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A pluralistic approach to the anthropology of morality: Yolŋu reverse role-play

‘The array of distinct assumptions about issues regarding moral variability, the nature of the moral domain, and how individual freedom factors into moral action can all result in the study of different theoretical ideas that end up being cast as if they were the same topic.’

– Cassaniti & Hickman 2014:252.


I read Cassaniti and Hickman’s New Directions in the Anthropology of Morality the other day and really enjoyed it. The authors put forward some great points, chief among which is their argument for a pluralistic approach to moral variation – one which seeks to ‘reconcile humanity’s propensity toward moral realism with overwhelming ethnographic evidence of moral variability’ (253). I also found merit in the argument for better defining the moral domain – figuring out what counts as moral, ‘what kinds of thing are uniquely moral in each ethnographic setting’ (257) and identifying domains of experience that are ‘morally saturated’ in each ethnographic context (with an understanding that domains of experience that become heavily moralised will necessarily vary cross-culturally). The points I found most interesting and compelling, however, were also those that I found myself critically mulling over days later.

This is all well and good, I found myself thinking, but Yolŋu people have been advocating for a pluralistic approach to morality and law since balanda (white people, Europeans) would listen.’† When is anthropology going to start taking Indigenous theories seriously instead of subjecting them to their own analyses and theorising about them? (I’m sure it’s not just Yolŋu people who have been advocating for such an approach or stance.) Beyond advocacy, in fact, Yolŋu have been doggedly persistent in their attempt to educate balanda about the necessity of such a stance – not only how it is possible, but why it is both necessary and just. And they continue to do so in good humour despite our blunt, closed ears. The video below is but one example of this. Continue reading

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Two basic concepts of emotion or affect in Yolŋu-matha


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The key body of concepts comprising the emotion lexicon in Yolŋu-matha describe emotion and affective experience as fundamentally relational, as contingent upon the state of relations between people. If we ‘consider emotional meaning like any other semiotic practice, as a product of signification’ as Fred Myers suggests (1988, p. 591), most Yolŋu concepts associated with emotion and morality signify a particular state or sense of feeling among and between people. Yolŋu place emphasis not on the autonomous individual, nor necessarily even the individual self-in-relation-to-others, but rather, on the state of the relationship between people in any given situation or event.

This is not unique in the ethnographic literature. Emotions, Markus and Kitayama remind us, are typically conceived and experienced relationally, inter-personally, in the many places or cultures in which an interdependent view of the self prevails (Markus & Kitayama 1994 – but see also, for example, Geoffrey White 1994, D’Andrade 2008).

In this post I thought I would attempt to introduce and explain the two most basic terms or concepts associated with emotion or affect in Yolŋu-matha. This material is from Chapter 3 of my thesis.



The most basic concept is the emotion lexicon is ŋayaŋu, which I generally translate as ‘state or sense of feeling.’ As a cultural concept of affect there are a number of things that distinguish ŋayaŋu from the meaning and use of the English term ‘feeling’ and/or ‘feelings’ because ŋayaŋu does not necessarily distinguish between what Anglo-Europeans would normally consider distinct or different ‘senses’ – touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing – nor does it necessarily distinguish between affective and ‘physical’ feeling. Furthermore, while ŋayaŋu is experienced or felt by individuals (associated with the gumurr [‘chest’]) [1] it is always and necessarily relational. Ŋayaŋu refers to the state or sense of feeling among and between people in any given situation or event. The individual experience or sense of ŋayaŋu is considered as or ‘in’ relation to significant others – and contingent upon the state of the relationship between them. This last point is significant as it gives rise to a theory of morality which foregrounds the affective influence that people have on one another in everyday life, as well as how this positively or negatively affects the state of feeling or state of relations among and between people more generally.

As something shared and contingent or mutually interdependent, ŋayaŋu is something that people can do to one another; it is something that people can give and take – something that they can exchange. Any given state or sense of feeling, whether positive, negative, pleasant or hurtful, can be exchanged. A person may give wikama a particular state or sense of feeling such as gora (‘shame, embarrassment, guilt’) to another person or group of people, or märrama (‘take, bring, carry’) it from one place or person to another. Ŋayaŋu can also be wutthun (‘affronted, hit, assaulted’), or djaw’yun-märrama (‘snatched, stolen’), or more positively, ŋama-thirri-yama (‘made good’). Ŋayaŋu implicates both positive and negative capacities of the self and others in interpersonal exchange. To give a sense of the way ŋayaŋu is implicated in everyday talk, the following are excerpts from recorded discussions with yapa and waku.


Ŋayaŋu manymak – nhe yurru lakarama-mirri[2] ŋarra-kala … so you and I have to have the same feeling. Yaka  holding in.  Yaka  keeping  in-nha  anger. If I get anger with you, getting angry with you . . . because you not going to share your feeling with me – feelings-ndja, you must have holding something for me . . . a secret that you not going to share with me, but  ŋarra-kala[3] ŋayaŋu yurru lakarama  yurru that you holding something there for me but nhe yaka yukurra djäl-thirri-ndja lakarama-nha.

(Nice, pleasant, healthy ŋayaŋu – we will tell or talk to one another . . . so you and I have to have the same feeling. Not holding in. Not keeping in anger. If I get anger with you, getting angry with you . . . because you not going to share your feeling with me – feelings, you must have holding something for me . . . a secret that you not going to share with me, but ŋayaŋu will tell that you are holding something there for me but you are not wanting to tell or talk [about it])


If you don’t share your feeling, you have a lot . . . getting a lot of heaviness-ndja and everything is still stuck in your brain  . . . then become a headache nhanŋu, brain tumour nhe yurru märrama because of that, keeping everything in, for yourself, whether it’s good or bad, see?”

(If you don’t share your feeling, you have a lot . . . getting a lot of heaviness and everything is still stuck in your brain . . . then become a headache for that person, and you will get a brain tumour because of that, keeping everything in, for yourself . . . whether it is good or bad . . . see?”)


Consider also the following excerpt taken from a discussion with waku. This particular part of the discussion was prompted by my asking if it makes sense to say ŋoy wikama (‘give’ the seat of emotions). I asked this question because there exist  conventional ways and means of talking about ‘giving’ various states of feeling, and I  wanted to ‘ask around’ ŋoy (‘seat of emotions’) to clarify my understanding about differences between ŋoy and ŋayaŋu in this sense:


“Yaka . . .  “märr läy-yun” ŋayi ŋunhi . . . ŋayi ŋunhi “ŋayaŋu läy-yun” . . . yaka “märr wikama” wo  nhawi . . . “ŋoy wikama.” Ŋunhi-ndja ŋayi ŋunhi “ŋayaŋu wikama-nha” ŋayi ŋunhi ‘doing’ – It is “doing something” . . .  to get back.

(It’s not . . . “ease [collective/ancestral] power” . . . it’s “ease the state or sense of feeling” . . . not ‘ease [collective/ancestral] power,’ or whatchyamacallit . . . “give the seat of the emotions.” What you are referring to is “[to] give the state or sense of feeling” which is “doing” – it is ‘doing something . . . to get back [i.e. mutual or reciprocal exchange].)


[ . . . ]


Ŋayaŋu läpthun-marama is, it is make yourself free . . . lay-yun . . . laytju-irri-nha, mulkurr ga rumbal-nha läy-yun-ndja.”

(To make yourself open, it is to make yourself free . . . to ease or relax . . . becoming pleasant and smooth, [to] ease or relax the head [mind] and body.)


The act of ‘giving something’ as described above, it should be noted, is not differentiated from the act of giving or ‘letting out’ one’s feeling(s) or (‘läpthun-marama ŋayi ŋunhi ŋayaŋu’). They are both associative expressions, which have meaning and significance in contradistinction to ‘holding something in for one another’ or being däl (‘hard, difficult’). Persons or proclivities that are not ‘open’ (‘ŋayaŋu läpthun-marama-mirri’), which do not ‘give’ or ‘let out’ something for one another are considered or felt to dhal-yurra (‘block up, close off’) the possibility for realising or maintaining positive, moral, valuable relations.

It is important to note that being ‘open’ is not akin to or the same as ‘being open and honest’ in English. It denotes or describes an observant attentiveness to the state or sense of feeling between people in any given situation or event – and reflects the valued ability to be attentive and sensitive to the interpersonal context –  the knowledge and ability to respond flexibly and adjust to social contingencies.[4]

Being ‘open’ is where ŋayaŋu and dhäkay-ŋäma meet; to be däl (‘hard, difficult’) is to be insensate, which is not to dhäkay-ŋäma.




The verb most closely associated with ŋayaŋu is dhäkay-ŋäma, from dhäkay (‘taste, flavour or feeling’) and the transitive verb ŋäma (‘to experience or feel’). Where ŋayaŋu is the state or sense of feeling, dhäkay-ŋäma is the act of ‘getting a taste, getting a feeling’ of ŋayaŋu among and between people (and or place). People can dhäkay-ŋäma a person, group of people, a social situation or place. They may also dhäkay-ŋäma songs as well as things like food. An alternate but similar expression used interchangeably with dhäkay-ŋäma is dhäkay birkay’yun from dhäkay (‘taste, flavor, feeling’) and the transitive verb birka’yun (‘try, test, taste’). Dhäkay-birkay’-yun is thus something akin to trying or testing the taste, flavor or feeling. Another similar term often used interchangeably is ŋan’ku-ŋäma from ŋan’ku (‘taste, flavour’) and – once again – the transitive verb ŋäma (‘to experience or feel’). These interchangeable expressions are often glossed by English speakers as ‘getting a taste, getting a feeling.’ The following excerpt from a recorded discussion with yapa offers an example of the use of these terms or expressions:


“ . . . ŋuli  ŋali  yurru dhäkay märrama ga birka’yun, dhäkay-ŋäma dhuwala dhäkay: “Ya – dhuwali ŋatha wikaŋa, ŋarra yurru dhäkay-birka’yun!” Taste, like dhäkay, same ŋayi mayali, eh?

(. . . if we get a taste/feeling, that’s dhäkay-ŋäma, that’s dhäkay: “Hey give me that food, I’ll get a taste/feeling!” Taste, like dhäkay, same meaning, see?)


When you go for a taste, have a go for a taste . . . dhäkay-ŋäma ŋayi yurru yolŋu’yulŋu-nha, eh? Yo. Dhäkay-ŋäma it can goes to anything; anything nhe yurru dhäkay-birka’yun.

(When you go for a taste, have a go for a taste . . . Get a taste/feeling of those people, see?  Yo. Dhäkay-ŋäma it can goes to anything; you can get a taste/feeling of anything.)


Me: wäŋa – ?
(Me: [of a] place?)


“Yoo . . . wäŋa ŋunhi ŋilimurru yurru birka’yun mak ŋayi ŋunhi milk’milk-mirri . . . mak milk’milk’-miriw. Eh bitjan, wo wiripu mak ŋayi wäŋa nunhi mari-mirri . . . wo mak  ŋayi laytju, yo, balanyara wiripu-nha ŋayi.”
(Yo, we can get a try/test whether that place, perhaps it has sandflies . . . or perhaps it is without sandflies.  See, thus so.  Or perhaps that place is conflict-ridden . . . or perhaps it is pleasant and smooth, yo, that’s a different [example].)


Consider also the following excerpt from a discussion using the interchangeable expression ŋan’ku-ŋäma:


“ . . . ŋan’ku-ŋäma ŋanya yurru, ŋan’ku-ŋäma ŋayi Yolŋu-nha ŋanya . . . maymak ŋayi ŋayaŋu, wo nhanŋu yätj ŋayaŋu . . . ŋan’ku-ŋänara-mirri ŋali-pi-yu Yolŋu wo whether Yolŋu or Balanda . . .
(. . . get a taste/feeling that person, they will get a taste/feeling [of/for/with] that person . . . [is it] a good state of feeling, or is that a bad state of feeling . . . they themselves will get a taste or feeling [of/for/with one another], whether Yolŋu or Balanda . . . )


. . .  ŋali yurru ŋan’ku-ŋanara-mirri feel one another feelings-ndja litjalaŋu-way because our bodies can tell us something. Dhäkay-ŋäma ŋali yurru eh balanyara . . . yo . . . we can feel our body can tell us something . . . ŋali feel with our own body whether ŋayi manymak Yolŋu or yätj, balanyara.”
(. . . we will get a taste/feeling [of/for one another], feel one another feelings our way because our bodies can tell us something. We will get a taste/feeling thus so . . . yo, we can feel our body can tell us something . . . we feel with our own body whether that person is good or bad, thus so.)



Interestingly, one of the many stereotypes of Balanda is that they are always däl (‘hard, difficult’) and lack the sense, skill or ability to dhäkay-ŋäma (get a taste or feeling). There’s obviously a lot more to say about these ideas and concepts, but perhaps some other time I hope.





[1] There are more idioms based on the word ‘gumurr’ than can be addressed here, however, to give a sense of the way they are used, or what they imply I will briefly introduce a few. The expression ‘gumurr-mirri’, translated literally as ‘having or possessing the quality of a chest’ is an expression meaning ‘to spread out.’ The expression ‘gumurr-yun’, translated literally as ‘to chest’ is an expression meaning ‘to meet’. ‘To meet’ may also be referred to as ‘gumurr-buna’, literally ‘chest-arrive’. The expression ‘gumurr-manydji’, translated literally as ‘reciprocal relationship between chests’, is an expression used to describe or refer to close friends or consociates. The expression ‘gumurr-darrwa’, which translates literally as ‘multiple or many chests’ is used to describe someone of inconsistent loyalties who is irresolute or inconstant in some way. The expression ‘gumurr-djararrk’, literally ‘chest-beloved’ is one of the more common exclamations of affection, sympathy and compassion, meaning something akin to ‘my poor dear one!’ ‘Gumurr-yu-gäma,’ literally ‘to carry by the chest’ is used to describe the act of fare-welling someone, seeing them forth or carrying them onward a way. The final example is the ‘gumurr-yu-märrama,’ translated literally as ‘to take or get by the chest’. This is the expression used to describe the act of adopting a non-Yolŋu person into the Yolŋu kinship system and wider social networks.

[2] lakarama-mirri is difficult to translate directly into English and I am not completely satisfied with this particular translation. The term or expression is from the transitive verb lakarama (‘to talk or tell [of or about]’) and the suffix –mirri which here denotes the reflexive reciprocal form of the verb – to do to one another.

[3] This term or expression – ŋarra-kala  is literally ‘with/at me’ – so this sentence could be more accurately (but awkwardly) translated as: ‘but ŋayaŋu will tell with or at me . . . ’

[4] This is, as the reader will appreciate, quite a different thing to being ‘open and honest’ in English. In fact, being ‘open’ in the sense in which it is used here often entails withholding (or highly regulating the expression of) one’s private inner thoughts and feelings – so as to maintain a state or sense of ŋayaŋu waŋgany (‘one state or sense of feeling)

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Moral Misrecognition: Misrecognising the Other as Self in cross-cultural relations


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*A long read


I began my thesis with a puzzlement about an evident margin of misunderstanding – a pattern of cross-cultural misunderstanding – in social exchanges between Yolŋu and Balanda, which I eventually came to describe or refer to as ‘moral misrecognition.’ This initial puzzlement led me to ask a series of basic questions:  How do people consider and critically evaluate the morality and value of everyday social exchanges and social relations? What shared understandings underlie or underwrite local ideas and expectations about what is ab/normal, good/bad and/or un/desirable in everyday life? This, of course, turned into an ethnography of emotion and morality ‘toward a local theory of value and social exchange on the Yolŋu Homelands,’ [1] but in this post I want to briefly (hopefully) give a sense of what ‘moral misrecognition’ looks like.

The idea or concept of moral misrecognition is very loosely based on Lacan’s notion of méconnaissance. I use it in an intercultural or cross-cultural sense, however, to refer to situations in which the Self observes or experiences an exchange or interaction with or between a cultural Other or others and –  failing to recognise or understand the existence of cultural difference – interprets and evaluates their actions ‘as if’ they were the Self. This is a common experience for Yolŋu people and a phenomenon they are acutely aware of for this reason. People or situations of this kind are referred to as being dharaŋan-miriw (lit. ‘lacking or without recognising/understanding [something or someone’]). All this may sound rather abstract but hopefully the following excerpts give a sense of what I mean and what I’m referring to. The first is an excerpt from a John Leavitt paper, the second from a chapter by Markus and Kitayama.


“These were emotions with which I could empathize, especially given the circumstances that my wife and I faced at the time: far from home, in what for us seemed difficult  physical conditions, with each receiving frightening news of the bad health of a parent back home.


At the same time, however, differences emerged between the sadness I carried with me and Ganganath’s udekh-bairag. Because I will discuss the specificity of Ganganath’s imputed experience below, let me cite a different example here. We were walking down a hot, dusty mountain road, coming home from a wedding with three or four other people. One woman had her small daughter along, and the child was hot, tired, grumpy and wanted to be carried. The mother was tired too, had no intention of carrying the girl, and, annoyed by her whining, gave her a smack. The daughter screamed. So far so good: I recognized the opening shots in a battle of wills between parent and child of the kind that one could see at any time in a North American shopping center. What happened next, however, gave me pause: the mother did not get angry; she laughed. She found her daughter’s screaming funny and kept giving her a little whack from time to time, apparently to provoke the tears of rage that she found so amusing.


This was clearly a different emotional scenario than the one with which I thought I was uncomfortably empathizing, and it implied different meanings: in particular, a set of definitions of children that were not those that I had brought with me.”


– John Leavitt (1996, p. 520).


And an excerpt from Markus and Kitayama, which is not quite so clear cut and which draws the reader into the dilemma of potential moral misrecognition a little more:


“In December 1992, the Japanese royal family announced that Crown Prince Naruhito had chosen Masako Owada, a bright, highly educated, fast-track member of the Foreign Ministry, to become the future Empress. Most Japanese were pleased at the prospect of having such a lively and accomplished Princess as part of their monarchy. But according to American press reports, many Americans, as well as many young Japanese women, could not begin to fathom how such a thoroughly modern, internationalized woman, even if she liked the Prince, could toss away a brilliant career to marry him and disappear into the conservative, humourless, controlling royal family where her life would never be her own again and her primary goal would be to produce a male heir to the throne. As the June marriage approached, it seemed evident, according to analysts on both sides of the Pacific, that Masako Owada felt that it was her “duty” to marry the Prince.


From an American perspective, the decision seemed to reflect forced compliance, self-denigration, and self sacrifice. In giving up her hard-won career, she seemed, in the eyes of many, to be betraying the cause of individual determination, feminism in Japan, and ultimately, herself. The local controversy surrounding this particular social event is unlikely to be remembered for long, but it illustrates a classic problem in the analysis of social behavior and one that is at the heart of this chapter. From many European-American perspectives, the Princess’s decision was “obviously” self-sacrificing and “naturally” accompanied by the emotion of unhappiness at not being able to realize some important defining attribute of the self. However, what is not evident in this analysis is the multi-leveled, dynamic interdependency among socially appropriate behavior, the self, and emotion.


The American understanding of this Japanese behavior is anchored in a particular individualist approach to the self. From a different orientation, one in which the individual is cast not as an independent entity but as one fundamentally interdependent with others, the decision to marry the Prince could be understood differently. It is possible from this other perspective that the Princess may not have felt sacrifice or injury to the self, but rather affirmation of a more connected, obligation-fulfilling, social self. She may indeed have felt content or “good’ as a result of her decision to respond to the desires and expectations of others and marry into the royal family. As is evident in this example and in studies from anthropology and cultural psychology (for recent reviews see Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Moghaddam, Taylor, & Wright, 1993; Shweder, 1991; Shweder & LeVine, 1984; Smith & Bond, 1993; Stigler, Shweder, & Herdt, 1990; Triandis, 1990), what is regarded as positive or negative normative social behaviour can vary dramatically from one cultural group to another.’


–  Markus and Kitayama (1994, pp. 89-90).


After hopefully conveying a sense of what I mean by ‘moral misrecognition’ and what it looks like – this is how I begin my thesis:


‘I begin with a case study to illustrate the potential for what I refer to throughout the thesis as ‘moral misrecognition’ in intercultural relations.[2] The thesis also ends with a discussion of moral misrecognition. I have chosen to bookend the thesis in this way because the subject and focus of the thesis is, in many ways, a response to my experience and observations of this phenomenon;  the thesis is in many ways an account of my own gradual ‘coming to terms’ with, and eventual understanding of ‘what is going on’ in instances of misrecognition in intercultural exchange or cross-cultural relations.

The most significant thing about the findings of this thesis, in my mind, is their potential to promote a better understanding of the Yolŋu ‘side’ of the intercultural,and in this way encourage recognition and understanding of cultural difference – to work against that which leads to moral misrecognition in the first place. In short, I hope to impart some of what I learned (or was taught with much patience) about the potential value of cultural difference. As I have mentioned hereon before, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my  Yolŋu family and the wider Yolŋu community is that difference may be realised as a value as it forms the basis for ongoing relationships characterised by interdependence and reciprocity. Valued difference affords opportunity to ‘carry and hold’ one another (gäma, ŋayathama), to ‘help and assist one other’ (guŋgay’yun-mirri), to ‘care for and look after one another’ (djäka-mirri) – all of which are important aspects of what it is and means to be gurrutu-mirri (‘to have kin, to have the quality of kinship for one another’). Without further ado, a case study illustrating the potential for moral misrecognition in intercultural relations:


‘It was the beginning of the wet season when social spacing becomes oppressive and mobility a luxury. The stalwarts of camp, luku-man’ka-mirri yolŋu (‘people whose feet possess the quality of the clay’), which was about ten of us, had been sitting around expectantly from morning ‘till night for ten consecutive days waiting for the mechanics from the local government service provision agency to fly in. The mechanics were expected to fix one of the three cars in camp.


Having a functional car in the wet season affords an invaluable expansion of social space and a degree of food security at a time of the year when both are scarce. They had also agreed to fix the ride-on lawnmower, which would have drastically reduced the time and energy we were spending cutting the grass around camp in order to keep the snakes and mosquitoes at bay. In short, their visit was expected to dramatically increase our quality of life at a time of the year when it’s at its lowest.


Each day of waiting family had called the office a number of times, but for whatever reason there was a general misunderstanding. We sat expectantly and no plane arrived. On the tenth day Wäwa said he was going to rakuny-thirri (‘become dead, “die”’) if he rang again, and asked me to call instead.


I got through to the head mechanic who explained that they were still waiting for a part for our car, and even then, wouldn’t come until they could double up the flight with  other workers to avoid costs. He explained that they’d probably make it out in the next few days on the builders’ plane, that the builders were intending to fly out to fix the diesel-generator shed, which had been damaged in a storm. I thanked him, buoyed by the prospect of mobility, and relayed the story to family outside. However, my excited relief was short lived. Yapa  reacted angrily, insisting she had told the builders not to come.


“I told them to stay there and do whatever their work, bits and pieces. They were supposed to fix the diesel shed LAST year! Because they made us wait, so this one [the diesel shed] can just sit here now until June or September!” I was baffled.


“But if you stop the builders then the mechanics can’t come and fix the cars and the lawnmower . . . ”




Not only had we been waiting for the cars and lawnmower, but family had been complaining about the need to have the shed fixed for months. They’d even had me take photos of the damaged shed to send the office in order to press the urgency of the matter, with the wet already upon us. However, when office administration rang the following day to organise the logistics of the builders’ and mechanics’ visit they were told in no uncertain terms not to come, “because the builders were supposed to have done it last year.”


After the call, crestfallen, I joined the rest of family, who, in contrast seemed rather excitable. They posited what they would say and do if the builders attempted to fly out, making general insults and complaints about them, about Balanda (‘European/s, white person/people’) at the Service Provider, and about the Service Provider in general. They speculated as to whether they’d heard the builders in the background during the call, and felt they had reason to suspect they might try and ‘sneak in’. The more they talked about it, the more their sense of defiance increased, until Yapa posited we dhal’-yurra (‘close [up], block [off]’) the airstrip, in case they did try to ‘sneak in.’ It was a perfect idea, a strong one – and within half an hour there was a lawnmower, children’s toys and a number of other stray objects right in the middle of the airstrip.


All the while I sat, frustrated, wondering what the hell type of strategy this was, and how the hell it was going to get the car fixed.’


Ideas and expectations about sociality and sociability entail evaluative, moral understandings about the nature of Self and the relationship between the  Self and Others.  These shared understandings are largely tacit or taken for granted (and largely a product or result of child socialisation), however, there is now a large body of literature detailing considerable cross-cultural variation on these themes. Foreshadowing the themes that run through this thesis, Markus and Kitayama write on the topic thus:


‘The shape of the self (i.e., its various meanings and practices) will . . . determine the nature of “good” feelings and of the social behavior that will promote and foster these good feelings. This means that what is experienced as joyful or happy or as sad or angering depends on the mediating self. Aside from the good affective reactions that accompany sweet tastes or smells, or the bad affective reactions that result from extremely loud sounds, bright lights, or hissing snakes, most “good” or “bad” feelings depend on extensive emotional socialization. Through this process, people come to “have” feelings of the shape and variety that reflect the specific value commitments of their significant social groups. Basic to this argument is the idea that being moral (i.e., proper, right, or appropriate) according to one’s group, feeling good, and being a person are all intimately connected’ (1994, p. 93).


My experience with Yolŋu people suggests that when the actions and interactions of one cultural group are cast exclusively in the terms of another (as often happens in intercultural relations), the significance and value underlying or motivating these social actions or social forms is not only lost or effaced but often misunderstood or misrecognised in an evaluative, moral sense. Non-recognition, in such cases, begets misrecognition. The resulting interpretation may be positive or negative. In the case of the latter, such misunderstandings or instances of misrecognition may be cast as moral judgements in evaluative terms of deviance or disorder.[2]

A marked asymmetry of power relations, such as sometimes occurs between cultural minority groups and the State, make certain people particularly ‘visible’ or vulnerable to ‘reparatory’ or disciplinary measures. These range from the disciplinary gaze of negative cultural or racial stereotypes, to ‘targeted’ forms of governance enacted or imposed by the State. The over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the legal system and in jails can be seen as an unfortunate outcome or exemplar of this phenomenon. As a corrective of sorts this thesis seeks to build upon the work of Frances Morphy (e.g. 2008) and that of Yolŋu people themselves, to ‘make visible’ the underlying socio-moral system in North East Arnhem Land, to present something of the local Yolŋu experience of intercultural relations – morality and value in social relations.’






**Endnote: It should come as no surprise that Balanda behaviour often seems not only incomprehensible but downright asocial and immoral from the Yolŋu point of view. Indeed, there exists a poignant, pointed local critique of Balanda patterns of sociality and the Balanda political and economic system also – the way it is structured, organised and run. The difference, however, is that Yolŋu people acknowledge, recognise and respect this cultural difference and continue – in spite of everything – to hope that they can one day expect the same from Balanda.


[1] In the following chapters of the thesis I outline the local model of social organisation and introduce a key body of terms and concepts associated with affect and morality in Yolŋu-matha. In the middle chapters I analyse a series of ethnographic case studies and observations from various aspects of everyday life. This is done drawing on the terms and concepts introduced in previous chapters. I show that these terms and concepts – and the shared understandings comprising them – not only inform the way people consider and evaluate morality and value in everyday relations, but motivate and shape culturally recognised and culturally recognisable forms of social exchange and patterns of sociality throughout the region. In the final chapter I consider this body of knowledge a model of exchange and theory of value in its own right – comparable to any academic or scholarly model/theory.

[2] In this case, the misunderstanding or ‘misrecognition’ obviously occurs between myself and my Yolŋu family as well as between the service providers and my Yolŋu family.


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Thesis Excerpt: Introduction to Chapter 7





In previous chapters I have explored how concepts of affect play out in everyday social relations; how they shape the way people consider issues of morality, and motivate certain culturally recognised and recognisable forms of interpersonal and social exchange. In this chapter I consider the interplay between forms, material conditions and social relations of exchange as a model or theory of exchange in its own right. I employ Sahlins’ general scheme of reciprocity as a heuristic, overlaying it with Yolŋu terms and concepts, to clarify what I see as the basic Yolŋu theory of exchange. My argument is that ŋayaŋu waŋgany (‘one state or sense of feeling’) is a fundamental value in both material and non-material exchange.

While I make use of Sahlins’ continuum of reciprocities, I need elucidate how his theoretical presuppositions and scheme ultimately differ from those I require to account for the Yolŋu material. Specifically, what I seek to account for is an apparent lack of correlation between the material, and the moral and political dimensions of Sahlins’ scheme when overlaid with the Yolŋu material – whether the material forms of exchange are considered or felt to be positive and ‘good’ or negative and ‘bad,’ and their socio-political entailments – the nature and degree of solidarity that they result in, or effect. Based on empirically observable criteria, certain cultural forms of exchange described in previous chapters can be confidently placed at certain points along Sahlins’ continuum – as material forms. However, when we consider the moral and social dimensions more closely, there appears to be a mismatch between the moral and political entailments and the way these forms are locally conceived. As this material suggests, there are large differences in what-counts-as-what when it comes to the way people consider and experience balance and value in social exchange.

I will argue that we cannot, based on empirical observations alone, assume or deduce the moral entailments of exchange – whether the exchanges observed are considered and felt to be normative and balanced, positive and good, or negative and bad. Nor can we assume or deduce the political entailments – the nature and degree of solidarity that these forms of exchange result in or effect. In order to understand these dimensions of exchange I argue that it is first necessary to understand the terms and concepts that people draw on themselves to interpret, frame and talk about such relations. In the Yolŋu case these are the key body of terms and concepts associated with affect and morality, introduced in Chapter 3. In the Yolŋu case, this associative body of knowledge pivots around the concept of ŋayaŋu (‘state or sense of feeling [among and between people]’).






† The featured image is obviously not included in the Chapter!

†† There is one paragraph missing, as I’m not quite 100% confident with it just yet.


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Moral work and Social order: A note from Chapter 7

Apologies for the relative silence of late, I have been working day and night on Chapter revisions. Anyhow, dhuwala ŋayi brief note from Chapter 7.







* yes, the last line is a nod to Graeber.

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Quotations of Note: Geoffrey White on the A’ara word for shame




‘The A’ara word for shame, mamaja, is polysemous: used to signify both the feeling of shame and to refer to genitalia. There is clearly some connection between these senses of the term, because public exposure of one’s genitals is an immediate cause of shame. Yet, interpreting the A’ara notion of mamaja on the basis of this sort of scenario would miss the most important or culturally salient meanings of the term. Rather than signifying an internal feeling of discomfort evoked by an exposure of the self or by a violation of societal standards of comportment, mamaja is fundamentally about social relations. Fleshing out a bit what is meant by “fundamentally about social relations” provides an example of the type of cultural model of emotions associated with interpersonal selves. Mamaja is typically evoked in situations in which a person behaves in a way that breaches or upsets an important or valued social relation. In such situations, both parties are likely to report feeling shame (or, more correctly, being shamed). The prototypic context for eliciting or experiencing shame is the violation of expectations surrounding the sharing or non-sharing of food. Food is a symbol of social relationships. To give or exchange food is to affirm the value of enduring relations. To move about with ease and share food is to not feel shame, to feel constricted and observant of the proper distance or respect associated with a relationship is to feel shame.


The close proximity of mamaja (be shamed) and di ‘a nagnafa (be sad, literally, bad heart) in Figure 1 reflects the similarity of the event schemas that underlie their meaning. To oversimplify, both are associated with moral transgressions between the self and another person with whom the self is in an important, valued relation. Unlike “be angry” (di’a tagna), which is ideally not expressed between closely related people and which implies some form of rupture or break in the relationship, both mamaja and di’a nagnafa pertain to close relations in need of repair. In the logic of emotional meaning for these terms, it is the state of the relation between two persons that is the object of prediction, not the individual and not two individuals. Talk of mamaja constitutes a kind of relational calculus that works to calibrate or mark intersubjective distance and boundaries in social relations.’



 – Geoffrey M. White 1994, ‘Affecting Culture: Emotion and Morality in Everyday Life’ (in) Kitayama, S. & Markus, H. R. (eds) Emotion and Culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence, American Psychological Association, Washington DC, pp. 219-239.





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