Embedded Anthropology in Australia: The Debate Continues

Editorial note: In Encircling Empire Report #3, I featured an article from an exciting Australian magazine, Arena, along with extended extracts, authored by Barry Morris and Andrew Lattas. That article was “Embedded Anthropology and the Intervention.” Since then I was contacted by one of the central figures criticized in their article, anthropologist Francesca Merlan, inquiring as to whether or not I would be willing to post her response to their strong criticisms–I agreed. I was also contacted by Andrew Lattas about whether I would post any reply to Merlan’s response–and I also agreed. This is not just a very timely debate, but one that represents a certain climax and confluence of central debates of critical importance to contemporary anthropology, ranging from anthropology in the service of the state, anthropology and neoliberal governance, anthropology and intervention, anthropology and human rights, and anthropology and indigenous peoples. The focus is Australia and the state’s heavy intervention in the Northern Territory which seeks to assert direct rule over Aboriginals ostensibly prompted by allegations of sexual abuse of children–but the significance of the debate extends far beyond, and I strongly encourage viewers to read the original article by Morris and Lattas in full, and the response by Merlan (reproduced below). To some extent, the debate mirrors that around humanitarian interventionism, humanitarian imperialism, and military humanism, as it is varyingly called, with echoes in Afghanistan, Sudan, Haiti, and elsewhere, and with anthropologists recruited by military and intelligence agencies, or other interventionist partners of the state, such as certain NGOs. I have added hyperlinks to Merlan’s response, to assist non-Australian readers.


Response to Lattas and Morris’ ‘Blinkered Anthropology’

Francesca Merlan in defence of the NT Intervention

In Arena Magazine no. 107, Andrew Lattas and Barry Morris attribute to me the view that the current situation of Indigenous people, however one interprets it, is due to their ‘culture’. Nowhere have I said anything vaguely similar to this. One of my concerns has been precisely to show how totalising, bounded and fixed notions of ‘culture’ fail to help us understand the relations and outcomes of Indigenous Australians with others. Another has been to argue (for example, in my book Caging the Rainbow) that to hold Indigenous people to imagined standards of ‘authenticity’ is to impose double jeopardy upon them: to colonise them and radically alter the conditions of their existence, then also demand that they remain as they were.

Concerning the NT Intervention, my experience in remote, as well as not so remote, Aboriginal social settings is that certain unwelcome conditions are widespread. These include alcohol and substance abuse, and related violence; and their consequences for child and youth welfare. Health conditions are notorious. In many remote communities very few people survive to old age, while younger ones have multiple bypasses, complex operations, ongoing dialysis, and batteries of pills to swallow every day. There are other kinds of problems that do not lend themselves to such clear-cut description, including social involution and disoccupation in the face of what are often overwhelmingly difficult social conditions. None of these problems can be simplistically attributed to Indigenous ‘culture’. But there is a question, once one has had experience of these concentrated forms of neglect, problems and special vulnerabilities, whether one thinks that action should be taken. Many Indigenous people do. And so, in my own way, do I.

While advocating such action, I am fully aware of the limitations and difficulties that always attend such efforts. I can accept that others may regard those as prohibitive, or oppose such efforts in principle. I find it harder to accept that Lattas and Morris should be so intolerant of other views than their own on this question.

In thinking as I do, I am not ‘hiding’ behind any ‘leading Aboriginal intellectual brokers’. Do I refer to Marcia Langton [wikipedia] and Noel Pearson [wikipedia], not because they have particular opinions and concerns, but just because they are Indigenous? If that is the suggestion, it seems insulting all round.

Let me also be clear that there are many aspects of the NT Intervention that I do not condone. I am not a supporter of the Intervention as launched, but of the idea that considered long-term intervention is needed. I have in mind something less flamboyant, much longer-term, much less geared to political cycles and impression management, much more collaborative and Indigenously-directed, and more attuned to existing social patterns and dispositions than we have yet had.

Yet, even with its flaws, I have seen evidence of some results of the existing Intervention that seem positive; for example, many Top End Aboriginal women with whom I have discussed the introduction of Basicscards do have positive views of this ‘income management’, while disapproving of the government’s non-consultative launching of the Intervention. Nor do people simply succumb, even with such developments as income management, to being policed into ‘mainstream models’ of family life: they lend Basicscards to their sisters and beyond, so that sometimes it is an interesting question where any particular person’s Basicscard actually is.

But these are variations on the main question: whether one thinks that some action is warranted to try to address social issues and problems, or whether one thinks that this is, and must necessarily always be, an extension and expansion of the ‘carceral state’ with its ‘systems of surveillance, discipline and pastoral care’. Can good come from the state? What terms of evaluation might be applied to state involvement? Lattas and Morris have never been clear about whether they think any explicit steps should be taken about any of the kinds of things I mention above, or how—with what combinations of state, Indigenous, and other agency—they think this might take place.

Aboriginal people had already become increasingly and thoroughly enmeshed in state apparatus even before the current Intervention. Many basic things about the resourcing of their lives—money transfers, health care provision, housing and so on—tie them, like the rest of us, to regulations and provisions of the state. There is, I agree, no call to enmesh them further in it. But anything we can call Indigenous ‘self-determination’ will develop under conditions of inter-relationship of Aboriginal people with other Australian people and institutions, not in complete isolation from them.

I also would agree that many of the Intervention provisions constitute a more thorough-going reach into the innards of domestic life than is true for most of the rest of us. The very school meals program that Lattas and Morris cite as an example from my discussion paper ‘More Than Rights’ (accessible online at <www.inside.org.au/more-than-rights>) represents just such an inroad into domestic organisation. Yet Lattas and Morris defend that program unconditionally, and rebuke me for suggesting that it would best be temporally limited. Why do I say it should be? Consider that such programs were a staple of the assimilation era, in most of the very communities where the meals programs now once again operate under the Intervention. Such programs were then, in the 1960s, conducted with exactly the primary purpose Lattas and Morris attribute to the current Intervention—to instill mainstream cultural dispositions and habits. They appear to have been only partly successful in that, but also to have created conditions which did not foster, and maybe even suppressed, the emergence of domestic regimes involving regular meal preparation.

Finally, Lattas and Morris are ‘scandalised’ by what they see as the use of anthropology’s familiarity with Indigenous cultures to legitimise the ‘legal alterity’ of Indigenous people. This refers to my statement that ‘universalist understandings of rights can be problematic in their application to people whose social lives differ from the mainstream’. I should have gone further and said that the application of universal human rights is often contentious with respect to the mainstream as well—but perhaps particularly contentious with respect to people, like many Indigenous Australians, who do not themselves think in terms of universal human rights, and who may act and propose kinds of solutions to concerns in their lives that do not conform to universalist principles.

This is not to say that we should not have and value human rights; and it is certainly not to advocate relegation of Aboriginal people outside their reach. However, there are often complex questions around the realisation of rights, and the reconciliation of certain rights with others. For example, how, in practice, is equality of right to life, liberty and security of person (as per Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to be realised? There are regulations in mainstream communities to support and prioritise certain kinds of value and activity over others; so, for example, the rights of children to be tended may have to be prioritised over the rights of parents to do as they want. This is familiar territory: we all recognise obligations to protect the vulnerable. But my point is that ways in which Indigenous people may choose to identify and realise norms may differ from those in wider Australian society.

Francesca Merlan

3 thoughts on “Embedded Anthropology in Australia: The Debate Continues

  1. As someone observing this debate, there are a number of questions that I have. To begin with, Morris/Lattas and Merlan do not, in the end, appear to be as far apart as I thought on the basis of the Morris & Lattas article alone. Merlan begins by saying, “nowhere have I said anything vaguely similar to” the notion that “the current situation of Indigenous people, however one interprets it, is due to their ‘culture’.” If Merlan were a proponent for recolonizing Aboriginals, she would not be an effective one, for making statements such as this: “to hold Indigenous people to imagined standards of ‘authenticity’ is to impose double jeopardy upon them: to colonise them and radically alter the conditions of their existence, then also demand that they remain as they were.” This, then, is not like a debate between a Montgomery McFate and the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. If anything, it might be more like a debate internal to the NCA itself–or at least so it seems if we read Merlan’s response alone.

    Where the two sides grow further apart is on the issue of action by the state. Morris & Lattas are resolutely opposed to the Northern Territory intervention–and I find their argument attractive. Merlan, on the other hand, states that on the question of “whether one thinks that action should be taken,” that “many Indigenous people do. And so, in my own way, do I.” I do not agree with Merlan that Morris & Lattas need to be “tolerant” of other views–theirs is a critique, and the first premise of a critique is criticism, not acceptance. This is relatively speaking a non-issue and should not detain us further.

    There is also the question of what kind of action Merlan in fact supports. What she seems to approve is not quite what is currently in place:

    “Let me also be clear that there are many aspects of the NT Intervention that I do not condone. I am not a supporter of the Intervention as launched, but of the idea that considered long-term intervention is needed. I have in mind something less flamboyant, much longer-term, much less geared to political cycles and impression management, much more collaborative and Indigenously-directed, and more attuned to existing social patterns and dispositions than we have yet had.”

    Furthermore, Merlan speaks of the flaws of the program, but that Aboriginals themselves are not passive when it comes to programs that have been implemented, finding ways around intended state objectives, or finding their own ways of using the programs where the state is silent.

    One problem, not addressed by Merlan, is that however one chooses to describe the “contemporary Aboriginal condition” in Australia, it is certainly not a product of non-intervention by the state and various colonizing regimes, but something that has emerged from a heap of intervention. This means that Merlan has to explain how intervention now is better and will fix the problems of past intervention. Nor does she reflect on the underlying assumptions of intervention–that I know what is good for you, better than you do, or that I am the one to bring about the change even if we both agree on what is good for you. That is an equation that places all the power in white hands. Rather convenient, if you’re white.

    One prominent zone of ambiguity for me as a reader concerns self-determination and the issue of “legal alterity.” Morris & Lattas, as Merlan says, support some state intrusions into the domestic arena, such as the school meals program–but are opposed to other state action. What is the central operating principle here then? What is the real difference between these two sides? Is it about certain, particular state actions, or state action as a whole?

    On self-determination, Merlan states: “anything we can call Indigenous ‘self-determination’ will develop under conditions of inter-relationship of Aboriginal people with other Australian people and institutions, not in complete isolation from them.” This is a slippery one. Yes, self-determination is a relational concept, because it implies determination of self apart from some Other. No, because “apartness” remains a defining principle of the concept itself. Merlan seems to be speaking more about “interdependency,” and in political economic conditions of radical inequalities in power, such interdependency frequently degenerates into what is just dependency. Merlan does not specify what she views as “inter-relationship,” and that also helps to make this a slippery statement, since there can be drastically different degrees of inter-relationship that can become as qualitatively different as waving hello to your neighbour as opposed to bearing your neighbour’s child.

    On the question of “legal alterity,” it is again difficult to understand how or why the two sides differ. Clearly Morris & Lattas defend alterity. But then so does Merlan:

    “This refers to my statement that ‘universalist understandings of rights can be problematic in their application to people whose social lives differ from the mainstream’. I should have gone further and said that the application of universal human rights is often contentious with respect to the mainstream as well—but perhaps particularly contentious with respect to people, like many Indigenous Australians, who do not themselves think in terms of universal human rights, and who may act and propose kinds of solutions to concerns in their lives that do not conform to universalist principles.”

    Two questions arise then.

    1. Is Merlan producing a particularist rebuttal to the universalizing concept of “human rights”? If so, is that her position, or is it the state’s as well?

    I was under the impression that the state’s effective recolonization of the Northern Territory was driven precisely by universalizing notions of human rights–human rights which, as usual, are restricted to individual civil and political liberties, and not collective rights (particularist), nor social and economic rights (alternative universalism, with some openness to particularism).

    But then again, since the state is intervening in Aboriginal lives, in ways that it is not intervening in non-Aboriginal lives (Aboriginals have no monopoly on child abuse and alcohol abuse in Australia…nowhere near a monopoly, we might emphasize), is the state itself living up to its universalist principles, or negating them through a particularizing intervention?

    2. If we want to take a particularist, culturally appropriate approach to “rights,” then we face a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we counter false universalisms imposed by the West as reflective of the needs and aspirations of all peoples, as if needs and aspirations were not themselves culturally defined. On the other hand, we risk suggesting that Aboriginals are “less human” than others, and that certain rights cannot be “imposed” on them. Again, I am not clear where these authors stand.

    If the state’s approach is not that “Aboriginal peoples are different, and their life ways will differ and their conceptions of what is right and wrong”, but rather that Aboriginals have the same rights as everyone else, and certain abuses cannot be tolerated–then the state’s action is one resembling “humanitarian imperialism,” and it echoes what is said by Australia and its NATO partners in Afghanistan. The NT intervention in fact followed the Afghan invasion, and there is reason to believe that Afghanistan is a lab for reimplementing certain previous modes of colonization, and trying out new ones that can then applied at home. The way that the Australian state and mainstream body politic speak of the Taleban seems to barely differ from the way they speak of NT Aboriginals. The same tropes of care and protection are used to justify both interventions and occupations. Doubt on the capacity for “responsible” self-governance is cast upon the victims in both cases. Mal Brough, former government minister who conceptualized the NT intervention, appeared to be speaking of a foreign subject population when he said the plan was to: “Stabilise, normalise, exit.” That is virtually the same blueprint being espoused in Afghanistan.

    Morris & Lattas:

    “In Australian history the protection of Indigenous women and children has often provided the humanitarian language that has legitimised extraordinary interventions seeking greater control of Indigenous people’s lives. There is nothing unusual about Indigenous people being governed through exceptional regimes of power that would be difficult or impossible to apply to non-Indigenous citizens.”

    I look forward to hearing more, and seeing if any of these issues can be further clarified.

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