Major Anthropology research projects

Current Projects

Using anthropology of finance to study disaster relief

Dr Caroline Schuster

(ARC DECRA, 2017-2020)

This project aims to broaden and re-theorise economic definitions of insurance through ethnographic methodologies and feminist studies of finance. Using responses to weather disasters and the financial products created to cover them, the project will explore cultural understandings of protection and damage through a Latin American case that foregrounds experimental and emerging adaptation. In doing so, the research expects to open new directions in the anthropological study of poverty and contemporary capitalism, and provide working frameworks to understand how financial services can engage meaningfully with communities affected by ever more uncertain weather. This potentially benefits communities managing disaster relief, evidence-based policy development, and public understanding of social and economic protection.


What is safe about “safe migration”? Migration management in the Mekong

Dr Sverre Molland

(ARC Discovery Grant, 2016-2020)

The project seeks to examine the claims that new policy models make about assuring the safety of labour migrants. What is safe about safe migration? Regulation of labour migrants is a central policy concern in Asia, Australia and elsewhere. In an attempt to address anti-trafficking, several donors, United Nations agencies, nongovernment organisations and Governments have launched ‘safe migration’ programs which, rather than focusing solely on the legal status of migrants, seek to develop mechanisms (eg hotline numbers) to assure their safety. This research examines the claims of safety that this shift from anti-trafficking to safe migration has engendered, and whether and in what terms labour migrants might be consequently safer’. Project results may inform aid programs and government policies.


Beyond Allied Histories: Dayak Memories of World War II in Borneo

Professor Christine Helliwell

(ARC Linkage Grant, 2015-2019)

Western histories of wars focus overwhelmingly on the experiences of European participants. This project explores World War II in Borneo, a highly significant but little-known Australian wartime site, by focusing on the marginalised memories of the island’s indigenous Dayak peoples. By juxtaposing Dayak memories of the war with those of Australian soldiers and prisoners-of-war, the project aims to both advance scholarly understanding of Dayak codes of otherness and relatedness, and cast new light on the war itself.


The Long-term Dynamics of Higher Order social Organisation in Aboriginal Australia

Professor Nicolas Peterson

(ARC Discovery Grant, 2014-2019)

The two principal aims of the project are to show: that the Holocene prehistory of Australia was dynamic, involving significant expansion and migration of language groups; and, that in such expansion, migration, and resistance to them, higher-order social groupings were formed: the ‘nations’ reported by earlier anthropology and the ‘cultural blocs’ of recent anthropology. Evidence will come from comparative linguistics, anthropology, and the role of geography in the distribution of social groupings, principally in subtropical Eastern Australia but also in the Victoria River district and Tanami Desert, Northern Territory. This project challenges the dominant view of static Indigenous Australia pre-colonially, and will benefit Native Title anthropology.


Farmers of the Future: the Challenges of Feminised Agriculture in India

Dr Patrick Kilby

(ARC Discovery Grant, 2014-2019)

Neoliberal economic policies are fundamentally transforming the social landscapes of rural India, causing a deep agrarian crisis. The agrarian changes accentuate the unequal consequences for poor women and men in relation to: production (labour, tenure); livelihood and food security; access to and ownership of assets such as land and water and access to agricultural innovations and institutions. This multiscalar project investigates the causes and consequences of feminisation of agriculture in India’s transitioning economy in order to understand how gender roles and relations are being re-shaped in communities and households in diverse socioeconomic and cultural contexts and agro-ecological areas.


Past Projects

Intimate Relationships and the Politics of Personhood in the Philippines

Dr Hannah Bulloch

(ARC DECRA grant, 2012-2015)

The project explores intimate relationships from the point of view of young Siquijodnon women in the Philippines. Here ‘intimate relationships’ encompasses close, non-romantic relationships with kin and others, as well as romantic and sexual relationships. The project particularly considers how the latter impacts on the former: as young women get involved in romantic relationships, how does this affect their relationships with, and obligations to, others? This is a lens into Siquijodnon notions of sociality and how these may be changing in a society with increasing contact with other people and ideas.

The project seeks to answer three key questions:

  • How do Siquijodnon understand themselves to be constituted as persons and how are notions of personhood changing across fractures of generation and gender?
  • What space for agency do young women have within norms of sociality on Siquijor?
  • How is the role of intimacy, mediated through interpersonal exchange, changing in a society with increasing capitalist penetration?

These questions will be explored through long-term ethnographic research among the inhabitants of Siquijor Island in the Central Visayas region of the Philippines.


Rescuing Carl Strehlow's Indigenous cultural heritage legacy: the neglected German tradition of Arandic ethnography

Professor Nicolas Peterson

(ARC Linkage grant LP110200803, 2011-2014).

This Linkage grant is held with the Central Land Council and the Strehlow Research Centre, both of Alice Springs. The researchers involved are: Dr Anna Kenny post doctoral fellow; Dr John Henderson, linguist from the University of Western Australia; Michael Cawthorn, Director of the Strehlow Research Centre; Helen Wilmot, anthropologist at the Central Land Council; and myself.

This project has three interconnected aims: to bring the last major ethnography of classical Aboriginal life into the world of Australian scholarship;  to repatriate Indigenous intellectual property by collaborating with Arrernte and Luritja speakers to translate Carl Strehlow's unpublished 10,000 word dictionary and other cultural materials currently unavailable to them because of the language and scripts in which they are written, or being research notes; and  to examine the relationship, and sources of difference, between the work of TGH Strehlow and that of his father Carl in the areas of genealogy, territorial organisation, mythology, and totemism as a contribution to reducing contemporary conflict over traditional lands in particular, and to understanding the trajectories of change in Arrernte and Luritja social orders in the 20th century anthropology.


Pintupi dialogues: reconstructing memories of art, land and
 community through the visual record

Professor Nicolas Peterson

(ARC Linkage grant LP100200359, 2010-2013).

This ARC Linkage grant is held with Papunya Tula Artists Ltd and the National Museum of Australia, Professor Fred Myers of New York University, Dr Peter Thorley of the National Museum of Australia, Ms Philippa Deveson and myself, both of ANU. Together with the members of the Kintore community, Fred Myers, Peter Thorley and Philippa Deveson will return and redocument film taken by Ian Dunlop in 1974 at a pivotal period in Pintupi history, as a contribution to people who have very few historical records of their own. I will be examining photographs taken by Dunlop of the Pintupi collaborators’ parents when they were still living a nomadic life in the western desert in 1964. These materials are the basis for a dialogue with the people of Kintore about how they and their parents have sought to fashion their own modernity.


Intercultural images:Warlpiri drawings from the 1950s

Dr Melinda Hinkson

(AIATSIS Grant 2010/7518
This project, undertaken by Melinda Hinkson (School of Archaeology and Anthropology) and Stephen Wild (School of Music) with the support of a grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, focuses on a collection of crayon drawings made by Warlpiri people in 1952-52 at Hooker Creek settlement (now Lajamanu), central Australia. The drawings, collected by anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt, cover diverse themes. The project involves returning the drawings to the descendents of the men and women who produced them and explores a series of contexts for comprehending their significance. Taking the drawings as a prism for exploring the ways in which a community of people remember who they were and see themselves in the present, the project will result in an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in 2013.


Intercommunal and translocal apace in Fairfield: Tracking Indochinese Australian lives

Dr Ashley Carruthers
ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship 2005-2007

This project is an anthropological study of Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian communities in the Fairfield Local Government Area (LGA) of Sydney and its surrounds. Beginning in August 2005, the project is funded by the Australian Research Council and The Australian National University, with a budget of over $240 000.

As suggested by the use of the terms “intercommunal” and “translocal” in the title, the project’s points of departure are the critical assumptions: that “community” is not a given and independent social entity, but rather something that coalesces in the interaction between social groups; and that community’s “locale” is not an isolated and bounded place, but rather a dynamic space constituted in interaction with extra-local flows, connections and identifications. Thus rather than taking the traditional form of a study of a single ethnic community, this project takes as its focus an urban centre in Sydney’s outer southwest. Its key investigative aims are to explore the built and social space of Fairfield:

  • as a site of intercommunal contact and negotiation
  • as a translocality to which migrants, refugees and sojourners have brought characteristic sets of local-global links
  • as the site of an alternative cosmopolitanism which, by virtue of these specific cultural and spatial crossings, is qualitatively different to that found in Sydney’s metropolitan centre.

Within this framework, the project will focus on how the members of Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese communities in Fairfield LGA:

  • interact with each other, with the members of other ethnic minority communities, and with members of the “mainstream” Anglo-Australian community across a number of domains of social practice and in a number of different urban/suburban settings
  • construct different senses of selfhood in terms of communal, national, diasporic and transnational frames of identification.

Research for Intercommunal and Translocal Space in Fairfield: Tracking Indochinese Australian Lives will be carried out by Dr Ashley Carruthers with the help of research assistants and community organisations in Western Sydney, and in rural and urban sites in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The project will result in the publication of a book, a report for local council, and an exhibition, tentatively placed with the Casula Powerhouse in Western Sydney.

Conference papers and publications generated to date:
“Intercommunal and Translocal Space in Fairfield: Tracking Indochinese Australian Lives”, Everyday Multiculturalism, Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, Macquarie University, 28 Sep 2006 to 29 Sep 2006.

Political economy and culture of Indigenous peoples: A central Indian case study

Dr Chris Gregory
ARC Discovery Grant 2001-2004

The aim of this research is to examine the culture and politics of the rice economy in Bastar District, Central India by means of (a) the transcription, translation and analysis of the epic songs that 'untouchable' women sing about rice and (b) an analysis of the socio-economic status of the singers. The singers are members of an association of artisans who assert their Aboriginality against their official government 'Scheduled Caste' classification. The epics imagine a relatively egalitarian, but patriarchal social order and the ideology it expresses challenges existing anthropological theories about the nature of hierarchy, 'popular religion,' and the distinction between tribes and castes.

Government, social science and the concept of society

Dr Christine Helliwell & Prof Barry Hindess
ARC Discovery Grant 2001-2004

Christine Helliwell is currently engaged in a large-scale research project on the concept of 'society', in collaboration with Professor Barry Hindess of the Research School of Social Sciences at ANU. This project explores the deployment of the concept in the two closely related contexts of social sciences and government, focusing particularly on its role in the colonial government of subject peoples. It examines the history of the concept in these contexts, showing how its meaning has varied since its original employment in the study and government of Western states, as it has been adapted to the government and social scientific study of subject populations and their post-colonial descendants.

Cross-cultural institution-building and development interventions: Linked applied and critical approaches

Professor Francesca Merlan and Dr Andrew Walker of RMAP
ARC Linkage Grant 2003-2006

Key aspects of this project are being undertaken by PhD students, Maylee Thavat and Jackie Gould, who are doing research in Cambodia and the Northern Territory respectively on the nature of institutions, with some accent on exploring more informal, local institutions and their relation to more formal, including development agency, interventions.

Jacquie is looking at the indigenous and at least partly home-grown 'institutions' on Goulburn Island, and in Darwin, in terms of which Aboriginal people pursue their relationships to place and to each other. On Goulburn, for example, Jacquie has been interested in the regulation of kava sales and consumption and the extent of involvement of community members and groups, in more and less formal ways, in this regulation. She has also been looking at their knowledge of, ideas about, and use of, sites and locales and examining the ways in which these more informal processes relate to more formal sites designation and protection. The linkage partner for this aspect of the project is the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority. Working in Cambodia, Maylee has been looking at rice growing, development interventions relating to it, and local decision-making with respect to crop selection. The linkage partner for this component of the project is development consulting firm ACIL.

Jawoyn cultural texts, dictionary and grammar (southern Arnhem Land)

Professor Francesca Merlan
Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project 2003-2005

The aim of this project is to complete and make available an extensive corpus of material on Jawoyn, a language of southern Arnhem Land.

Francesca Merlan has prepared a large corpus of materials on Jawoyn, an endangered language of which only three speakers remain. A research assistant Pascale Jacq has helped in the completion of 2005 Jawoyn-English Dictionary and English Finder List (341 pp) and Jawoyn Topic Dictionary (Thesaurus) (136pp), compiled by P. Jacq and F. Merlan, Diwurruwurru-jaru Aboriginal Corporation, Katherine.

Another outcome of this project, working in collaboration with Glenn Wightmann of the Northern Territory Conservation Commission, is 2005. Wiynjorrotj, Phyllis et al.Jawoyn Plants and Animals: Aboriginal Flora and Fauna Knowledge of Nitmiluk National Park and the Katherine Area, northern Australia. Northern Territory Botanical Bulletin no. 29, Ethnobiology Project, in collaboration with the Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts, Palmerston, NT, and the Jawoyn Association, Darwin, NT.

Negotiations are currently underway with potential publishers regarding the publication of further texts arising from this project.

Anthropological and Aboriginal perspectives on the Donald Thomson Collection: Material culture, collecting and identity

Professor Nicolas Peterson
ARC Linkage Grant 2003-2006

This linkage project is being undertaken in partnership with Museum Victoria. Dr Louise Hamby, post doctoral fellow, Professor Nicolas Peterson and Ms Lindy Allen, Senior Curator, from Museum Victoria have been working on the Donald Thomson Arnhem Land Collection made between 1935-43. His Arnhem Land Collection of photographs, objects and notes together form the most comprehensive record of any fully functioning, self-suporting Aboriginal society we shall ever have. The project has involved, among other things, digital modes of repatriation, extensive field based documentation of the many hundreds of images, exploration of material culture and ethnotechnology and research on Donald Thomson’s place in Australian anthropology. Many Indigenous knowledge holders have been brought down to work at the Museum with the more than 4,500 objects and over 2000 photographs as well. Work related to this project will continue well into the future.

Warlpiri songlines: Anthropological, linguistic and Indigenous perspectives

Professor Nicolas Peterson
ARC Linkage Grant 2005-2007

In conjunction with the Warlpiri Janganpa Association, the Central Land Council, and the School of English at the University of Queensland, the Schools of Music and Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University have a three year research project into Warlpiri songlines. The project brings together anthropologists, linguists, musicologists, Indigenous knowledge holders and Indigenous bicultural linguists to record, transcribe and translate many of the cycles of songs that are no longer frequently performed, and, therefore, not being passed on to the younger generations. Warlpiri songs link ancestral power with the landscape, emotions and aesthetics and are central to Warlpiri religious life. The project is creating a cultural archive at Yuendumu informed by indigenous exegesis that is also integrating appropriate aspects into the world of scholarship and eventually providing materials for Warlpiri school curricula. This project includes a postgraduate research student, Georgia Curran, who is working with Warlpiri collaborators over a fifteen month period at Yuendumu, Dr Mary Laughren, Dr Stephen Wild and Ms Anna Meltzer. Key Warlpiri collaborators are Mr Thomas Rice Jangala and Ms Jeannie Egan Nungarrayi.

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