A fieldnote from home



Charles Blackman


This evening I nearly saw a man drown. I run the same route most afternoons, over the bridge and along the foreshore. This evening I was about to cross over the bridge when I saw something or someone splashing in the water. I stopped. It was a man, only a few metres from the banks of the river, and he was drowning. He kept trying to stand up before falling over, his head going under the water for a longer period of time each time he fell.

As soon as I realised what was going on I ran to the shore. I called out to him but didn’t get any response. His head went under again. I waded in and instinctively grabbed his chin to hold his head above the water. I told him it was going to be okay. I asked him to sit down. The water was shallow enough that I could hold his head above the water while he was sitting. He coughed and spluttered and struggled to reclaim and regulate his breathing. I asked him if he could stand up. He shook his head. Ma (ok, I understand). I told him that I was going to try and help him, to drag him out of the water. Yo (ok, yes, agreed). Standing behind him I hooked my arms under both of his armpits and in quick lift-and-drag motions we slowly edged our way to shore.

We were very nearly out of the water when a woman came to our aid. She asked if she could help but thankfully didn’t wait for the answer. She grabbed him under one arm, I had him by the other, and together we dragged him out and well clear of the water. I rolled him onto his side. He was absolutely and utterly exhausted, gumurr djarrark. His breathing was irregular, he was coughing up water, and there was mucus streaming from his nose. I watched him for a bit. He was okay. His body was limp and heavy from exhaustion and he was still trying to catch his breath but he was okay. He was shaking a little. I asked if he was okay. Yo.

I drew a big breath and leaned my hands on my knees. The woman who had come to our aid introduced herself. She had been watching him for nearly two minutes, she said, from the bike path. She was really concerned and worried that he might drown but she didn’t want to put herself in danger. Fair enough. She said she was about to call an ambulance when she saw me running towards him, which is when she then came to our aid. This was the moment that I took pause and looked around, and it was as if in slow motion that I realised . . . there were seven or so people fishing off the bridge looking over the very spot where we were now standing, where this man just very nearly drowned. They were no more than ten metres away looking down on him, on us, from the bridge. They were facing in the direction of where this man very nearly drowned. They were standing there, fishing. Watching a man drown. To my right, along the bicycle path, there was a steady stream of people walking, jogging and riding. Across the river along the beach-front there was any number of people walking their dogs. If I had noticed this man splashing and struggling with my poor eyesight while running past then everyone, all of them, would have noticed. The people standing there fishing, watching him drown, I honestly cannot comprehend.

I cannot remember what I said to the woman who had come to our aid at this point. I think I may have said something along the lines of ‘What the actual fuck! These people were just standing there watching him drown!?’ I remember her reply was something to do with not wanting to put themselves in danger. They were fucking FISHING. WATCHING this man drown.

Now propped up on his elbow, still laying on his side, I asked him what his name was (in Yolŋu-matha, having assumed from his ‘yo’ that he spoke Yolŋu-matha). Don. I told him my name, my Balanda name, and my Yolŋu name. He kind of looked up at this point. I told him that he had just very nearly drowned, that he was okay now, but that he had just very nearly drowned. I asked where his family mob were and, as if on cue, I saw a group of Yolŋu’yulŋu walked into sight along the bike path on the far side of the bridge. I yelled out, kind of rudely (obviously still a little bit shaken):

Waaaaaay! Dhuwala ŋayi Yolŋu yukurra rakunythirri-ndja! Guŋgayurra, räli marrtjina buku djulŋi, guŋgayurra please.’ (Hey! This person [just very nearly died] is dying! Come and help! Please come over here and help/assist!)

Two men ran over the bridge towards us. We all introduced ourselves to each other. I explained what had happened. One of the men, Don’s brother, crossed himself. They thanked us – myself and the woman who had come to our aid – and we all helped lift Don to his feet. Don was with-it enough to ask our names again before his family mob helped away.

Marrkapmirri, thank you’ (Beloved [people], thank you).

Since moving to Darwin I have collected a number of case studies – so many stories of everyday jarring, explicit, yet so dangerously normalised, racism. My notebook is filled of them. Indeed, I’ve written a number of blog posts drawing on said case studies, which I’ve left in draft because I wasn’t sure whether to focus on the policing and racial profiling element, the attitude and behaviour of the general public, or the political and legislative context that not only accommodates or enables such racism, but that seems to actively foster it (with the help of mainstream media).

But this evening was something else. It subsumed and enveloped and amplified all of the case studies, observations and concerns that I have ever noted, seen, read, or written about racism in contemporary Australia.

I saw a man nearly drown tonight. There was a man drowning in the river. He had been struggling in the water for at least two minutes before I got there. He couldn’t keep his head above water. He was flailing and splashing. He was struggling to breathe, to stay alive. Another minute and he would have been unconscious. I have no doubt. And there were people who not only fleetingly saw this and chose to keep walking, jogging or running but there were people standing right there. Fishing on the bridge. Within metres. Overlooking this very scene. Watching this man drown. And they chose to do nothing.

This is what it has come to. This is the level to which Aboriginal people have been dehumanised in the eyes and minds of the general public of white Australia. If it had been a white man drowning, of course – it’s a silly question – everyone would have rushed to his aid.

I know there is racism in Australia. I understand it’s pervasive. But these people were watching a man drown. This is something else. Another minute and he would have been unconscious. Floating. Would they have been moved to act [only] then? Who knows.

How has it come to this? How is it that Aboriginal people have become so dehumanised in the eyes and minds of white Australia?

Sometimes racism seems like some kind of intractable historical force. There is certainly an historical depth that I cannot address here, but we – speaking (and collectivising) here as a white, non-Indigenous person – cannot deny our role and responsibility in this. Yes it is government policies that, for example, claim that all Aboriginal men are child abusers. It is government policies that insinuate that Aboriginal people are so lacking in any sense of adult responsibility that they cannot be trusted with their own finances – or to bring their own children up. It is the mainstream media who repeat, reproduce, and amplify these stereotypes. It is everyone who unthinkingly accepts or believes these stereotypes, justifications and measures. But just as, if not more importantly, it is the people who walk or jog or ride past. Not just in this instance but in every instance, all and every time.

With every racially motivated, discriminatory government policy, media campaign, policing practice, popular prejudice, stereotype, rumour, or joke that we fail to publicly challenge, speak out against, object to, refuse or interrupt – we do this. We are part of this. ‘It is them, not us’. So we remain silent and do nothing. We walk or jog or ride past. It is everyone who has ever seen a group of Aboriginal people bundled into the back of a police wagon for ‘public nuisance’ or ‘public drunkenness’ next to a group of whitefellas doing just the same – enjoying a wine or beer in company – who didn’t think to publicly question or challenge these dynamics or police behaviour. It is everyone who has ever seen ‘public transport officers’ systematically target and harass Aboriginal people at bus depots and on public transport who make a choice to sit quietly rather than ask why they are being targeted, on what basis, on what grounds. It is everyone who has ever laughed along to a racist joke about Aboriginal people because it’s awkward to break the atmosphere and point out how and why that is actually completely inappropriate and wrong.

Shit is fucked up and shit, as they say, but we are a part of this. And we have a profound responsibility to one another, never mind any government body, policy, or institution in between.

To be a socialised moral person, as Yolŋu say, is to be gurrutu-mirri (to have or possess kin/kinship), and to be gurrutu-mirri is to be dharaŋan-mirri (to recognise/understand one another [as kin]), to be djäka-mirri (to care for/look after one another), and to be guŋgayun-mirri (to help or assist on another).










Filed under Current social issues, Indigenous Australia

Head + ghost + dog = blunt ears: a curious language note




One of my few PhD fieldwork regrets is that I didn’t take the time to learn Yolŋu sign language. I had the great fortune of having a beer conversation with two long term researchers in this area last night, Dany Adone and Bentley James. Adone and Maypilama (2013) define Yolŋu sign language as  both an alternate and primary sign language. It is used on a daily basis on the Homelands, as a way to talk to each other from a distance (when out of hearing range), as a way to communicate when out hunting (when you want to be quiet for obvious reasons), and as a means to communicate things you just don’t want others to hear. Children also often use it just because. My little gaminyarr, for example, tells the most hilarious stories in sign-language, made all the more funny on account of her overly exaggerated manner of signing.

Anyway, the other day Bentley shared with me the hand-sign for the idiom buthuru-dumuk, and I found it a little big bit more than curious. Buthuru-dumuk (literally ‘ears-blunt’), is a Yolŋu-matha idiom used to refer to people who behave in an unthinking or unfeeling manner (and who upset or affront others as a result). It has connotations of being insensate, ignorant and unaware. The hand-sign for buthuru-dumuk, however, is comprised of three separate hand-signs: the sign for liya (head), the sign for mokuy (ghost, evil spirit) and the sign for watu (dog). Head + ghost/evil spirit + dog = buthuru dhumuk. How could one not find this impossibly curious?

I immediately started wondering what the associative links might be, between ‘head, ghost/evil spirit, dog’, and the meaning of buthuru-dhumuk, and/or why they lend themselves to use in comprising the sign. After giving it some thought, and having talked it over with a fellow anthropologist and linguistic friend, I came up with the following speculative thoughts and ended up where I often do, thinking about non-state sociality and social order. So here’s goes as yapa would say – a few speculative thoughts on the associative links between ‘head, ghost/evil spirit, dog’ and the meaning of buthuru-dhumuk:

The link with liya (head) is perhaps the most obvious. The head is associated with thinking and thought. The link with mokuy and watu far less so. First, a few notes on the terms themselves.

Mokuy can be used to refer to a deceased person, a corpse, or most commonly, the ghost of the dead. Mokuy, in this sense, is as distinct from a person’s birrimbirr (soul, spirit). Indeed, it is when a person’s birrimbirr (soul, spirit) has not been successfully or restfully returned to their homeland after death (through mortuary rites) that their mokuy is restless or active. Mokuy can also refer to evil spirits, which, while they are not the same as, are closely associated with galka (sorcerers). Mokuy are always unsettling and the presence of mokuy carries a sense of threat or danger. This is reflected in the hand-sign for mokuy – a claw-like shape made with the hand – which is also the hand-sign for rakuny (dead).

Watu, as mentioned, refers to ‘dog’. Dogs are enveloped within the kinship system in Yolŋu matha, and are also important ancestral figures. However, the one thing that sets dogs apart from humans, they say, is dogs have sex with their sisters (and/or any other close kin for that matter). Dogs do not follow or respect the kinship system when it comes to sexual relations.

So what of the associative links to buthuru-dumuk (literally ‘ears-blunt’), to behaving in an unthinking manner? Firstly and most generally is the fact that they all behave in a socially aberrant or transgressive manner. Indeed, the only time people really use the expression is as an explanation of sorts, for rather odd, unfortunate, immature, or ignorant behaviour.

Secondly and importantly, I think, is the fact that one cannot attribute responsibility to mokuy and watu in the same way that one would to a socialised, competent adult. This is the same with people who are buthuru-dhumuk; they behave in an aberrant manner not because they are spiteful or malicious but because they are ignorant, unaware or unthinking. In English, for example, one might say they are ‘a bit soft in the head’.

Behaving in a socially aberrant or transgressive manner, and not being able to attribute responsibility to them as one would a well socialised, competent adult. I think these are reasonably strong associative links. But what of the unsettling ‘danger’ factor, the implied sense of threat associated with mokuy? It is such a specific and potent term, I dare suggest its use isn’t or wasn’t incidental. How or why might buthuru-dhumuk be associated with an implied sense threat or danger? In the same way, and for many of the same reasons I suggest, as the term or concept of dhukun (rubbish, litter, trash) when it is used to describe social relations.

When social relations are upset and unsettled people will often describe the situation or place as dhukun-mirri (soiled, messy, spoiled). This is one of the more common ways that people describe upset or unsettled relations. When used to describe the state of relations like this, dhukun’, in my experience, connotes a potential threat or sense of danger. Social situations that are described as dhukun’-mirri are not only unsettled or upset but they carry a sense of volatility and an associated sense of threat or danger.

This may seem a rather dramatic leap – from unsettled relations to volatility, threat and danger – but social order (as I argue in my thesis) is largely a matter of affect where forms of non-state sociality prevail, as on the remote Yolŋu Homelands in Arnhem Land.

And where social order is largely a matter of affect, upsetting the state of relations (by behaving in a socially aberrant, unthinking or unfeeling manner) has potentially immediate and serious consequences. Those involved or implicated in dhukun-mirri relations hold a tension under the weight of potential conflict, violence and disorder – which is equally everyone’s responsibility, worry and concern.

Head, ghost, evil spirit, dog. Blunt ears. Socially aberrant or transgressive behaviour, the inability to attribute responsibility, a sense of upset and unsettled relations. Social volatility and a sense of potential threat and danger. Makes sense.


Does that make sense? I don’t know. Hooray!






Filed under Incidental

A tiny little fieldnote in an otherwise ellipsis.


Jörg Schmeisser. Mangrove and Notes, Etching, 2010.

Jörg Schmeisser, Mangrove and Notes, Etching, 2010.



Warrnyu mala



yukurra butthun




out of



[the] mangroves.







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February 20, 2014 · 11:01 pm

Personhood, relatedness and social organisation on the Yolŋu Homelands




Apparently you’re not supposed to share and or circulate your PhD thesis until after it has been examined. Oh well. I would like to share the second chapter on personhood, relatedness and social organisation. You can find a pdf version here. (I’ve put a ‘draft’ watermark on the document as a caveat of kinds.)

This chapter contributes to the body of literature on Yolŋu ‘culture and society’ with a slightly unconventional approach to (the description of) social organisation. The chapter is structured around a series of five drawings, drawn by my close yapa (Z) and waku (wC) to help me to understand why my questions about social organisation were always met with further questions – rhetorical questions about raki’ (strings), luku (foot[-print]), anchor, root of a tree) gamunuŋgu (white clay) and lirrwi’ (ashes, shade). This series of diagrams illustrate the outline or form of Yolŋu social organisation – the relationships through which expectations about morality and value are articulated – and also give a sense of the local terms and concepts through which these social forms and relations are articulated, and how they reflect or express local understandings about the self, others and the relationship between them.

I would love any feedback you might have on this chapter as I’m hoping to rework it into a journal article soon. Meanwhile, I’m hoping to hear back from the examiners before the end of the year . . . .




Oh, and I haven’t included a bibliography. Suffer in your jocks!





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Filed under Thesis/Yolngu related writing

No cheek is an island: Body parts in Yolŋu-matha




One of the things I love about living in Darwin is being surrounded by so many different languages on a daily basis. I’ve noticed over the past week, for example, that Kriol and Yolŋu-matha seem to be spoken almost as much as English on the buses. (It would be amazing to do an ethnography of the buses up here actually.) But with re-immersion has come self-consciousness about my own spoken Yolŋu-matha skills. I have been out of practice for so long! All this is to say that I’ve been doing some good old fashioned language practice, and along the way thought to share a few body parts. Gaaaa ‘kum:


buku – ‘forehead, hill or peak.’ Buku is also associated with ‘will,’ as in individual ‘will power,’ which is not necessarily a positive or appropriate motivation or justification for social action. If a person appears to be ever thinking about money, for example, one could describe them as buku-rrupiya (literally, forehead + money).


mel, maŋutji – eye, [fresh-] waterhole; well, soak, entrance to [native] beehive, seed, nut or grain.’ These terms are also used to refer to one’s lover, as I’ve mentioned hereon before.


ŋurru -nose, tip, front, peninsula, cape, point – of land or spear,’ or, as in the point of a story or narrative.


dhä - ‘mouth, mouth of the river, opening.’ There are innumerable idioms based on this term, including for example,  dhä-waŋgany (literally mouth + one), which denotes agreement or consensus between people and/or bäpurru groups. It can also be used to refer to the point or site at which two or more tributaries of a river meet.


mayaŋ - ‘neck, front of the neck (throat), channel between two islands.’ Mayaŋ can also refer to a river or tributary. The hand-sign to refer to something secret or sacred is to hold one’s throat between one’s index finger and thumb (almost as if to pinch it, but not).


lambarr, garaŋa - ‘shoulder, middle of a canoe or boat.’ This part of the body is used to refer to the reciprocal relationship between bäpa and gäthu, by touching or ‘referring to it’ with an open palm or fist.


dhamunumun - ‘chin.’ This is the part of the body used to refer to the reciprocal relationship between gaminyarr (wSC, ZSC) and ŋapipi (MB) or momu (FM), again, by touching or referring to it with an open palm or fist.


wana - ‘arm, wing, branch, tributary’ – not to be confused with wanha, which is ‘where?’


likan - ‘elbow, joint, bay, inlet.’ This is a particularly important conceptual term used to refer to the nature of the relationship between elements of the social world that are different and separate but nonetheless joined together to each other, often denoted by a shared likan name.


goŋ -hand.’ One of my favourite idioms, which refers to the quality of being looked after and cared for by one’s kin, is goŋ-mirri (lit. to have or possess the quality of hands).


gumurr -chest [sternum], open country, land on the horizon.’ As I’ve mentioned before hereon, gumurr is the part of the body associated with ŋayaŋu (‘state or sense of feeling [among and between people]‘). It can also be quite an *ahem* sexy term when used in certain idioms.


gulun -belly, stomach, womb; palm (of the hand) or sole (of the foot).’ Gulun can also refer to a freshwater spring, pool or waterhole.


yaŋara’ - ‘lower leg, tail, stem of a plant, shaft of spear, handle (of a tool). This is the part of the body used to refer to the reciprocal relationship between yapa (Z) and wäwa (B).


luku foot, feet, footprint; base or ‘root’ (of tree). Also, ‘anchor, wheel or tyre.’


bun’kumu - ‘knee.‘  Bun’kumu is often used in the same way as likan when talking about social interrelationships, when two entities are manapan-mirri (‘linked or joined together to each other’).


diltji - back or back-bone, inland or hinterland (as opposed to the beach or coastal area). Diltji is the part of the body that refers to the reciprocal relationship between gutharra (wDC, ZDC) and märi (MM, MMB) or märi mo (FF, FFB, FFZ).


rumbal, yuwalk – ‘body, trunk or torso,’ though one most often hears these terms used in the sense of meaning ‘true’ – as in it’s true, it’s not a lie.


runu, dhakal – ‘cheek.’ Both terms also mean ‘island.’







Filed under Thesis/Yolngu related writing

A sidenote and a fieldnote.




It’s a strange but reassuring feeling to learn that all the data for your PhD fits neatly into two small old cases and a postal tube.

Yes, Bree of the Blakemans has been packing. She is moving interstate to take up a position working as an anthropologist in her beloved Northern Territory. What might this mean for Fieldnotes and Footnotes? Might the blog might look different from here on in, post-PhD and all? I’m not sure, to be honest. It certainly feels like the start of a whole new adventure, but I will also certainly be blogging it.

Anyhow, I thought to note the fact of this transition here and to share a somewhat nostalgic excerpt from my fieldnote book, just because. It’s taken from my fieldnote book from February 2008.



“Today is the fifth of February 2008.

In two days I will have been here for three months though this duration says little. As Michael Jackson woke in a fever of Malaria to remember the importance poetry, so I have been missing it. It is not simply a desire to read or write it (though I did look everywhere in the nearby mining town for a book of poetry – any poetry!), but missing the eye of poetry, and the voice of poetry; not being familiar or comfortable enough with the everyday round to see it through poetry and not being familiar enough with the language to think through, let alone write poetry. But they say (they say), that things get much easier after three months. Perhaps poetry will come again.”



And that’s all for now. This has been a somewhat brief sidenote and fieldnote.



See you on the other side!





Filed under Posts of an unqualified kind

A reflective glance: So glad I have finished the thesis!


Back when I was re-re-revising the second last nearly but not quite final revision of chapters …









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Filed under Thesis/Yolngu related writing

Ph-inishe-D: Thesis acknowledgements

Well, I finally submitted my PhD thesis. Given this is likely to be last thesis related post in a while, I thought I’d take the opportunity to post my thesis acknowledgements. I’m feeling incredibly relieved to have finally submitted, but also incredibly grateful to everyone who made it possible.



In memory of Don Burarrwaŋa.

Except where cited this thesis may be the result of research carried out by the author, but it is fundamentally and necessarily a social product. The data that forms its basis I owe entirely to my Yolŋu family who not only took me in and loved and cared for me as their own kin, but who taught me with such patience, such care and affection, the everything of the something that I know about the Yolŋu social world. My deepest gratitude is to you, marrkap-mirri, gurrutu-mirri walala. Also to Nanni Concu who shared much of this journey with me, thank you. Many of the ideas in this thesis began as conversations with Nanni, a proud anarchist and unorthodox economist.

I don’t recall exactly when my love affair with anthropology began, but I do recall that I have John Laurence and Victoria Burbank to thank for imparting their passion for and dedication to anthropology in my undergraduate years at The University of Western Australia. Victoria is also an advisor on my panel. Thank you to both.

To my marŋgi-kunha-mirri walala (teachers) at The Australian National University: I am grateful to my primary supervisor Francesca Merlan, who walked me through, step by step, as I learned to write ethnography, and who has challenged me to be a more rigorous anthropologist and scholar at every stage. Heartfelt thanks also to Frances Morphy, my advisor and Balanda ŋamala, whose ethnographic experience, linguistic and writing skills have contributed so much to this thesis. I also owe my sincere thanks to Ian Keen who has been a quiet influence on my work since well before I began this PhD. Thank you Ian, for being so generous and supportive of this intellectual project and so rigorous and critical in your advice. And to a marŋgi-kunha-mirri of a slightly different kind, my wäwa Bentley James, rogue and scholar – I am forever grateful for your intellectual support and your friendship.

The research for this thesis was undertaken with the financial assistance of an Australian Postgraduate Award Scholarship. The Northern Land Council facilitated the acquisition of the permit necessary to undertake fieldwork in Arnhem Land. Thank you also to the staff at Northern Territory Archives Service for helping me navigate its collection of material. I would also like to thank Jon Altman, Chris Gregory and David Martin who gave productive feedback on previous drafts. And gratitude and thanks go to Nicolas Peterson for the opportunity to tutor during my time writing up. I am also grateful to the broader anthropological community at The Australian National University. The intellectual environment of ANU has been critical to my being able to maintain my motivation and enthusiasm. On a similar note, thank you to Giovanni da Col for inviting me aboard the HAU editorial team. HAU has been a real intellectual and political inspiration during some of the more difficult stages of writing. I would also like to acknowledge a number of online communities – in particular the anthropological and activist communities on Twitter and Facebook and the readers of my Fieldnotes and Footnotes blog. I found the writing process very isolating at times and I am thankful for the intellectual and political engagement as well as the support and encouragement I found online.

To my comradely friends and fellow activists, thank you for keeping me grounded and reminding me what is important.

Finally, to my family – to my Mum and Dad, Shaun, Harley and Tiana: words cannot express how grateful I am for your unconditional love and support. I could not have completed this thesis without you.






Filed under Thesis/Yolngu related writing

Vladimir Nabokov: In Paradise





A poem particularly lovely because I’m almost certain that Nabokov must have noted such thoughts, in his journal about someone he loved, well before they became a poem.


In Paradise


My soul, beyond distant death

your image I see like this:

a provincial naturalist,

an eccentric lost in paradise.


There, in a glade, a wild angel slumbers,

a semi-pavonian creature.

Poke at it curiously

with your green umbrella,


speculating how, first of all,

you will write a paper on it

then — But there are no learned journals,

nor any readers in paradise!


And there you stand, not yet believing

your wordless woe.

About that blue somnolent animal

whom will you tell, whom?


Where is the world and the labeled roses,

the museum and the stuffed birds?

And you look and look through your tears

at those unnamable wings.




- Vladimir Nabokov, from Collected Poems (2012), translated by Dmitri Nabokov, published by Penguin Classics, London.







Filed under Poetry turnstile

On value: Revisiting D’Andrade and Graeber





I re-re-read Roy D’Andrade on value yesterday and was reminded just how interesting his findings. First, however, to give an overview on his overview, D’Andrade sets out five different definitions of value:

1) As in the phrase, ‘the value of x in this formula,’ value refers to some amount or quantity. This sense is generally found only in mathematical or linguistic discourse. There is no ‘goodness’ component in this sense of the term;

2) A notion of value that refers a preference for something, measured by the preference for that thing over another. Economists use the term ‘utility’ for this sense of value’;

3) Value as in the phrase ‘the value of IBM stock has risen 10 percent,’ which refers to price. He notes here that while utility and preference are connected to price, they are not the same thing: ‘Water, for example, has great utility for humans. But because the supply of water is normally large, one does not need to pay greatly for it (although this is changing). Price is affected by supply and demand, and so is not intrinsic to the object in the way that utility is. Value as price has a long history of debate in the social sciences, primarily focused on where the price comes from. Early economists, such as Smith, Ricardo, and Marx, thought that the price of objects came from the labor by which they are produced and that is why diamonds have more value than water. The labor theory of value was demolished by Turgot and the economists of the Austrian School who developed the marginal theory of value, although some Marxist-oriented social scientists still use varieties of the labor theory (e.g., Graeber 2001).’

I’m not sure Graeber would agree with this characterisation of his position, but anyhow . . .

4) The default or ‘unmarked’ meaning of value, which involves a sense of worth – the goodness of something. The term ‘value’ as used here refers to ‘the goodness attributed to something important.’ Whether something is good or bad appears to be one of the most frequent and salient assessments that humans make. People ‘rate’ things in a way that foregrounds the factor of ‘evaluation’ – the ‘good or bad’ property of things – with a broad sample of adjectives such as ‘’beautiful versus ugly, useful vs not useful.’ In the common sense of the word values are more than just ‘goodness’; for something to be a value it should not only be good, it should also be something that is ‘weighty and important – it should be worth something.’

5) Value as in phrases such as ‘he has no values,’ which refers to a moral subset of values. A person with no moral values is someone who is immoral. ‘Such a person knows that other people feel it is good to help others and bad to steal and cheat, but does not feel this himself. But such a person may have many nonmoral things they feel are good, like money and leisure. This is a specialized or marked sense of the term value, referring to a subset of values regarding moral issues.’ Expressed as a noun, ‘goodness’ seems to be in the thing or event.’ Expressed as a verb as in ‘he values social approval’ – goodness is not in the thing but rather, in the person’s response to the thing.’

At this point D’Andrade notes that a question remains as to whether values are just thoughts or whether they include some kind of feeling: ‘As a matter of ordinary talk, people say the experience of goodness is more than just cognition. Obviously, one can know about a value but not hold it. Somebody may know it is considered good to give to charity and even think abstractly that charity is good, yet feel nothing really about charity. The internal sense of its goodness is missing. We speak of value as internalized when a person believes some object or event is good, when the person experiences a strong sense of its goodness and responds with the feelings and motivations that are appropriate to such an appraisal (Spiro 1987). Values vary greatly in the degree that they are internalized. Much of the research on values involves trying to measure the degree of internalisation.’


After his introductory overview D’Andrade eventually settles on a definition of value defined as ‘the goodness attributed to something important.’ While the body of the text is admittedly a little touch dry, his findings are both surprising and really very really interesting. Two things! Two things:


First thing. The first interesting point of note in his study is D’Andrade’s emphasis on the fact that value dimensions are contrasts, not opposites: ‘Individualism versus collectivism and altruism versus self-interest are not formed by contradictory opposites such as up and down,’ he explains, ‘but . . . this does not mean that they are not dimensions. As dimensions they are formed by the correlational structure of semantic contraries (things opposed in nature or tendency) rather than contradictories (whatever is true of one is logically false about the other).’

This is coupled with his general hypothesis is that ‘values are always a compromise in a tension between opposing tendencies’ and a further hypothesis, that ‘value standards in many domains are a negotiated adjustment to a conflict’ (see the discussion on pp. 136-137). This is a lot of food for thought and a really interesting cluster of hypotheses, I think.

Second thing. The second thing I found particularly interesting is his finding that large differences in personal values across cultures do not exist but there DOES appear to be large differences in what-counts-as-what. This. is. an. incredibly. important. and. interesting. point. I think. – and one that had me wondering how one might go about studying eliciting scenarios for values, just as one might for emotions. To give more of a sense of this finding in the context of his study:

D’Andrade’s project began with the hypothesis that ‘values are organized into empirically isolatable clusters and dimensions and that some value dimensions are common to most societies. It was also hypothesized that most societies would display culturally unique value dimensions’ (p. 12). He concludes quite differently, however, and it’s worth quoting him at length here:


‘The ideas with which this book finishes are different from the ideas that it started with. It now seems large differences in personal values across societies do not exist. There are some differences in personal values between societies, but there is close to overwhelming evidence that these differences are small. The variation within a society is many times larger than the variation between societies in personal values. This does not mean that societies are all the same. First, as has been pointed out a number of times, there are large differences between societies in what-counts-as-what. The same value can be instantiated in very different ways. The canonical example is that the practices thought to give toddlers independence in a Japanese pre-school are different from the practices thought to give toddlers independence in an American preschool.


There also are, it is clear, great differences in institutionalized values. The largest value differences seem to be between roles within a society, but to the degree that the same institutionalized values are found in a variety of institutions, whole societies can vary greatly with respect to institutionalized values, as exemplified by the value of purity in India. . . .


Perhaps the fact that cultures do not vary much in personal values will be taken by social scientists to indicate that there is little sense in bothering to study personal values on the group level. This conclusion would be a mistake because life satisfactions and physical health are affected by the fit between personal values and institutionalized values in important life-world institutions such as work and family (Rohan 2000, Meglino and Ravlin 1998, cited earlier). Also, differences between personal values and institutionalized values can give rise to social conflict. Of course, given sufficient external power applied to keep the social standards in place, as in slavery or in totalitarian regimes, the distress caused by lack of fit can be ignored. That is, until the day comes when it cannot be ignored.’


You can imagine how much I was smiling at this point. And! but! anyway! – the part of the conclusion particularly relevant to my own research and the idea of moral misrecognition:


‘Were I to begin the study of values now, I would focus on these questions about the degree of fit between institutionalized values and personal values. It would also be helpful to find some way of systematically surveying what-counts-as-what. Techniques to do this could be helpful in resolving cross-cultural misunderstandings. Unless one knows what-counts-as-what, one cannot understand much of political conflict. It is easy to describe the conflicts but more difficult to dis-cover the nature of the linkages between values and the practices. What is needed is a general theory that can be used to conceptualize the psychological and cultural processes involved.’


This had me thinking about ALL KINDS of wonderful things! Final thing. One final thing. While D’Andrade and Graeber (2001) appear to be talking past one another in many respects in their respective texts, their conclusions in fact nicely parallel or reflect or echo one another. Consider, for example, dhuwala:


‘We are back, then, to a “politics of value”; but one very different from Appadurai’s neoliberal version. The ultimate stakes of politics, according to Turner, is not even the struggle to appropriate value; it is the struggle to establish what value is (Turner 1978; 1979c; see Myers and Brenne is 1991:4–5). Similarly, the ultimate freedom is not the freedom to create or accumulate value, but the freedom to decide (collectively or individually) what it is that makes life worth living. In the end, then, politics is about the meaning of life. Any such project of constructing meanings necessarily involves imagining totalities (since this is the stuff of meaning), even if no such project can ever be completely translated into reality—reality being, by definition, that which is always more complicated than any construction we can put on it’ (Graeber 2001, p. 88).


AND THAT IS ALL MY STORY! There are a lot of colons in this post and erratic grammar. Goodbye.





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