Post-Fieldnote 1/4: sociality, ethnography and the ‘autonomy-relatedness’ framework


There is something of an assumed, prevailing model of Indigenous sociality in Australianist anthropology.

While I’m uncertain how long it has been so (assumed and prevailing, that is), it is widely acknowledged that this approach or model derives from Fred Myers’ 1986 Western Desert ethnography, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines. As the dominant or prevailing approach to Indigenous sociality, I was more than familiar with this ‘autonomy-relatedness’ framework before I embarked on fieldwork. Despite the fact that I wasn’t especially attached to or invested in it theoretically, there was ‘something’ that kept bringing this framework to mind – to the forefront of my mind during my time in camp. There was something that struck me as ‘not quite right.’

By the end of fieldwork, after considering and reconsidering this ‘autonomy-relatedness’ framework, I was fairly sure of two things visa-vi the Yolŋu case. Waŋgany, that there was a fundamental disjuncture – an evaluative conceptual disjuncture between the understandings and expectations implicit in the ‘autonomy-relatedness’ framework and those underlying the Yolŋu approach to sociality. Märrma, I was also fairly certain that that if I hadn’t learned the language – if my Yolŋu family hadn’t insisted that I learn Gumatj, that is, and persisted with extraordinary patience in teaching it to me – then I wouldn’t have had reason to question this framework and would have, in all likelihood, employed it in my later description and analysis.

As one might imagine, given the above, my thinking with regard to this prevailing model shifted over time as I considered ‘what if’ I – or any other person or ethnographer – had used this framework ‘unproblematically’ in the Yolŋu case. These ‘what ifs’ ultimately led me to bookend the thesis with a critical discussion (visa-vi illustrative case-studies) of what I came to refer to as ‘moral misrecognition’ in intercultural relations – which include those between ethnographers and the people with whom they work or study. More on the idea of moral misrecognition (originally from Lacan’s méconnaissance) some other time.

Why would I have done ill to employ the prevailing model of Indigenous sociality? And after all is not said and done – what are my current thoughts on the prevailing model of Indigenous sociality in Australianist Anthropology?

There are three broad points at issue I’d like to note, but perhaps over four or so posts, because I first need introduce the prevailing model as distilled or derived from Myers 1986 ethnography.



The ‘autonomy-relatedness’ framework as distilled from Myers’ 1986 ethnography.

Myers’ framework is based on three patterns of social action he observed in the Western Desert, entailing values of ‘autonomy’ and ‘relatedness’:

‘The related patterns I witnessed in my experience of Pintupi life provide the underpinnings of this book’s account. The first pattern is an emphasis on ‘relatedness’, on extending one’s ties with others outward, on being open to claims by others, on showing sympathy and a willingness to negotiate. This pattern involves the difficulty of sustaining an authoritative centre that excludes others from consideration. The second pattern is a reluctance to permit others to impose their authority over oneself, an unwillingness to accept constraints on one’s autonomy. These two patterns are countered, or resolved, by a third – the cultural representation of hierarchy as nurturance, as ‘looking after.’ This third pattern plays an essential role in placing certain principles beyond individual consideration, in constituting a transcendental realm of value’ (1991, pp. 22-23).

Myers uses this framework in his description and analysis as in the following excerpt:

‘This is a social world dominated by the pressure of relatives, dominated by ‘immediacy.’ The cultural forms of ‘compassion’ and ‘shame’ constrain the ways in which Pintupi social action is organized. People protect their autonomy by hiding or removing it from sight, while in more basic ways it is ‘hidden’ by being sanctified as given. Pintupi structuring of the subject assumes a projection of the basis of autonomy outside the individual. This lends a particular form to social action that necessitates attributing its origins to something outside the actors, usually posited in The Dreaming’ (1991, p. 125).

In each case three patterns are evident –  a tension between contrasting values of ‘autonomy’ and ‘relatedness,’ which is resolved or countered by the cultural representation of hierarchy as nurturance (or by hiding or ‘projecting’ one’s autonomy outside the individual).

There is one further point to note with regard to Myers framework and that is his consideration of the cultural ‘self’ as it appears in Pintupi social life:

‘. . . the salient characteristics of life in this ‘egalitarian’ society make it sociologically necessary to emphasise the individual and the self. The high value placed on individual autonomy and the work ad n strategies required to achieve a polity when dominance must appear muted pose a problem for the society’s participants, not one imported from outside. Collectivity is a problem for the Pintupi’ (p. 23).

This last note is most relevant to 3/3, which I’ll post yalala.




End post-fieldnote  1/4

1 Comment

Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

One response to “Post-Fieldnote 1/4: sociality, ethnography and the ‘autonomy-relatedness’ framework

  1. *Spinifex blowing in the wind.*

    I do intend to get to these other posts when I return from the field in a while.

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