Politics in science
Arguments about Aborigines, Australia and the Evolution of Social Anthropology
By L.H. Hiatt
Cambridge University Press, London.
1996 $29.95 (pb)
Reviewed by James Goodman
Have you ever wondered why anthropologists have been obsessed with Australia's indigenous peoples? If so, this is the book for you.
Since the early 1960s, L.H. Hiatt has researched Aboriginal society and published his findings in anthropological journals. In this book, he outlines eight broad arguments about so-called traditional Aboriginal society, many of which began in the 1850s.
The debates centre on questions of land ownership, group marriage, government, religion, the role of Aboriginal women, the status of mothers-in-law and the role of initiation ceremonies.
As the author points out in his preface, all of these debates were fought out within the framework of evolutionary theory. This is expressed in the very term "Aboriginal" — a label applied by the colonists to describe the inhabitants of Australia, and which neatly expresses the evolutionist world view.
Anthropology, established in London in 1871 as the "science of mankind", was itself founded on evolutionary theories. Its practitioners always placed themselves at the pinnacle of evolution and sought explanations of how they got there. They found these explanations in so-called "primitive" societies; hence the fascination with any society that differed radically from their own — Australia's Aborigines, for example.
From across Europe and North America, these academics came to Australia to study the lifestyle of Aboriginal peoples. They then used their findings to prove theories of how human society developed from the "primitive" to the "civilised". There is, of course, no concept of Aboriginal civilisation.
What is fascinating about these debates — something left unstated in the book — is the blind arrogance of the arguments and the academics who engaged in them. Their enthusiasm to prove something to fellow academics on the other side of the world, rather than to understand, is the book's most enduring message.
The anthropologists constantly claim to be "discovering" one or another Aboriginal social practice. They "discover" it "in the field" and then "report" it back to the "academy". These so-called discoveries are then falsified by other academics who are either defending their position or seeking to make a name for themselves. Revealingly, this is often done by claiming that the social practices and lifestyles are somehow not genuine. Only if they predate colonisation, and are in some sense genuinely "primitive", can they be used as evidence.
Also revealing is the preoccupation with sexual mores. This is reflected in the fact that half of the arguments discussed in the book directly concern sexual activity. If half of all books about a particular country were about sexual behaviour, the motivation of the authors could justifiably be questioned. Assuming the eight "arguments about Aborigines" presented here are a valid representation of anthropological debate, then surely there should be some questioning of this.
But in this book there is none, just as there is no questioning of the evolutionist anthropological tradition. To his credit, the author does mention an increasing tendency for anthropologists to work with Aboriginal peoples — for instance to provide proof of residency in order to claim land rights under the Native Title Act. This is, correctly I think, seen as the direct result of political activism by indigenous peoples.
Yet, for the author, this is a perhaps unhelpful mingling of politics and science, not the explicit politicisation of an academic discipline that was always deeply, albeit implicitly, political. For him, politics and science are two very different things — and there is no doubt about what he thinks he has been doing over the last 40 years.