Aboriginees in Australia: Why talking about culture?

In the Australian magazine On Line Opinion, Anthropologist John Morton criticizes public views of Aboriginess in Australia and argues for avoiding the term culture:

Ever since Europeans first came to Australia, public views of Aborigines have veered between two extremes. Aborigines have been promoted either as disgusting savages or as admired paragons, uncivilised riff-raff or as noble bearers of their culture - bad or good, but never ordinary.

As we now enter a new phase of Aboriginal affairs, Indigenous Australians once again enter the public mind as radically different types of people. On the one hand, we are bombarded with material about dysfunctional communities plagued by drug and alcohol abuse, rampant violence, uncontrolled children and chronic sickness. On the other hand, we routinely hear about “the oldest living culture in the world”, Aboriginal people caring, sharing and looking after country, and the profound qualities of Aboriginal art.

In these circumstances, it’s hard to know what “the oldest living culture in the world” might be. Indeed, it’s hard to know what people are talking about at all when they refer to “culture”.


We’ve heard a lot of arguments about the “true” nature of Aboriginal culture in recent weeks. Some say Aboriginal culture fosters violence against women and children. Others gainsay this and suggest that violence is cultural breakdown stemming from neglect and marginalisation by mainstream Australian culture. There are many more axes to grind in relation to employment, health and education, but always with a view to promoting a good or bad image of Aboriginal people, not to mention a good or bad image of the “mainstream culture” which provides Aboriginal services.


This blame game doesn’t give us “the truth” about Aboriginal or any other culture. It simply reduces the extremely complicated relationship between Aboriginal communities and all the arms of the state (governments, bureaucracies, the police, land councils, schools, health centres, etc.) with which they engage. Recourse to “culture” always seems to deliver imagined parodies of real life, transforming it into something inordinately valuable or completely worthless.

British cultural critic Raymond Williams once remarked that “culture” is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. (...) In fact, it’s an empty word: you can fill it with pretty much anything you like. That’s why it functions so well in slogans.

In the meantime, there are many people both inside and outside Aboriginal communities who recognise that there are big problems in Aboriginal affairs. It’d be good if they could all be allowed to get on with the job of finding appropriate solutions to those problems without “culture” getting in the way.

>> read the whole article in On Line Opinion


"I'm not the indigenous person people want me to be"

From Stone Age to 21st century - More "fun" with savages

Ancient People: We are All Modern Now

Our obsession with the notion of the primitive society

The Culture Struggle: How cultures are instruments of social power

"Quit using the word ‘culture’ wherever possible"


Comment from: verum [Visitor]

I am interested in why John Morton is calling himself an anthropologist if he is not interested in culture. Yes I said the word “culture” because if you are an anthropologist you should be able to break it down better than I can. Traditions, history, society, language, art etcetra. It is not that hard. I’ve only been to Australia once and met some Aboriginees who showed me around and showed what different herbs were for. Some of them you could use for schampoo. They also showed me sounds and noises from the nature and a kangaroo dance.They told me how Aboriginees had been slaughtered when the English came and how hundreds of Aboriginees walked out in the sea and drown themselves hoping the birds would carry their spirit somewhere else because they were so desperate to get away. The people I met was very interesting and they were very eager to tell me loads about their “culture".I thought it was the job of an anthropologist to be interested in these things and write about them? But maybe not if you are Australian?

2010-03-16 @ 19:28
Comment from: verum [Visitor]

What I mean is maybe if Australians learned more about different (the forbidden word) “cultures” and saw it as something positive and interesting instead of only watching the weather news on TV and do windsurfing. If they got a little bit more educated about the rest of the world and learned some other languages it could maybe help their relationships with the Aboriginees? I didn’t find it very hard to talk to them at all? Not the people I met.

2010-03-16 @ 19:55

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