Where did all the “egalitarianism” go? – thoughts on Robbins, Liberman and Australianist anthropology

Maybe this has a lot to do with it....

Joel Robbins paper ‘Equality as a Value: Ideology in Dumont, Melanesia and the West’ (1994) is among the most interesting papers I’ve read over the last few years.

I should say ‘thought provoking’ rather than interesting because it is not so much the content in itself but the questions that the content encourage the reader to ask. In my case his paper encouraged me to think about my own ‘data’ in new and exciting ways. It is a pretty long and heavy-going paper but I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys anthropological brain exercise. It’s published in Social Analysis, October 1994, No.36.

The reason I mention Robbins is because I just recently read Kenneth Liberman’s book on ‘interaction in Central Australia’ and it reminded me that anthropologists were not always so suspicious about claims of ‘equality’, ‘egalitarianism’ and congenial fellowship’ in Indigenous Australia. Joel Robbins writes of this suspicion in part:

‘..the fact that equality (whatever its rhetorical value on the ideological plane) is such an empoirical non-starter in Western societies has led to a curious blindness on the part of Western social scientists: they are increasingly unable to see equality as an important feature of social life anywhere. At any rate, as Turner tells us, social scientists are certainly more likely to write about inequality than its opposite.

The general attitude towards equality in contemporary social science is best characterised as suspecious. People’s claims to be acting to maximise equality or that equality actually exists is some sphere or their own society are taken to be ideological covers or supports for existing inequalities’ (Robbins, 1994, p. 21).

It makes you wonder why social scientists don’t have the same critically suspicious approach to in-equality in other societies. Perhaps the Northern Territory Intervention may not have happened (as it did, at least). 

Kenneth Liberman’s work, while quite dated, encourages us to explain how and why writing about Indigenous sociality and Indigenous society swings from a focus on ‘egalitarianism’, ‘equality’ and ‘congeniality’ – particularly in the pre-1960s literature & especially in the very early literature – to today’s literature, which seems to focus almost exclusively on aggression, inequality, disfunction and disorder.

There is something important that needs to be addressed and accounted for. Anyhow, this is an excerpt from Liberman, which was written under the sub-heading ‘consensus’:

‘In Aboriginal society nothing is done on the authority of just one man. There exist no formal leaders, and their political life is highly egalitarian. The question of sociological importance which presents itself is how they manage to get along without formal headmen. In an environment where not only is there no headmen but individuals are proscribed from advocating their own positions too strongly, decision-making is a very skillful affair’ (Kenneth Liberman 1985, ‘Understanding Interaction in Central Australia, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Bosto).

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Filed under Anthropology, General personal writings

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