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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Seminar - Relative autonomy, socio-cultural tractories and the emergence of something new

15th December 2014, 13:00 to 14:00, IAS Seminar Room, Palace Green, Professor Howard Morphy and Frances Morphy (Australian National University)

The concept of emergence brings to fore issues of scale and level of analysis. At the level of the species, ‘fully modern human’, the concept of emergence is one that applies to all of us. Current western ideology argues for the primacy of individual creativity. Anthropologists used to be focused on something in between — cultures, societies, groups, and the differences between them. Today many anthropologists have become increasingly uncomfortable with difference because all they see around them is mergence, relationships in an interconnected world that seem to challenge any concept of boundary. And yet we continue to see all around us groups that resist incorporation within larger entities and that want to live with their difference.

Our focus is on one of those societies, Yolngu society, to show how people can create new institutions that face in two directions – inwards to their ‘world’ of difference and outwards from it. We will argue that human beings can do this because of the complexity of social worlds, the fact that they are characterised by the relative autonomy of their components – such as language, kinship system, hierarchy, mode of subsistence. Continuing societies are particular articulations of these relatively autonomous components, and these articulations may shift over time — coherence is always emergent. In periods of stability the structures that keep these relatively autonomous components in place and adjusting to one another create the coherence, the predictability, the intersubjectivity that makes it possible to exist and to act socially in the world. In times of rapid social change the property of relative autonomy allows groups the space to remake themselves, and fit into and influence newly emerging contexts out of which new bodies of practice emerge. We will illustrate this process with a concrete example of a new institution that has emerged out of a trajectory of change in mortuary practices as Yolngu society adjusts to the impact of European colonisation.

Fellows' seminars take place on Monday lunchtimes in the seminar room at Cosin's Hall.

Places are limited and so any academic colleagues interested in attending a seminar should contact the Institute in advance to reserve a place.

The aim of these seminars is to develop new thinking on the big issues that are of current concern/interest for the Fellows . Each Fellow is asked to present a core idea that informs their current work, or a problem that they are tackling, that could benefit from cross-disciplinary thinking. These seminars are informal and designed to encourage discussion.

Contact for more information about this event.