Departmental Seminars

Anthropology Department Seminars at the University of Sydney

Seminars: Thursdays 3:00–5:00 p.m.
Seminar Room 148, R. C. Mills Building, Level 1, A26

About the seminars and other department events

The anthropology department at the University of Sydney holds regular seminars for staff, students, visiting anthropologists and colleagues from related fields to exchange ideas and discuss new research. On most Thursdays from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. during the teaching term, an invited speaker presents their work in a seminar, followed by discussion, then usually a light reception and dinner.

For futher information, please contact Luis Fernando Angosto Ferrandez, convenor of the symposium.

Semester 2, 2015

Thursday 13 August 2015, 3-5pm
Speaker: John Cox
Australian National University
Title: “I never thought it was greed. I had a very big need financially”: Greed, personal finance and vocation in a Papua New Guinean fast money scheme
Abstract: Ponzi schemes begin with stories of great wealth and end with stories of heavy losses. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the rush of “fast money schemes” that began in 1998 drew in hundreds of thousands of “investors”. The largest and longest lived was a Bougainvillean scheme called U-Vistract Financial Systems. U-Vistract spread among middle-class Papua New Guineans through existing social networks, including churches. It was particularly strong in Pentecostal churches that teach “prosperity theology”. Despite a number of attempts to close the scam down, it continues to operate and has even lured investors in the United States through its web presence as the “International Bank of Meekamui”.

As Katherine Verdery has argued of the Romanian pyramid scam Caritas, scams provide an interesting window into social and economic transitions. U-Vistract can similarly be seen as the articulation of social, economic and moral values of PNG’s emerging middle class. This paper tells the story of one of the winners from U-Vistract: Jack, a Bougainvillean who invested when studying medicine. Jack received regular payments from U-Vistract that provided the means to complete his studies. Looking back, he knows the scheme was a fraud but sees it as part of God’s mysterious plan that allowed him to pursue his career as a doctor. He now reflects on his involvement in the scam of a morally purposeful professional vocation in service of the development of the nation.

About the Speaker: John Coxcommenced as a Research Fellow at the ANU in November 2013. His PhD on ‘fast money schemes’ in PNG was completed at the University of Melbourne and was awarded the Australian Anthropological Society’s Prize for Best PhD Thesis 2012. John has published several articles on this subject and is now preparing a monograph for publication with Indiana University Press.

John has nearly twenty years of experience working in the Pacific Region, beginning as a volunteer English Lecturer in Kiribati and subsequently managing volunteer programs across the region. He has worked as a consultant for AusAID, UNCDF and Australian Red Cross in Solomon Islands.

Venue: Room 148 RC Mills building, A26 [map]

Thursday 20 August 2015, 3-5pm
Speaker: Chris Vasantkumar
Macquarie University
Title: Tibet and the Permutations of Homesickness
Abstract: How might one think spatially about those who live “as exiles in their own homeland?” What happens to the anthropology of diaspora when it encounters people who have not left home but have been left by home? What does homesickness look like if home itself is a haecceity? Via an attention to the displacements in situ of Tibetans living in Tibet since the flight into exile of the religious and cultural elite of old Tibet in 1959, my talk addresses these questions while arguing for the necessity of rethinking the conceptual and spatial architectures of anthropological approaches to mobility, movement and national belonging. In particular, by teasing out the historical and territorial dynamics of home, nation and “Diaspora” in trans-Himalayan Tibet since 1959, my talk suggests that the manifold spatialities of (un)belonging and home(sickness) at the heart of contemporary Tibetan nationalism highlight the necessity of provincializing, pluralizing, and respatializing nostalgia as we know it. Building on the contrast between territorially grounded and mobile cultural modes of Tibetan nationalism, it addresses the question of what sort of longings might be evoked by and for patriae that, far being fatherlands, are not “lands” at all. Elaborating a fourfold typology of contemporary Tibetan nostalgias (i.e. modes of reckoning spatially with home, (be)longing and return), it demonstrates that a generalized notion of nostalgia no longer suffices to describe the manifold forms of spatialized longing and/for community in the contemporary world.
About the Speaker: Chris Vasantkumar is a lecturer in anthropology at Macquarie University. His essays have appeared in the Journal of Asian Studies, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology and Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. He is currently writing a book on the anthropology of money.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills building, A26 [map]

Thursday 27 August 2015, 3-5pm
Speaker: FAN Ke
Nanjing University, China
Title: Globalising the Local in Minority Identity: Hui (Muslim) Identities in Motion in Contemporary China
Abstract: China’s increasing links to the global economy since the 1990s has transformed the nature of ethnicity and ethnic identity among members of China’s fifty-five “minorities”. One of the largest of these minority groups are the 10 million MuslimHui, the only group that is defined by its religious practices rather than as an “ethnicity”. This paper compares two groups of urban Hui to understand how their identities are linked to changing economic practices associated with new forms of global circulation. The first group, based for generations in China’s southeastern Fujian Province, claim ancestry from Central Asia and use their status as legally-recognised minorities to pursue local economic and social goals. The second group, originally from China’s far western regions, migrated to China’s large eastern cities within the past decade as petty entrepreneurs, and now run ethnic/Muslim restaurants. As these businesses require halal meat, the new migrants have to forge connections with suppliers from across China and around the world, enfolding them into a global network of Muslim businesses. This has transformed their understanding of their identities as Muslims, as Hui, and as Chinese minorities, and has begun to produce them as very different kinds of subjects than their fellow Hui in Fujian.
About the Speaker: FAN Ke - research interests include identity politics, Muslims in Southern China, and globalization and transnationalism.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills building, A26 [map]

Thursday 10 September 2015, 3-5pm
Speakers: Sally Babidge
The University of Queensland
Title: Enigmatic materiality and crises of water scarcity
Abstract: The subterranean water basin (cuenca) of the Atacama Saltpan in Chile is enigmatic. While at the centre of scientists’, indigenous peoples’, state regulators’ and mining extractors’ concerns, whose abiding interests in the underground water demonstrate invested, distributed and affective forms of knowledge about its nature, it remains in many ways beyond the human grasp. The elusive materiality of the underground water has led me to read Bennet, who tasks us with avoiding the “conceit that humanity is the sole or ultimate wellspring of agency” (2010: 30) and to Stenger’s (2011) work on “cosmopolitics”. These considerations do not lead to conceptualising radically different or incommensurate (water) worlds of indigenous and non-indigenous people. Rather, they temper the overwhelming scarcity logic attendant in analyses of resource contests, and in turn the extractivist setting means I remain sensitive to the political conviction that some forms of agency create more powerful effects than others. By placing the cuenca (and its enigma) at the centre of this analysis, environmental panics regarding scarcity and crisis are refocussed on attendant political questions of concern and disregard.
About the Speaker: Sally Babidge - research interests include Indigenous identity and politics (Australia and Chile), anthropology of resource extraction, Australian Aboriginal kinship, and native Title and applied Anthropology.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills building, A26 [map]

Thursday 17 September 2015, 3-5pm
Speaker: Luis F. Angosto-Ferrández
University of Sydney
Title: The value of everything and the price of nothingness
Abstract: A famous Wilde’s epigram defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Under a different light, that epigram captured something nuclear about the social transformations taking place in nineteenth century Europe. In a period in which, as the authors of the Communist Manifesto (1848) had it, all that had been solid was melting in the air, that epigram could have probably been subscribed by many as an inspired representation of the zeitgeist of the epoch. Money was becoming the primary drive and the ultimate measure of everything, while in parallel, in the terms that the epigram posed it, people seemed to be forgetting the real ‘value’ of things –closing down any form of valuation not subjected to the market.

However, Wilde’s epigram has aged poorly. By what nowadays one sees around, it does not work so well when it comes to capture the logics of twenty first century Europe – nor of twenty first century capitalism. For we now live times in which, unlike a century ago, more and more people live as if they knew the value of everything and the price of nothingness. And it is around the suggestions of this latter epigram that this seminar will move. I will engage theories of value in search of frames for the explanation of a global phenomenon: nowadays, exchange-value is (potentially) to be found in anything and everywhere, and that this realisation conditions the cultural and political creations of people all over the world.

About the Speaker: Luis F. Angosto-Ferrández - research interests include Indigenous peoples and the state in Latin America, ethnicity and race (notions, constructions and uses of ethnic and racial identities, geopolitics and regionalism in Latin America, as well as political agency and organisation.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills building, A26 [map]

Thursday 24 September 2015, 3-5pm
Speaker: Gaynor Macdonald
University of Sydney
Title: Hollow rights and the emergence of experts: the political and economic dynamics of managing Indigenous peoples
Abstract: Aboriginal people I speak to in rural Wiradjuri country as well as in Sydney continually refer to experiences of a loss of personal and/or social empowerment. The contexts differ and so do the personal stories but these expressions of relative helplessness come from people who lived through the vibrancy of hope in the 1980s and malaise of the 1990s and early 2000s. They speak of successes that folded; opportunities for a few that leave the majority bereft; high levels of conflict that are destructive of initiatives; kin tearing each other apart; and a vacuum of authority. At the same time, they can point to individual success stories, especially of young people achieving in arenas of sport or educational attainment. In this paper I both build and critique earlier work on the ways in which bureaucratic intrusions have violated the day to day practices and relationships characteristic of Wiradjuri interaction to examine a very complex and uneasy politics of identity. This is work in progress and feedback will be most welcome.
About the Speakers: Gaynord Macdonald - current research project brings together themes of culture, conflict and governance in an ethnographically informed analysis of Wiradjuri experience over two centuries.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills building, A26 [map]

Thursday 15 October 2015, 3-5pm
Speaker: Linda Connor
University of Sydney
Title: The incredible lightness of beings in coal’s corporate modernity: Reflections on research in Northwest NSW
Abstract: In L. Kolakowski’s essay, “Modernity on endless trial” he wrote that there may have been many modernities in the human species’ career, but that ‘our modernity’ is ‘the modernity associated with, or perhaps put into movement by, the industrialization process’ (1990: 11). This is the modernity of all life forms on the planet at this time, an epoch that Crutzen and Stoermer (2000) labelled the Anthropocene and others have identified as the Capitalocene (Moore 2011). Coal is an avatar of this modernity that is increasingly under challenge from new civic and planetarian visions of a low carbon emissions future, and is the subject of an ongoing interdisciplinary and cross-national research project , The coal rush and Beyond: A comparative study of coal reliance and climate change. One of the aims of the ethnographic component of this project is “To investigate how the lived experience, material exposure to coal mining, and ethical commitments of people in coal mining communities in the selected case study communities shapes the contestation of coal.” This paper is a preliminary reflection on coal’s corporate modernity and contestation around proposed mine developments in the Liverpool Plains of NSW.
About the Speakers: Linda Connor - research interest involve the study of anthropogenic climate change, culture and place, with research undertaken and supervised in Hunter Valley NSW, Indonesia, and Nepal.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills building, A26 [map]

Thursday 22 October 2015, 3-5pm
Speaker: James Cox
University of Edinburgh
Title: The Contribution of T.G.H. Strehlow to the Understanding of Australian Aboriginal Religions
Abstract: T.G.H. Strehlow’s writings on the religious beliefs, practices and ceremonies of the central desert people of Australia, particularly the Arrernte, have been noted by numerous scholars, such as A.P. Elkin and L.R. Hiatt, and more recently by Barry Hill, but arguably his major contributions to understanding Aboriginal religions have never been appreciated fully. Of particular significance is Strehlow’s designation of the socio-religious order of the Arrernte as ‘personal monototemism in a polytotemic community’. The aim of this paper is twofold: to present a summary of T.G.H. Strehlow’s positive contribution to promoting understanding of the traditional religious life of the Arrernte and to argue that Strehlow’s work continues to be relevant for contemporary movements in the central desert region associated with the repatriation of indigenous knowledge.
About the Speakers: James Cox is an Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh and Adjunct Professor in the Religion and Society Research Centre in the University of Western Sydney. In 1999, he was appointed Reader in Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and was awarded a Personal Chair in 2006. From 1993 to 1998, he directed the University of Edinburgh’s African Christianity Project which included eight African universities in southern and western Africa. He has held prior academic posts at the University of Zimbabwe, Westminster College, Oxford and Alaska Pacific University. In 2009, he was Visiting Professor of Religion in the University of Sydney and most recently was appointed the de Carle Distinguished Lecturer for 2012 in the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. His latest books include: The Invention of God in Indigenous Societies (Acumen, 2014); Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions (ed.) (Ashgate, 2013); An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (Continuum, 2010), From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions (Ashgate, 2007) and A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion (Continuum, 2006). Professor Cox is currently working on an edited book with Professor Adam Possamai of the University of Western Sydney on ‘Non-religion among Australian Aboriginal Peoples’, which will be published in 2015 in the Vitality of Indigenous Religions Series of Ashgate Publications in the UK.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills building, A26 [map]

Semester 1, 2015

Thursday 12 March 2015 - 3 - 5pm
Speakers: Professor Tamara Jacka
Australian National University
Title: "Village self-government and representation in southwest China"
Abstract: According to recent law, villages in China are “self-governed” by villager committees, whose members are elected by villagers and held accountable to villager assemblies and representative assemblies. Previous studies have focused on the legal institutions of self-government, assuming that, if allowed to operate properly, these will enhance both direct villager participation in governance and the representation of villager interests. In contrast, this paper focuses on local understandings and ideals about political roles and relationships, as constructed and enacted through everyday political claims and practices. The paper draws on recent, qualitative research in four villages in Yunnan, southwest China. During this research, we discovered that neither cadres nor villagers used the word “represent” to characterise the role – or even the ideal role – of members of village government. Furthermore, villagers could not explain what villager representatives do or what “representative” in the title “villager representative” means. This leads us to ask, “How do locals conceive the work-roles and responsibilities of village cadres, and cadres’ relationship with villagers? Is the unfamiliarity with the word “represent” merely a linguistic issue, or does it point to a different conception of the cadre-villager relationship? In addressing these questions, this paper aims both to enrich our understanding of village self-government in China and to contribute to theorising about political representation.

Tamara Jacka is Professor in the Department of Political and Social Change, College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU. Her research interests are in socio-political change and gender relations in contemporary China. Her recent publications include Contemporary China: Society and Social Change (co-authored with Andrew Kipnis and Sally Sargeson, Cambridge Uni. Press, 2013), Women, Gender and Development in Rural China (co-edited with Sally Sargeson, Edward Elgar, 2011), and Rural Women in Urban China: Gender, Migration and Social Change (M.E Sharpe, 2006; Winner of Francis Hsu prize for Best Book in East Asian Anthropology, 2007).

Venue: Room 148 RC Mills Building, A26 [map]

Thursday 19 March 2015 - 3 - 5pm
Speakers: Dr Neil Maclean
University of Sydney
Title: In praise of things: autism, interest and humanity
Abstract: Two recent critiques of the history of the contemporary diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder” (DSM V) (Evans 2013, Hollin 2014) have suggested that the combination of a shift from clinical to epidemiological methodologies, along with the increasing salience of cognitive psychology perspectives on sociality, have come at a cost: the marginalisation of the fantasy life of autistic people; the salience of the interpersonal as the reference point for judging what is valuable and functional in human life. The famous ‘Sally-Anne’ child theory of mind experiment remains a key point of reference in such critical perspectives on the diagnosis ( In this paper I link an examination of that experiment to two other models of cognitive and social development that revolve around a three-cornered relationship between two persons and an object: joint attention and pretend play. I use this discussion to raise three questions.
  1. Has the specificity of objects, often recognised as key to the imagination of autistic people, been evacuated in the emphasis on sociality, intention and meta-representation that dominates analyses based on these models?
  2. Is this new form of the autism diagnosis a bellweather for a more general quality of the 20th century social theory in which the specificity of the object disappears in the face of an abstracted sociality?
  3. Returning to the specific circumstances of autistic people what would it mean to start asking questions about relationships to objects in the context of a development into adulthood, as opposed to the early childhood perspective that dominates the framing of autism?
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills Building, A26 [map]

Thursday 26 March 2015 - 3 - 5pm
Speakers: Dr Robin Rodd
James Cook University
Title: Political memory, moral economy and the dialectic of citizenship: The cases of Uruguay, Argentina and Australia
Abstract: This presentation inquires into the relationship between citizenship and the politics of memory relating to state violence. I discuss sites commemorating state violence in Uruguay, Argentina and Australia to explore the ways that these sites reflect and reproduce different moral economies relating to citizenship and the memory of violence. Post-dictatorship Argentina has seen a flowering of public debate, and a vertically and horizontally expansive human rights architecture, develop around a generation of reckoning with genocide. Uruguay has been criticised for choosing impunity over the pursuit of justice relating to dictatorship crimes, but has had three referendums concerning truth and reconciliation. In both cases, there have been public forums spanning governmental and non-governmental organisations, institutional and grassroots approaches. Australia has no recent history of dictatorship or genocide, but off-shores violence through migration and foreign policy. Australia’s war memorials, however, do not accommodate Australia’s post-WW2 military history. This creates a disjuncture between a time when the memorialisation of state violence is part of a story about collective goods – democracy, national identity, freedom – and the present when questions of legitimacy and justice relating to state violence are excluded from sites of memory and public debate. Each of the three cases – Uruguay, Argentina and Australia - raises specific issues about possibilities for democratization or dedemocratization. I argue that dictatorship memory, in spite of being partially co-opted by commercial or political interests, is better than no memory at all. A lack of memory in the context of meaningless ongoing off-shored violence stalls what Balibar refers to as the dialectic of citizenship, producing an atemporal, amoral, state of democracy.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills Building, A26 [map]

Thursday 16 April 2015 - 3 - 5pm
Speakers: Dr Melissa Demian
Australian National University
Title: The Magic of the Court
Abstract: Papua New Guinea’s Sorcery Act was repealed by its Parliament in 2013, in response to a sensational series of sorcery-related killings and widespread sentiment among the legal profession that the Act was no longer fit for purpose. In particular, the Act’s provision that fear of sorcery could be used as a defence in murder cases was felt to be out of step with the times. No legislation has yet been enacted to replace it. At the level of the National and District Courts, this legal vacuum is largely unproblematic as sorcery-related cases rarely make it that far “up” the country’s legal hierarchy. It is instead the Village Courts which remain at the front line of dealing with sorcery accusations and other cases more obliquely to do with concerns about sorcery. These courts, already operating in an almost total absence of state oversight, are now thoroughly on their own when it comes to dealing with cases acknowledged by many Village Court magistrates as by far the most difficult type brought to them. In this paper I consider a matched set of conundrums. The first is practical: how do Village Courts deal with sorcery-related cases in the absence of any legal framework for them to do so? The obvious answer would seem to be that they must invent sorcery law on the hoof, as it were, which leads to the second and more theoretical conundrum: when the state has declared its disinterest in dealing with an issue of pressing concern to most Papua New Guineans, how does the humble Village Court gather to itself the authority of the state in the face of such disinterest?
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills Building, A26 [map]

Thursday 23 April 2015 - 3 - 5pm
Speakers: Professor Nick Enfield
University of Sydney
Title: Everyday ritual in the residential world: House plans and their social meanings among the Kri of upland central Laos
Abstract: In this paper I discuss current field work with speakers of Kri, a Vietic language of Eastern Central Laos. Kri speakers live high in the watershed of a tributary of the Nam Theun River, where a massive hydroelectric dam project has recently been completed. The field work is centred around descriptive linguistics and ethnography of this group. In this presentation I discuss the social semiotics of Kri houses in relation to local orientations to up-down riverine geography, on the one hand, and in-out kinship inclusion, on the other. These axes provide for a simple but powerful set of principles that ritually constrain both informal and formal behaviour, and that regiment local interpretations of that behaviour, affecting both power and accountability at micro levels. The study is framed within a broader program of comparative research on human sociality from an enchronic perspective.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills Building, A26 [map]

Thursday 30 April 2015 - 3 - 5pm
Speakers: Dr Åse Ottosson
University of Sydney
Title: "Anti-social’ behaviour, lived security and indigenous-settler forms of belonging in Alice Springs town"
Abstract: Regional service towns in settler nations such as Australia are especially rich, but often overlooked, urban settings for exploring how forms of difference and relations among indigenous and non-indigenous people from a diversity of backgrounds are reorganised and transformed. Based on ongoing research in Alice Springs, Central Australia, this paper develops the analytical concepts of ‘belonging’ and ‘lived security’ in order to disentangle shared and divergent understandings and actions in relation to the hotly debated topic of ‘anti-social behaviour’ in town. I set out to problematise the more conventional approaches to indigenous and non-indigenous relations, division and action in terms of structural inequality, resistance/dominance and radical cultural difference, and the common research focus on indigenous experience. I suggest that to better understand the complexity of day-to-day life and changing relations in indigenous-settler settings we may be better served by attending to the broader range of differentiation put into play when people from a range of backgrounds and life orientations continue to co-produce understandings of themselves and others in shared places.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills Building, A26 [map]

Thursday 21 May 2015 - 3 - 5pm
Speakers: Professor Katherine Gibson
University of Western Sydney
Title: "Rethinking the Economy with Thick Description and Weak Theory"
Abstract: TBA
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills Building, A26 [map]

Thursday 28 May 2015 - 3 - 5pm
Speakers: Professor Brett Neilson
University of Western Sydney
Title: SY3
Abstract: SY3 is Australia’s most densely connected data centre. Located in the inner Sydney suburb of Alexandria, this facility is run by the California-based firm Equinix which operates over 100 data centres across 32 cities worldwide. Otherwise known as server farms, data centres have become the nerve centres of the global economy. These vital infrastructures create new forms of power and competitive advantage through peering exchange agreements that enable the physical interconnection of separate, private electronic networks. Focusing on SY3, this paper asks what kind of research object a data centre is. Topics engaged include SY3’s positioning in wider urban and global spatial economies, the political and social realties encountered in the installation’s technical design and operations, the diverse clients and industries invested in the facility, the fibre optic networks to which SY3 connects and the economic significance of low latency communication. From this empirical base some tentative theoretical and methodological proposals about how to study data centres will emerge. In particular, I will ask how, aside from their technical and social dimensions, data centres like SY3 generate ambient conditions that become part of their political effect. Moreover, I will explore the importance of an approach that emphasizes the networked materiality of these infrastructures staying in touch with geopolitical and political economic analyses that take seriously the concept of capital.
Venue: Room 148 RC Mills Building, A26 [map]