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Panel 15: New challenges, new boundaries: the adaption of anthropology


Emma Gilberthorpe

Session presentation

The debate concerning the boundaries of anthropology and anthropologists has been raging for some time. Whilst it remains vibrant, there is little agreement about where anthropology sits in a climate dominated by impact discourse within academia and Global Challenges discourse beyond it. The appendage of various qualifiers – ‘engaged/applied/practicing/development anthropology’ – sit alongside a more rigid rendering of ‘Anthropology’ that defends its boundaries and inceptive theoretical and methodological design. The affluence of covetable resources in Oceania combined with the external demand for those resources, poses new livelihood challenges for its inhabitants and new research challenges for the anthropologists who work there. This panel will examine these challenges and consider the need for a more definitive framing of ‘Anthropology’ that reflects the new environments, experiences and development challenges faced by indigenous populations. We welcome contributions from those working across the spectrum of ‘engagement’ to generate a dialogue on ethics, morality, aid and ‘suffering’, advocacy and activism, methodology, interdisciplinarity and consultancy. We especially welcome contributions that address the challenges faced in those Pacific environments reconstituted through processes that commodify resources, services, ideas and knowledge.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

“The landowners want you and they want you to bring your camera.” The role of anthropology when the media is required.

Michael Main (Australian National University)

In August 2016, leading Huli landowners organised to forcibly blockade ExxonMobil’s Hides Gas Conditioning Plant for the giant Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas Project in PNG’s mountainous Hela Province. Known to be conducting research in the area, I found myself summoned by this group to their logistics base to film, record and interview for broadcast to the international media details of the situation and the reason for their actions. The group consisted of Port Moresby-based male elites who were keen to explain their grievances and the failure of the state to honour its agreements with regards to promised resource benefits. As a researcher investigating the impact of resource extraction by a multinational corporation, this offer provided an important opportunity to witness the negotiations at close quarters. The experience also revealed significant issues that were not on the agenda for this group, including questions of how elites maintain their leadership status so far from their kin and the gendered aspects of resource distribution. As the landowners had cast me into the role of investigative journalist I was challenged to resist and maintain my own role in opposition to the function to which I had been assigned. Yet in order to maintain my role I had to confront my own unanswered questions as to how my anthropological practice should be framed.

The Ethics of Entanglement: Towards an Engaged Anthropology Beyond the Human

Carsten Wergin (Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg)

This talk presents original ethnographic material drawing on long-term fieldwork in Northwest Australia. It highlights a particular aspect in a conflict situation over the construction of a $ 45 Billion AUD liquefied natural gas facility (LNG) on top of an Indigenous heritage site, Walmadany / James Price Point. Based on this, the talk critically engages with Anthropological theory and method in the face of cultural, political and environmental crises. It examines linkages between Anthropological research, the environmental humanities and other disciplines that advocate a search for "modest forms of biocultural hope" (Kirksey, van Dooren) and the acknowledgement of Indigenous worldviews and other-than-human actors as equal onto-epistemic partners. The announcement of a new epoch called the Anthropocene highlights a growing awareness of sociopolitical and economic inequalities that are the result of manmade global environmental degradation (Blühdorn). One response to this have been new collaborations and calls for a more "cosmopolitical" engagement with the environment (Latour, Stengers). If the Anthropocene teaches us "how to die" (New York Times, Nov 2013), what might Anthropology contribute towards alternative modellings of a common multispecies future?

Anthropological moonlighting, and/or anthropology as resource extraction

Victoria Stead (Deakin University)

This paper reflects on methodological challenges and possibilities arising from participation in an oral history project in Papua New Guinea. Funded by the Australian foreign affairs agency as part of its development program in its former colony, the PNG Oral History Project has the aim of collecting oral histories as a way of remedying a pervasive absence of Papua New Guinean voices in dominant historiographies of the Second World War. This overarching rationale, and the project’s location within a development agenda, structures the project design and the resultant methodology. Pursuit of my own anthropological interests—in the functioning of an emerging war tourism industry in PNG’s Northern Province, for example, or the imbrications of memory and postcolonial reckonings—has necessarily been an add-on, a kind of anthropological moonlighting to the project’s primary task of recording oral history interviews. The practice that results is at a remove from any ‘classical’ understanding of ethnographic methodology. At the same time, the uneasy combination of methods, methodological orientations, and theoretical and applied impulses, produces new insights into a complex landscape in which ‘history’ increasingly functions as a resource that might be mobilized in pursuit of development, and in which history and anthropology alike risk complicity in its extraction.

Development Challenges in PNG

Emma Gilberthorpe (University of East Anglia)

Across Oceania a combination of factors (European colonial history and subsequent partnerships; demand for/affluence of resources) has made the region a very different (and difficult) location for ‘doing anthropology’. The ethnographic unit of analysis is percolated by new and varied players on the one hand (corporates, NGOs, practitioners etc.) and a new and varied language on the other (stakeholders, beneficiaries, CSR, governance, community development etc.). In this paper I draw on my own fieldwork and research in PNG (Kutubu and Ok Tedi) to examine how these variations are understood and articulated at a number of levels.

Development anthropology, audit culture, and new challenges in catching bad guys

John Burton (Divine Word University)

Development anthropology has, to my eyes, one objective: in the context of development to offer commentary that does not emerge from development economics. This does mean that anthropologists are listened to. Indeed, a cynical view is that anthropologists are kept in the development space like pets – kept on leashes by program managers and used to growl at rival sponsors, but rarely believed by their masters as capable of meaningful thought.

However, hope springs eternal and new opportunities arise all the time. Colleagues have observed the emergence of an ‘audit culture’ and the need to curb its most excessive demands. But another side of the coin is that the anthropologist can be placed in the strange position of tracking down national and transnational n’er-do-wells and, indeed, criminals. This because audits demand the existence of bad guys.

The ingredients of crime fiction are present: apparent ineffectiveness provides a cover of neutrality; by still being present at all, the anthropologist is a fly-on-the-wall working in plain sight yet unnoticed; immersion in community affairs gives the privilege of access to the group – ironically in the context of ‘development’ – least likely to change over the life of a project; and finally the ‘audit’ framing mirrors the Holmesian accumulation of evidence. The big reveal, of course, is supposed to happen at the end. This does not always go well. Publication remains a problem in this fleeting vision of a specialism.

Roundtable Discussion

Emma Gilberthorpe (University of East Anglia)

In this final part of the session we will examine some of the challenges discussed by the presenters and consider the need for a more definitive framing of ‘Anthropology’. We will discuss how this might both reflect the new environments, experiences and development challenges faced by indigenous populations, and incorporate the ways anthropologists have adapted to this changing environment and to the dynamic narratives of development. We hope to include issues on ethics, morality, aid and ‘suffering’, advocacy and activism, methodology, interdisciplinarity and consultancy.