Aboriginal society the distribution of resources is bound to the ideological concepts of communal ownership rights and responsibilities towards land. Ownership not only determined who had access to resources but was also tied to a religious sense of belonging too and caring for land. These ideas of "ownership" also existed with other user relationships with the land, which were also based on kinship and which held their own responsibilities and rights. Prior to European settlement, Aboriginal society in Victoria had developed a complex multi-layered decentralised political organisation based on kinship and land relationships that had incredible longevity. While this political system was extremely long-lived it was not without social tensions and conflict. Political power in Victorian Aboriginal society rested with old men, who gained their status through personal prestige, retaining key social and religious knowledge and expanding kinship relationships. As kinship relationships were the major way to gain access to resources and political power, individual's attempts to establish or resist the existing social order was shaped by kinship power relations and structures. Using early accounts of European settlers to Victoria, such as James Dawson and George Augustus Robinson, this paper examines the kinship relationships, political structures and the emergence, practice and management of conflict in Victoria Aboriginal society prior to and at the time of European contact.

When is a cousin a mother? Skewing strategies and skewed systems

Author: Patrick McConvell (Australian National University)

Short Abstract

Skewing is often an 'overlay' rather than a system, but it can become entrenched and lead to system change. Omaha skewing in Australia restricts marriage partners in some areas and links to patrilineal inheritance in others. The paper investigates how contextual strategies can lead to system change.


Omaha and Crow skewing are frequently listed in typologies of kinship systems but skewing (eg calling a mother's brother's daughter 'mother' ) also occurs for contigent contextual reasons. Skewing is often therefore an 'overlay' on other systems rather than a system in its own right (Kronenfeld). Among the Gurindji in Australia Omaha skewed terms are used for 'close' relations and in other places (eg Cape York Peninsula, Thomson) they are interpreted as a device for rendering relations unmarriageable. This is reminiscent of the property of 'semi-complex' skewing systems of dispersing marriage alliances (Heritier). In other parts of Australia (eg the North Kimberleys) and elsewhere in the world, Omaha systems (of a slightly different kind) seem to link strongly to inheritance patterns in patrilineal descent groups, to the extent that skewing systems are often known as 'lineal'. In Australia historical linguistic evidence points to Omaha skewing playing a role in the transition from 'restricted' exchange (bilateral cross-cousin marriage in Cape York Penisula) to 'generalised' exchange (matrilateral marriage, North East Arnhem Land) (McConvell & Alpher , McConvell & Keen). This paper attempts to answer two questions: (1) is there a connection between the restriction of marriage and the importance of lineal groups in these cases?; and (2) how and why do patterns of contextual strategies lead to full-scale change in systems? In investigating these questions the new database of Australian kinship terminology AUSTKIN ( will be used.

Resource conflict and the control of anthropological advice at the Porgera gold mine, Papua New Guinea

Author: John Burton (Divine Word University)

Short Abstract

Resource conflicts, originating in political struggles over access to mine benefits, plague Porgera. The paper discusses the nature of conflict in this society, and the mining company’s response in view of its declarations of compliance with international compacts on Corporate Social Responsibility.


A landowner identification exercise carried out among the Ipili people at the Porgera gold mine in Papua New Guinea, over a two year period, uncovered a high level of conflict in the community stemming from intra-community struggles for political recognition, and for protagonists to be included among mine beneficiaries.

A closer analysis shows that episodes of fighting often break out among close relatives such that 'inter-cousin fighting' is a more apt designation. Far from having unfathomable causes, following the 'tribal fighting' narrative of the Port Moresby-based national media, the basis of conflict lies in struggles among spokesmen for rival descent lines to represent themselves and their followers as rightfully among insiders in respect of mining benefits.

The paper discusses the origins of indigenous conflict in Porgera and the implications for indigenous representation of Goodenough's conception of the 'unrestricted cognatic' descent group. This is followed by the mining company's response in the light of its public reporting of compliance with international compacts on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

The paper's concluding discussion examines the potential for breakdown in the assumed three-way bond of trust between experts working in a range of subdisciplines centring on anthropology and social development, the multilateral agencies that create the international CSR compacts, and the corporate signatories claiming to be in compliance. The control of professional advice in anthropology will be contrasted with the situation in other human sciences, and in professions like law and engineering.

Kinship Matters in Vanuatu

Author: Mary Patterson (University of Melbourne)

Short Abstract

Kinship transformations have received scant attention in Vanuatu, where kinship once was a preoccupation of 'classic' kinship studies. This paper examines the creolisation of practice and the consequences for land tenure and exchange and concomitant conflict over rights and symbolic capital.


The Pacific post colonial nation state of Vanuatu provides a fertile site for a revaluation of the kinship studies carried out by its first and second wave of ethnographers in the 20th century. Kinship in Vanuatu had been at the forefront of the theoretical heartland of kinship studies but little attention has been paid to transformations at the local level and in the broader context of the nation state. This paper seeks to explore whether there is an emergent Vanuatu kinship, that is developing, like the lingua franca bislama, its own spoken, ritual and symbolic vocabulary. The transformations in north Ambrymese kinship will be the focus of the paper, offering suggestions for further examination of the national context where a creolisation of practice is emerging in the context of inter-island marriage and a reevaluation of specific local practice with increasing conflict over access to resources and symbolic capital.