Reports on Previous Conferences
Culture and Rights: Scepticism, hostility and mutuality
A summary report
This symposium was the product of our sense that the unresolved tension between culture and rights based perspectives continues to condition many aspects of contemporary anthropology: our on-going debate about the nature of culture, the relationship between anthropology and broader terrain of social science, and the politics of anthropological practice. That sense was grounded in a number of everyday engagements: the on-going politics of indigenous identity in Australia, the teaching of a Development studies program, the nature and politics of disability, the concrete circumstances of fieldwork for many of our postgraduate students. The work of contemporary anthropologists such as Merry, Engle, Englund, Riles, Humphrey helped us sharpen our conceptualisation of this tension. At the same time we were particularly fortunate to have as a keynote speaker Dr. Samuel Martinez from the Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut. He brought to our discussions a deep understanding of the shifting quality of human rights instruments, of the strategic nature of their engagement and of the capacity of both culture and rights claims to conceal as much as they challenge. Martinez’s proposal of a “para-ethnographic” in which ethnographer and human rights investigator function as simply one kind of expert ‘among several’ finds echoes with a very diverse array of plurality of expertise, manifested as both partnership and conflict, that this symposium brought together. The theme of indigenous rights claims and who controls their language and their recognition featured particularly strongly here, across a wide range of regional and national contexts (Australia, Ecuador, Nepal, Papua New Guinea). Other nexes around which the themes of papers converged included tensions between the generalising and universalising tendencies of rights language with the situational specificities of recognition of personhood; the implication of rights claim and recognition within the production of state power; the mutual implication of rights, culture, health and well-being; the relationships between human rights and property rights; the gendered tension between the discourse of victim of rights abuse and that of activist claimant of rights; violence as the ground of rights claims; the strategic deployment or rejection of a rights based language.
On the evening before the symposium, at the Macleay Museum, the session Voices of the Denied, and the launch of One Life, Two Stories, a story told by Nancy de Vries of her life since being taken from her Aboriginal mother at the age of 13 months, gave direct voice to the experiences of violence and marginalisation that make the contemporary politics of human rights such an urgent issue.
We were enormously pleased and stimulated by the response to the symposium and would like to thank all participants and presenters for the way they gave our sense of an issue form and substance.
The details of the symposium, including the abstracts of papers and the keynote address will continue to be found at: http://anthropologycultureandrights.wordpress.com/abstracts/
Report on the 2011 Anthropology Symposium:
Young Lives, Changing Times – Perspectives on Social Reproduction
8-9 June 2011, New Law School; The University of Sydney
This year’s Sydney Anthropology Symposium explored Young Lives, Changing Times: Perspectives on Social Reproduction. It was a lively and timely event. Over two days, early career researchers and senior scholars from six Australian and two US universities portrayed the diverse pathways of growing up in the contemporary world. The variety of disciplinary backgrounds (anthropology, sociology, political science, cultural studies and geography) matched the variety of research locales and contexts. The speakers portrayed the lives of African migrant youth in Australia, the meaning of violence for young people in a Colombian barrio, ideologies of parenting in the US, the self-understandings of Aboriginal youth in remote Australian communities, the cultural logic in the ‘unruly’ behaviour of young males in Bougainville, the significance of schools as sites of cultural production, the moral encoding of childhood in the context of transnational adoptions, young Indonesians reworking ‘tradition’ as they become cosmopolitan, cultural identification and inventiveness on Easter Island, and legal and ideological constructions of sex work in the Phillipines.
The two keynote speakers, Professor Cindi Katz from the City University of New York, and Associate Professor Gary Robinson from the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin, gave us different, but complementary, perspectives. Cindi’s presentation, “Accumulation, Excess, and Childhood: Towards a countertopography of risk and waste”, explored changes in the position of modern children as postindustrial states try to deal with economic crises. She is observing a disconcerting ‘trade off’: if not always directly, the well being of children in some parts of the world is achieved through the deprivation of children in others. Gary’s paper, entitled “The State, Cultural Competence and Child Development: Perspectives on intervention in the North of Australia”, described a parenting program that aims to improve the relationship between children and their caretakers in Indigenous Tiwi families. The location of culture, he argued, cannot be simply found in a catalogue of traits or elements of reified traditions. Rather, in order to grasp cultural competence, we need to first look at the social and emotional dynamics of concretely lived relationships, especially between mothers and children. And further, the viability of any support program hinges on that – genuine relationships between program implementers and families. This reflects a cultural logic and practice that contrasts sharply with the Northern Territory Emergency Intervention.
Key themes that emerged across papers include suggestions that young people are mobilising elements of their cultural heritage in order to deal with profound contradictions in their lives. Some of these derive directly from global developments that are transforming domestic and market economies as well as images of a ‘good’ future. One of the consequences is the adjustment of parenting. American families from all class backgrounds, for instance, now seek to raise ‘flexible’ children, both with a view to work and intimate social relationships. Equally important, there is evidence of resistance (political, cultural) and the grasping of new opportunities among young people in different parts of the world. However, social systems are not necessarily equipped to foster such creative self-assertion. A challenging task then is to safeguard spaces for recuperation and creativity in face of ever-increasing levels of interventions into children’s lives. Finally, while the Department brought a strong anthropological perspective to the debates, the need for interdisciplinary and comparative perspectives was pinpointed with this concluding question: By what conceptual and technical means can we capture the intersections between systemic forces and lived experience?
The symposium proceedings are available online: http://youngliveschangingtimes.wordpress.com/symposium_proceedings/
Anthropology and the Ends of Worlds Symposium
A Symposium, Thursday 25th and Friday 26th March, 2010
Conveners: Linda Connor, Sebastian Job
Hosted by the Department of Anthropology, School of Social and Political Sciences - University of Sydney
What is entailed in casting a specifically anthropological light on the ends of worlds, and how might anthropology itself be changed in the process?
Ethnographic fieldwork is often conducted at “worlds’ ends,” or in social worlds whose negative transformations are experienced as endings. Among the world’s comparatively wealthy and culturally dominant the fear that everything is coming to an end sits shoulder to shoulder with security, comfort and optimism. Technological advances and post-industrial affluence coexist with apathy, denial and indifference, as well as anxieties about danger, loss, risk and looming catastrophe. Anthropology has long contributed to differentiated and pluralised understandings of cosmologies of destruction and renewal. These eschatologies - such as Apocalypse, Kali Yuga, Doomsday, or Mesoamerican calendars - also operate as visions of transcendence.
How do end-time doctrines, myths and prophecies articulate with the domain of scientific rationality? How are they caught up in other dimensions of the “global process” such as economic and ecological interdependence? Are there signs of converging demands for a world process that reveals itself as having a purpose, a good “end” to which it must be directed - lest it “really, finally, end”? How is cultural anthropology situated in relation to this persistent quest for a human telos and the prospect of world endings?
These were the questions tackled in the 2010 Symposium Anthropology and the Ends of Worlds. Within this broad theme papers drew on empirical areas as the lived experience of economic crisis; environmental destruction; religious mutations; new political formations; postcolonialism; or the loss of vernacular languages.
The keynote speaker for the symposium was Professor Michael Taussig, from the Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, New York. The symposium is envisaged as a conversational and intellectual exchange among participants.
The symposium proceedings are published online on our webpage: