Anthropological Methods: an excerpt from the current working draft of Chapter One

Fieldwork photo (2009)


It becomes less genealogical in the latter half of the excerpt, I promise!



Methodology   (or ‘Time spent living with my adoptive Yolŋu family in camp’)

[ . . . ]

My field-work ‘methods of inquiry’ and the ethnographic focus of my research were both strongly shaped (if not determined) by the socio-structural position I was adopted into, relative to that of the woman who adopted me – the woman I came to know, love and respect as my sister, Phyllis B____. I was adopted, or gumurr-märrama (‘taken by the chest’), as they say, by Phyllis B____  –  a woman of some fifty years who belongs to ‘Gumatj bäpurru‘  –  the patrifilial-group or ‘clan’ known by the proper name ‘Gumatj.’

There are two major lineages within the Gumatj bäpurru, denoted by the two different surnames,  ‘Y____’  and  ‘B_____.’  There is a further, smaller lineage, denoted by the surname  ‘M_____.’  The ‘B_____’ lineage, of which my adoptive family and thus I am a part, trace their lineage back to the late  ‘G___ ’  –  the father of my closest siblings, and an important historical figure who enjoyed the company, prestige and responsibility of nine wives.

In terms of my socio-structural position I became the youngest of G____’s children; the youngest ‘little sister’ in a sibling set of some 32 sibling – almost all of whom who live on the Homeland communities in the local network and/or on the nearby island of Galiwin’ku. In terms of residence I was the youngest sister in the sibling-set comprising the eldest adult residents in camp (with the exception of G___’s last surviving wife, ol’ ‘ama Wapalkuma). The senior sibling set comprising the primary residents are children of G___  and three of his nine wives.

G___’s  fourth wife,  ‘D___’  (a Galpu woman whose mother was Warramiri), had seven children: ‘W____’  (male),  ‘Johnny B____’, ‘Terry ____’,  ‘Ŋ___’ (female), ‘Don D____’,  ‘Bluey’ and ‘Phyllis B____’. Terry and Don I came to know and love as my dear, [over-]protective, older  [chalk and cheese] brothers.

G___’s  sixth wife, ‘Mary W____’  (a Galpu woman whose Mother was Warramiri) had three children: ‘Doris Y____’,  ‘Elizabeth B____’, and ‘Johnny D_____’. Doris Y____,  I came to know and love as my close sister and confidante.

G____’s  seventh wife,  ‘W_____’  (a Gulumala woman whose mother was Warramiri), had four children:  ‘B___’ (female),  ‘James D____ #1’ (male), ‘Kevin G____’, and  ‘Johnny G____’. Kevin and Johnny I came to know as the younger of my close, dear brothers.

In terms of residence and everyday power and authority, I was adopted by the most authoritative woman – and most assertive person – in camp. In an ‘everyday sociality’ type sense, I was thus ‘under the shade’ (as they say) of Phyllis B_____, and by extension our other close kin.

Being adopted into this socio-structural position certainly had its downside and difficulties. I had next to no authority, autonomy, privacy or sway; I was given a new wardrobe of clothing appropriate for a young, unmarried woman living in close proximity to her brothers, and disallowed from wearing my own. I was often the person who was expected to collect the firewood by default, and who often ate snails instead of oysters after a day out hunting. This was also a particularly privileged position in many more important ways.

My close adoptive kin considered it their role and responsibility to look over me and look after me. This was surely, in large part, because ‘that’s just what (close) kin do.’  It was also, while never spoken, because my person and behavior very much reflected on my immediate close kin; I was “their Balanda” (European, white person’), as it was. My close kin were not just associated with me but were considered responsible for me in crucially important way – for my person, actions and behaviour. The proprietorial nature of inter-personal responsibility is acknowledged and considered to be the basis upon which any Yolŋu person (and by extension their family-group and bäpurru) adopts a non-Yolŋu person.

As part of their role and responsibility to look over me, and look after me, my close kin – and in particular, my sisters – felt it their role and responsibility to teach me how to behave like a young Gumatj woman – how to ‘be and behave like kin’ (‘gurrutu-mirri’). While I was certainly ‘bossed about’ a great deal I was also encouraged and instructed to learn in ways that I perhaps would not have been if not in the breast of a small, close kin group as I was.

As it happened, I was able to marry my role as the youngest little sister with my ethnographic interests in mutually rewarding and productive ways. For example, my wanting to know about things that were of importance to my close kin, to Gumatj and/or to Yolŋu in general, was something looked upon favourably, affectionately –  and even with a touch of pride. Sometimes, even just using a new word or expression in conversation, or getting one wrong, was cause for a giggling uproar of affectionate approval. In this sense I was exceptionally fortunate. There was not a time I did not feel crowded or somehow frustrated. There was not a time I did not feel braced and comforted by the support, affection and encouragement of kin.

In the first six months in Camp my focus was almost exclusively on acquiring basic language skills, on learning Gumatj. English is not spoken as a matter of course in everyday conversation and my speaking English was strongly discouraged (not least because it would have excluded everyone except Phyllis____, Doris ____, Don _____, and Johnny _____). During this initial phase I took notes at the end of each day, and noted who had come and gone and by what means – notes comprising my quantitative data on residence and mobility.

In the latter half of fieldwork, after the first nine-months or so, I had a sense that there were certain key things that I needed to clarify if I was going to consolidate my understanding about certain things that seemed central to the way people consider issues of morality and ‘what is important and valuable’ in sociality and social life more broadly. I felt as though I had to pull the threads together, as it were, to confirm hunches and clarify assumptions that had, until then remained tacit or implicit.

Over the course of the last six-to-eight months I began to make use of my digital voice recorder – recording unstructured discussions with people (only the closest of my adoptive kin) about many and various things. Sometimes I would ask for clarification about the meaning of a particular word and an associated discussion would ensue about many and varied things, other times I was a lot more focused and insistent about the line of enquiry and thus course of discussion. Excerpts from many of these conversations are included as transcripts in the chapters to follow.

[ . . . ]

In closing, I ask the reader to keep in mind the size and remote nature of the Homeland community that is Camp. While it is part of a network of communities it is, by any ethnographic measure, small and remote. This shapes and gives character to the body of knowledge that forms the basis for this thesis.






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Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

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