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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Unimagined Communities:  census categories and the submergence of Australian Aboriginal forms of sociality

20th November 2014, 17:30 to 18:30, Ustinov Room, Van Mildert College, Frances Morphy (Australian National University)

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson observes that the population census is ‘an institution of power’. In Seeing like a State James C. Scott also points to its essentially political nature; it is a tool used by the state to make its citizens ‘legible’, so that they may be acted upon.

In framing census questions concerning ‘family’ and ‘household’, the Australian Bureau of Statistics treats mainstream Australian categorisations of kin, family and household as ‘normal’. It imagines the nuclear family and the household as bounded entities contained within a dwelling, and individuals who are present are categorised either as residents or as visitors. What happens when questions framed in this way are put to subpopulations, such as remote dwelling Aboriginal people, whose family and household forms differ radically from the imagined norm? 

This lecture follows data collected in the 2006 Australian National Census from the Yolngu of Arnhem Land, a ‘very remote’ Aboriginal population, from the point of collection to the Data Processing Centre in metropolitan Melbourne, to show how census categories and technologies of measurement work to submerge the enduring dynamics of Yolngu sociality and spatial organisation. It will be argued that the extended kin networks of Aboriginal societies form the basis of communities that are not imagined in Anderson’s sense. Yet they are unimagined (or de-imagined) by the census, which disassembles their kinship and family systems and refashions them according to mainstream categories. Now apparently legible as ‘disadvantaged’ citizens, Aboriginal people join the mainstream as subjects of policy.

This lecture is free and open to all. 

Details about Frances Morphy

Directions to Van Mildert College

Map - Van Mildert College is denoted as building No: 4

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