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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Relative Autonomy, Sociocultural Trajectories and the Emergence of Something New


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