Audible anthropology: anthropologists in government
Location F
Date and Time 11th December, 2008 at 08:30


Kathryn Tomlinson (BBC Media Action)
Andrew Garner (FCO)
Lise Waldek (Ministry of Defence )
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Short Abstract

Anthropologists are sought by state institutions for their specific skills-set, including the understanding of social organisation, culture and change. In this panel government anthropologists will present the diverse ways in which they are engaging with knowledge ownership and appropriation.

Long Abstract

The relationship between knowledge and power is a central theme in much anthropological literature. As a consequence, when anthropologists move into the realm of application becoming more than just the owners of a repository of social knowledge, they must engage in challenging dialogues with both theoretical and practical implications. This is particularly the case when the seekers of such knowledge are bound within the power structures of a country's formal governance.

Increasingly we find anthropologists in dialogue with, and directly employed by, the diverse institutions of the State. These anthropologists are not tasked to carry out ethnographic studies on the employing organisation, although this is often an unintended and colourful consequence. Rather, they are sought for their specific skills-base surrounding the understanding of social organisation, culture and change. In the words of Rappaport (1993), this raises 'deep theoretical as well as practical problems' for all those involved in such transactions of knowledge - anthropologist, government organisation and the subjects under scrutiny. However, these practical encounters also allow connection with new ideas and perceptions.

As such engagements push the anthropologist deeper into the role of translator, how do we ensure that the voice of anthropology is intelligible to both specialist and non-specialist, and prevent a 'fight for ownership' in which all involved stand to lose? In this panel Government anthropologists will present the diverse ways in which they are engaging with knowledge ownership and appropriation.

Chair: Lise Waldek, Anselma Gallinat

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Anthropology and the state: what kind of handmaiden?

Author: Julie Finlayson (ANU)

Short Abstract

Australian anthropology is divided by two forms of often mutually exclusive practice - applied work and academic research. The former is a response to legislative contexts in which Indigenous Australians assert their rights and interests in cultural heritage preservation, land rights and native title. Historically, applied anthropological work is criticised as an extension of the state’s colonial project of subjecting Indigenous people to surveillance and subjugation, including cultural assimilation. The paper examines the background to this claim, possible reasons for its persistence and challenges entrenched assumptions about how anthropological knowledge is harnessed to policy-making.


The first generation of Australian-trained anthropologists conducted fieldwork with Indigenous Australians in areas of remote Australia which required, at that time, access permission from the Protector of Aborigines, State and Territory-based officials with extensive powers of control and coercion over Aboriginal people. For this reason many anthropologists involved in research facilitated by the state were viewed as complicit with the policy objectives of colonial projects. Critics argue that the alliance forged through such research led to anthropological knowledge contributing to detrimental policies and negative outcomes for Aboriginal people. The perception persists where contemporary anthropologists working in Aboriginal Australia conduct research within legislative contexts or via government-funded consultancies.

Based on observations of policy-making in government and a literature offering divergent views of the process I critique the notion of applied anthropology as a 'hand maiden of colonialism' by examining first, theories of policy development, the relationship of knowledge to process in bureaucracies, the nature and sites of power and influence, and finally, suggest reasons why negative views of applied anthropological research have had such longevity.

Modelling Culture for the Military

Author: Kathryn Tomlinson (BBC Media Action)

Short Abstract

This paper discusses work to improve the representation of culture in military training, through development of a tool to create synthetic cultures, and suggests that such work provides opportunities for the discipline to take ownership of applied anthropologists’ expertise in modelling culture.


In the context of the UK Government's Comprehensive Approach to engagement in conflict and reconstruction, the Ministry of Defence is developing its Effects-Based Approach to operations. Key to this is a deeper understanding of the environments in which military and civilians work. 'Cultural awareness' is thus of increasing importance, although training in this field is still in its infancy. This paper discusses work to improve the representation of culture in role-play-based military training, through development of a tool to create synthetic cultures. It presents a model of cultures that distinguishes between categories of cultural practices and social structures. These categories will be populated using ethnographic examples from a variety of societies, allowing the user to produce a realistic, rather than real, cultural profile.

The paper discusses some of the challenges of this approach, including the need to sufficiently simplify real cultures for categorisation, while retaining complexities and reactions to change within the synthetic cultures produced by the tool. But it also examines the opportunities that this work provides for increasing disciplinary ownership of the contributions of applied anthropology. While Douglas' and Mars' work on cultural modelling has been influential, Hofstede and Trompenars are better known in the business world and general public for their contribution to helping people interact sensitively with people from other societies. Given that understanding of difference is central to anthropology, it is hoped that this work will contribute towards the re-appropriation of disciplinary expertise in modelling culture.

When power looks weak: acts of appropriation inside government

Author: Andrew Garner (FCO)

Short Abstract

Critiques of neo-liberal agendas show how fusions of knowledge and technology can have unintended consequences on local communities. The paper examines this ‘governmentality’ from the perspective of working inside government where discourses fragment and knowledge is unexpectedly appropriated.


Over the last decade considerable critical work has examined the effects of Western neo-liberal strategies on communities around the globe. These have focussed on the production of neo-liberal discourse, the structuring and valuing of particular kinds of knowledge, the effects these have on community relations, and the associated technologies and applications of power. Much of this work has taken forward Foucault's analysis of the relations between power, knowledge and their disciplining results, into notions of 'governmentality' and the unintended results of attempts by government bodies, NGOs and other agencies to change things on the ground. This has included strong critical strands in the anthropology of development and environmentalism. In previous work I have analysed the roles and effects of government and NGO discourses on a community of fishers in Jamaica, arguing that these had unintended consequences on the community, and that power itself was fragmentary and multifaceted. I now work for the Civil Service developing research to underpin communication advice on countering terrorist threats. This paper examines how power and knowledge are understood and communicated inside a 'powerful' organisation. How are ideas negotiated and communicated internally and to different public 'audiences'? What are the relationships structuring the ownership of knowledge, and their limitations and possible effects? The paper concludes by outlining how research might best shed light on these relationships.

Who controls the work?: Appropriation and restoration the Tokelau village work force

Author: Judith Huntsman (University of Auckland)

Short Abstract

Tokelau adult male village work forces were appropriated by a national Public Service in 1977. In 2001, the work forces were returned to the villages. During the intervening years there efforts were made to ameliorate the imposed incongruous national system. Why did it take so long to undo it?


The able-bodied men of Tokelau's three atolls villages have long "worked together for the welfare of all" under the control of their elders. As directed by the village council of elders, together they fished and harvested, built and repaired public amenities. But from 1977, most of these same men worked set hours for hourly wages at jobs dictated by absent bureaucrats. They had been made employees of the national Tokelau Public Service for which the New Zealand State Services Commission was the "controlling authority". This change was part of what the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs called "administrative decolonisation", designed to lead to Tokelau's political decolonisation.

The anomalies and sheer "lack of fit" of this imposed work regime in the circumstances of atoll village life was immediately obvious to Tokelau villagers, but it took over three decades of negotiation in Tokelau and controversy in New Zealand for control of the work forces to be returned to the village elders, and then in an "evolved" form.

The paper examines the unhappy effects of the new regime on relationships in one of the atoll villages and the local strategies proposed or used to ameliorate them, drawing in part upon the perspicacious commentary of one wise man. The Tokelau villages more or less successfully moderated the imposed regime, but the New Zealand Administration and State Services Commission took years to undo what had so easily been done, constrained as they were by their own public service doctrine.

Structures of controlling the uncontrollable? An ethnography of a newspaper editorial office

Author: Anselma Gallinat (Newcastle University)

Short Abstract

Journalists are expected to be inquisitive, critical and independent. Within the commercial enterprises of publishing houses there are however limits to their work. The paper will provide an ethnographic exploration of different kinds of control and open resistance at an editorial office of a regional paper in eastern Germany.


In Western Europe, journalists are assumed to be inquisitive, critical and independent as they embody the democratic principles of freedom of speech and free media. Media are however commercial companies which requires them to take on particular lines in their publications. At the level of the editorial office these potential tensions are played out between journalists, editors, editors in chief and the publisher's representatives.

The paper will provide an ethnographic exploration of different kinds of control, control mechanisms and open resistance at an editorial office of a regional paper in eastern Germany. Here many journalists began their career during GDR times. This experience of decades of high control and a brief period of 'entire journalistic freedom' following the Fall of the Berlin Wall has led to a particular work ethic which runs counter to publishers' attempts at controlling journalistic output. Control however is exercised in different ways at a number of levels. Between staff there is a level of peer-control as colleagues wish to live up to their own expectations of what constitutes 'good journalism'. Editors-in-chief act as intermediaries who have to reconcile publishers' demands with their staff's as well as their own interests and convictions. The publisher's representative comes for short visits only -metaphorically and literally dipping in and out in a helicopter- and interacts exclusively with the editor-in-chief.

The paper will highlight the role of professional identities for journalists in their attempts to delineate what they produce and in the negotiation of production with editors-in-chief.