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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Frances Morphy

“The IAS is a world-class institution, in a magical environment on Palace Green. Our interactions with our fellow-Fellows were skilfully managed to allow us all productive opportunities for discussion while ensuring we had plenty of time and space to work on our own projects.”

Frances Morphy, Australian National University

IAS Fellow at Van Mildert College, Durham University (October - December 2014)


Frances Morphy has most recently been a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, where she was a Research Fellow from 2001 to 2012. An anthropologist (MPhil, London University) and linguist (MA, ANU), she has lived and worked both in Australia and in the UK. Her varied career has included a spell as a Commissioning Editor at Oxford University Press during the 1990s, and as a freelance editorial consultant following her return to Australia in 1997.

The anthropology and linguistics of the Yolngu-speaking peoples of north east Arnhem Land, with whom she began working in 1974, have been at the core of Frances’s research and writings. She has also at various times undertaken fieldwork in the Roper Valley (southern Arnhem Land), the Fitzroy Valley (north-west Western Australia), Darwin and Groote Eylandt. Her interests have been diverse, from compiling a grammar of the Djapu dialect of Yolngu-matha (1983) to her more recent concerns with the anthropological demography of Australian Aboriginal populations, population structure and dynamics in remote Aboriginal Australia and the representation of Aboriginal people in the national census. She has also focused on social, cultural and economic aspects of the encapsulation of Aboriginal Australians within the Australian settler state, in particular the homelands movement, land rights and native title, the governance of Aboriginal community organisations, the impact of colonisation on Indigenous social systems and languages, and problems of cross-cultural ‘translation’.

Frances was co-editor (with Bill Arthur) of the Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia:Culture and Society through Space and Time, which was named overall and tertiary education winner of the 2006 Australian Awards for Excellence in Education Publishing. Her co-authored essay with Howard Morphy, ‘Tasting the Waters: Discriminating Identities in the Waters of Blue Mud Bay’ was awarded the Alfred Gell Essay prize for the best paper published in the Journal of Material Culture, also in 2006. She has been the co-author and/or editor of four books in the CAEPR Research Monograph series, and is completing a further CAEPR monograph in early 2014.

While at the IAS in Durham, Frances Morphy will be extending her research and writing on the Yolngu conceptualisation of mind, in collaboration with Howard Morphy. They argue contra Anna Wierzbicka, who claims that mind is a non-universal, Anglocentric, concept. They contend that a Yolngu concept of mind emerges both in the ways that Yolngu talk about art and in the ways that they describe mental operations. Their concept of mind nevertheless differs in interesting ways from that of English-speaking westerners, and a comparison serves to highlight the cultural construction of the Anglocentric mind. She will also be completing a monograph tentatively entitled Unimagined Communities: Sociality, Demographic Categories and the State’s Project for Australia’s ‘Aboriginal Population’. The book, based on her research in north east Arnhem Land and the Fitzroy Valley, analyses the construction of the categories that frame census and other survey data. It is argued that these constructs mask—or submerge—the categories that meaningfully frame the socio-demographic characteristics of Aboriginal individuals, communities, and populations, rendering them irrelevant (at worst) or opaque (at best) to public policy and discourse. The book is an extended argument for allowing the emergence, into such discourse, of Aboriginal systems of categorisation that coherently frame forms of social organisation that have their own distinct and localised trajectories, and the regimes of value that underpin them.

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

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.

Listen to the lecture in full.

Frances Morphy Publications

IAS Insights Paper


The concept of emergence brings to the fore issues of scale and level of analysis. As ‘fully modern humans’ – something completely new on the planet – it applies to all of us. Current Western ideology argues for the primacy of individual creativity. Anthropologists were once focused on something in between – cultures, societies, and the similarities and differences between them. Today many anthropologists have become uncomfortable with difference because all they see around them is an interconnected world that seems to challenge any concept of boundary. And yet we continue to see all around us groups that resist incorporation within larger entities. Our focus is on one of those societies, Yolngu society, showing how people can create new institutions that face in two directions – inwards to their ‘world’ of difference and outwards from it. We argue that humans can do this because of the complexity of social worlds that 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.

Insights Paper

Vol 10 Article 9