The Australian National University’s research in Anthropology is diverse and world-renowned. The University is a leading international centre for research on Aboriginal Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and Southeast Asia in particular. Anthropological research is conducted in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology in the the College of Arts and Social Sciences, the School of Culture, History and Language in the College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP) and the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. There are close links with other disciplines within the University such as Linguistics, Human Geography, History and Politics.

Current Research Projects

Taking the Road for Play: Cyclist appropriations of automobile infrastructures in Vietnam by Ashley Curruthers

As recently as the early 1990s, cycling and walking were far and away the dominant modes of transport in Vietnam. Both, however, declined precipitously as the nineties unfolded: incomes rose and private motorbike ownership exploded. Over the last decade, however, there are signs that the bicycle is on the rebound. At its nadir, this transport mode was stigmatised as a vehicle of the urban poor and relic of the past. In recent years the urban middle classes have rediscovered cycling as a form of leisure, sport and conspicuous consumption, and its image is undergoing a renovation.

An important part of the reinvention of the bicycle in Vietnam is the rejuvenation and rapid expansion of the nation’s sport cycling scene. Road racing, a sport embodying the promise of modernity of the French colonial period, continued in a subdued form in the years of hardship after Liberation in 1975. With the rise of the urban middle classes and their growing consumer power, this colonial sport is once again fully in vogue. Lycra-clad cyclists on carbon road bikes costing thousands of dollars—much more than the average motorbike—are now a common sight on the roads of Hanoi, Saigon, Danang and most regional cities in Vietnam.

Given that Vietnam is still overwhelmingly a society on two wheels, bicycles fit comfortably into the (seemingly) chaotic mix of vehicles on a road in which lane markings me

an almost nothing. In Vietnam of yet there is little of the Bikes vs Cars conflict found in automobile-centric road cultures in both developed and developing worlds. Yet a curious contradiction begins to emerge when we consider that many of the choice roads to cycle on are infrastructures anticipating, or built explicitly to usher in, a new, modern era of automobility in Vietnam.

Government, media and advocacy discourses on cycling in nations like Australia, the US and the UK demonstrate that even otherwise priviliged middle class male cyclists find themselves spatially and culturally marginalised on the roads of car-centric nations—let alone women, the disabled and those living in precarity.5 In Vietnam, given that those who cycle are also frequently members of that privileged class fraction set to become private automobile owners, sport cyclists take a strikingly different orientation to automobile-centric infrastructures. In this paper, I explore ethnographically how cycling elites reappropriate and reconfigure road infrastructures, confidently claiming them with a sense of entitled mastery. While this process is no doubt driven by self-interest and a sense of natural privilege, this form of elite urban informality may have the positive if unintended consequence of de-centring the automobile on its own proper infrastructure, and advocating a ridable, livable city.


Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India by Assa Doron (an ARC funded project, in collaboration with Robin Jeffrey)

There was a time not so long ago, on sleepy summer afternoons in small towns in north India, you’d hear the cry, “Kabaad! Kabaad?” – “Rubbish! Rubbish to sell?” A creaking black bicycle with sacks over the back wheel like saddlebags would bring a rider up to your door to offer a small payment for your old newspapers or a broken saucepan or anything else you might care to haggle over. The kabaadiwala – the rag-and-bone man – still exists, but the role was being supplanted by new attitudes to waste and vastly increased volumes of rubbish as a growing middle class embraced the throwaway practices of the “developed” world.

The project (and upcoming book co-authored with Robin Jeffrey) aims to tell a story about Indian practices about waste – about the things that people throw away. Human beings have always discarded things. But India has had unique attitudes to waste in the past, attitudes bound up with caste and ideas of purity. And in the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi, the quasi-saint of the independence movement, advocated practices of thrift, recycling and husbanding that seem remarkably twenty-first century and bear little resemblance to the doctrines of other national father-figures and world-heroes of the past 200 years. In the past twenty years, as the Indian economy has opened to the world, a growing middle class has embraced consumerism enthusiastically. And consumerism since the First World War has increasingly involved “planned obsolescence,” the incentive to throw away rather than to repair. But are there features of an older, frugal India that will enable India to deal more effectively with consumerist waste and

perhaps provide lessons for others? The collaborative project of an anthropologist (Doron) and a historian and political scientist (Jeffrey) aims to provide an

overarching account, historical and anthropological of India changing relationship with waste (solid and liquid), as it moves into the the 21st century.

The Book, Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India, is due to be published in 2018 by Harvard University Press.

Some other publications that have come out of this research are:

Doron, A. 2016. ‘Unclean, Unseen: Social Media, Civic Action, Urban Hygiene in India,’ South Asia:The Journal of South Asian Studies, vol. 39(4), pp. 715-739.

Doron, A. & Raja, I. 2015. ‘The Cultural Politics of Shit: Class, Gender and Public Space in India,’ Postcolonial Studies, vol 18(2), pp. 189-207.


Multispecies Medicine in Mongolia by Natasha Fijn

 The interdisciplinary ‘One Health’ approach is usually associated with science disciplines, particularly within the biomedical sciences and veterinary care, but another kind of interdisciplinary team is based at the ANU, applying One Health to the humanities in relation to Mongolian medicine. The project, ‘Modes of Transmission: Mongolian medical knowledge of cross-species disease’, is a collaboration between anthropologist, Dr Natasha Fijn and historian Professor Li Narangoa, based at the ANU Mongolia Institute and includes other scholars engaging with medicine across the species divide.

This year Natasha Fijn is working on a documentary film with funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation- an observational film based inquiry into the medical practices Mongolian herders use to treat their families and their herd animals. A multispecies ethnographic approach to field research within a cross-species community can provide valuable insights into different relational practices and perceptions towards other beings. Natasha uses observational filmmaking and still images to observe, interpret and analyze multispecies ethnography. The film project is an extension of an earlier focus on the domus, or co-domestic sphere, delving further into the healing practices of medicinal practitioners within multispecies, hybrid herding communities in Mongolia.

Herding families in the Khangai Mountains live in harsh environmental conditions and are crucially reliant on herd animals as a means of survival. This taiga landscape consists of broad river valleys with surrounding mountains covered in patches of forest. During the birth of herd animals in the Mongolian spring, Natasha spent from mid-March until mid-May 2017 conducting fieldwork. She returned to the Khangai again for a follow-up trip on autumn, a time when herders collect medicinal plants from the surrounding countryside. Natasha has been focussing primarily on the herders’ retention and transmission of knowledge of medicinal herbs and blood-letting practices while in the field. Through the means of filmmaking, she explores multispecies landscapes, or social ecologies, in the form of storytelling and narrative in order to describe different kinds of interspecies sociality and co-existence with other beings.

Relevant publications include:

Fijn, Natasha. 2011. Living with Herds: Human-animal Coexistence in Mongolia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York.


Master Poets Project by Professor Emeritus James Fox

For more than a decade, working with two of his former students, the late Dr Tom Therik and Dr Lintje Pellu, Professor Emeritus James Fox has been recording the oral poetry of the Timor area. Since 2006, Professor Fox has succeeded in bringing master poets from the islands of Rote, Semau and Timor to Bali for week-long recording sessions. This ‘Master Poets Project’, officially begun with a three-year Australian Research Council grant, has continued to the present and has recorded the oral compositions of some thirty-two poets, many of whom have come more than once to continue their recitations. To date, there have been ten recording sessions on Bali. The next recording session on Bali is now being planned. This recording session, it is hoped, will include poets from Atoni Pah Meto population of Timor along with poets from Rote and Wehali.

Piet Tahu Nahak is the Makoan, the principal spokesman of the Tetun- speaking domain of Wehali in central west Timor. He has joined the group on two occasions: in 2013 and again in 2017. He has set out to recount and record the ritual traditions of Wehali beginning with the creation of the earth from a great banyan tree:

From the Ria Lian of Wehali 

The Bright One provided a fine banyan tree

Its shade sheltered the chest of the house

Its shade sheltered the ribs of the house.

Four side branches grew into each other

Sei Bere Lelo Babesi was a fine banyan tree.

One half was the female place

One half was the male place

The female and male places were in shade.

Then an umbilical cord grew through the banyan:

Land as small as a chicken’s eye

Land as tiny as an areca nut came into existence…

Two books have so far come from this project.  Both are available free-for-download from the ANU Press:

Fox, James J. 2014. Explorations in Semantic Parallelism. Canberra: ANU Press.

Fox, James J. 2016. Master Poets, Ritual Masters: The Art of Oral Composition among the Rotenese of Eastern Indonesia. Canberra: ANU Press.


 Oil Palm Revolutions in Papua New Guinea by Patrick Guinness

Intense pressure is being presently mounted on palm oil producers and industrial consumers because of the devastating impact of this industrial crop on Indonesian forests and their human and animal dwellers in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Observers note that domestic and international controls on producers, even through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) established in 2004, have been largely ineffective in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s top two exporters of palm oil.

Papua New Guinea provides an interesting comparative case. The north coast of West New Britain has been the nation’s centre of oil palm production since the early 1970s. Production centres on nuclear estates and factories run by international companies but relies on settler and village smallholders to boost production to profitable levels. The relations of the companies with local government and with smallholders is thus vital to maintaining their international standing under the RSPO and their local production targets. The PNG government is also engaged in the oversight of these local industrial relations through its constitutional obligation to sustain local cultures and societies.

This research project is the continuation of four decades of research by Patrick Guinness in villages of the Maututu Nakanai people near Bialla, West New Britain Province. Working initially as an agricultural extension officer he took part in initial information sessions about oil palm and its potential impact on village livelihoods. Today these villagers have enthusiastically enlarged their oil palm plantings to the point that garden production is under threat, and remote forest land owned by villagers in the interior of the island is now at risk. The research invites local villager smallholders and government and company officers to engage in a longitudinal history of development in the area, documenting how the switch to cash crops, and particularly oil palm, is affecting all aspects of village life and the local environment, including kinship relations, local governance, livelihoods, Christian churches, and community ritual life.


Beyond Allied Histories: Dayak Memories of World War II in Borneo by Christine Helliwell (with Robyn van Dyk of the Australian War Memorial)

Western histories of wars involving Europeans focus overwhelmingly on the experiences and perceptions of the European participants. This is reflected in forms of public mourning, where the memorialisation of war creates a sense of national community founded on ideals of sacrifice and suffering. In such public memory-making those other peoples who inhabit the regions where Europeans have fought their wars are often treated as merely part of the background against which the war took place.

This project explores World War II in Borneo – occupied for over three years by the Japanese who were driven out in turn by a 75,000-strong Australian force – by focusing particularly on the hitherto marginalised wartime memories of Borneo’s indigenous Dayak peoples, many of whom had never previously encountered either Europeans or Japanese. By juxtaposing Dayak memories with those of Australian soldiers who fought in Borneo it aims to cast light both on WWII in Borneo and on these early Dayak–European interactions, raising questions in the process about the act of remembering (and forgetting) and about representations of otherness. It involves extensive fieldwork – including the video-recording of interviews with those with first-hand memories of the war – with Dayaks in many different sites throughout Borneo as well as with elderly World War II veterans in Australia. It also relies on a great deal of archival work, especially at the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives of Australia.

The project is being carried out in partnership with the Australian War Memorial and is funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant. The project has so far collected over seventy video-recorded interviews with elderly Dayaks who remember the war; these will be lodged in the AWM as well as in institutions in Borneo. It has also been responsible for the formal memorialisation of the Australian World War II special operations unit Z Special Unit – many of whose members fought in Borneo in World War II – at the Australian War Memorial in August 2016.

The public exhibition Strangest of Allies: Indigenous Dayaks and Australian Commandos in Borneo World War II is due to open at the Australian War Memorial in April 2018.

Christine Helliwell’s book Operation Ant: Dayaks and Australians in Borneo 1945 will be published by Penguin Books in 2019.

Other publications to come out of this research are:

Helliwell, Christine. 2014. “The Japanese Malay: Ethnic Categorisation in Southern Kalimantan Barat”. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 170:191-214.


Meakambut ways of speaking: Audio-visual documentation of communication practices in a small semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer society in Papua New Guinea by Darja Hoenigman (ELDP funded postdoctoral fellowship)

The Meakambut of East Sepik Province in Papua New Guinea are a society of 62 individuals whose subsistence is mainly based on foraging in the tropical forest. Not having a permanent settlement, they constantly move in small groups between camps and shelters in their limestone territory on the northern fringe of the central highlands of Papua New Guinea. Every time a small group visits a different camp, the newcomers immediately report some gossip from the previous camp, which often creates agitation among the present camp dwellers, or even leads to a quarrel and immediate departure of the affected individuals to the camp where the gossip originated. What is behind this practice?

Utilising a combination of conventional ethnographic and linguistic field methods with those of ethnographic filmmaking, my research among the Meakambut investigates the social factors behind such distinctive sociolinguistic practices, and thus seeks to understand the various ways in which the use of language shapes, and is shaped by, social life in a small-scale society.


Study of children’s language learning and the development of intersubjectivity by Alan Rumsey and Francesca Merlan

One of the biggest mysteries about humans is that of child language acquisition – how children manage to learn, in a few years, systems so complex that no computer can yet model their use, but using a set of skills that is flexible enough to let them learn languages of widely differing structures. Another big mystery is the development of intersubjectivity – the uniquely human capacity for sharing and exchanging intentions and perspectives with each other. In this project we aim to help to improve the understanding of both language acquisition and intersubjectivity by studying them in relation to each other, in a region where neither has been systematically studied before – the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Our field research is based in the Ku Waru region of the Western Highlands Province, where we have been studying other aspects of the language and culture since 1981. Since 2013 we have worked on this project in collaboration with field assistants John Onga and Andrew Noma, who have made audio and video recordings of Ku Waru children’s interactions on a regular basis, and helped us to analyse them. Assistance with computerization and further analysis has been provided at ANU by research assistants Dan Devitt, Tom Honeyman, Charlotte van Tongeren, Eri Kashima, Sarah Cutfield, Lauren Reed and Caroline Hendy. The project has been funded by grants from the Australian Research Council.

Some sample publications that have come out of this research are:

Merlan, F. and Rumsey, A. 2017. Flexibles and polyvalence in Ku Waru: A developmental perspective. In V. Vapnarsky and E. Veneziano (eds.) Lexical Polycategoriality: Cross-linguistic, Cross-theoretical and Language Acquisition Approaches. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Pp. 307-341.

Rumsey, A. 2014.  Bilingual language learning and the translation of worlds in the New Guinea Highlands and beyond. HAU 4:119-140. Reprinted in Severi, Carlo and Hanks, William F. (eds.) 2015. Translating Worlds: The Epistemological Space of Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This article can also be found on the open-access journal, HAU: The Journal of Ethnographic Theory.

Rumsey, A 2015.  Language, affect and the inculcation of social norms in the New Guinea Highlands and beyond. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 26: 349–364.


What is safe about “safe migration”? Migration management in the Mekong by Sverre Molland (Discovery Grant, Australian Research Council, 2016-2018)

Over the last few years, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), International Organisations (IOs) and Governments have moved attention away from anti-trafficking and launched “safe migration” programmes in the Mekong region. Safe migration denotes a conceptual shift in policy as it targets migrants moving through space, as opposed to being confined by it. Yet, there has been no independent study into how such emergent policies and programmes are operationalised or the ways in which they affect migrants.

Despite the considerable resources devoted to managing labour migration to Australia, the Asia-Pacific Region and beyond, significant knowledge gaps remain regarding policy implementation and its impact on migrants. The focus on border control and policing of labour migrants has eclipsed scholarly attention on “safe migration” programmes. This project investigates the emergence and operationalisation of “safe migration” as a specific policy modality which seeks to enhance governments and aid programmes targeting of labour mobility in the Mekong region.

Relevant publications:

Molland, Sverre 2012, The Perfect Business?: Anti-Trafficking and the Sex Trade Along the Mekong, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Molland, Sverre 2012, ‘Safe migration, dilettante brokers and the appropriation of legality: Lao-Thai “trafficking” in the context of regulating labour migration’, Pacific Affairs, vol. 85, no. 1, pp. 117-136.


Vitality and change in Warlpiri songs at Yuendumu by Nicolas Peterson (Linkage Project with Linda Barwick, Myfany Turpin, Simon Fisher and Ms Valerie Martin (2016-2019)).

This research projects investigates the nature of songlines and their relationship to the cultural future of knowledge about the Indigenous landscape. Songlines, wanderings, totemic trails dreaming tracks, walkabouts, storylines, trade highways, ancestral pathways, totemic journeys, initiation routes, and most recently pilgrimages, walking narratives and paths are just some of the ways in which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have referred to places linked together by the travels of ancestral or dreaming beings across. Yet although commonly spoken and written about their nature remains unclear and enigmatic as the diverse terminology makes clear.

The term ‘songlines’ was coined and popularised by novelist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin. His understanding of the concept of ‘songlines’ was taken from TGH Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia, although Strehlow did not use this term. Three decades later Chatwin’s book, The Songlines is still a major influence on public underst

anding that speaks to a collective desire in the Australian psyche for a spiritual, lyrical and poetic relationship to the landscape. Although Chatwin’s understandings of ‘songlines’, are fraught with contradictions, confusions, and stereotypes many authors and gallery curators, talk, write, and exhibit paintings of songlines, or films of performances associated with them, unproblematically.  Most commonly the songlines are treated as if they were simply roads or walking tracks, recording lines of travel, helping people find their way through the terrain, in what to outsiders is usually seen as undomesticated bush. Drawing on long term field research and cultural mapping, this research aspires to shed light on songlines and their place in Indigenous life worlds.


Social Engagement in Spiritualism by Matt Tomlinson (with Andrew Singleton (Deakin University)

In the 1840s, a new religious movement called Spiritualism began in the United States. In Spiritualism, mediums are meant to communicate with the dead in order to deliver messages to the living. Crowds flocked to receive word from their departed loved ones, as well as famous figures of the day. (The spirit of the American inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin showed up at a remarkable number of early séances.) This image is of the pioneering Fox sisters, responsible for much of the initial success of Spiritualism in the USA.

Spiritualism quickly became popular in the U.K. and soon made its way to Australia. It continues to thrive in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. Melbourne’s Victorian Spiritualist Union is the longest continually existing Spiritualist congregation in the world. In this project, the anthropologistMatt Tomlinson and the sociologist Andrew Singleton (Deakin University) are combining their efforts to trace the dynamic social engagements of modern Australian Spiritualism. How do mediums learn to communicate with spirits? What kinds of messages do they deliver? What broader social impact does Spiritualism have, and what kinds of spiritual, intellectual, and practical networks does it help construct? What larger patterns of social change in Australia can we see through the lens of this distinct group and its practices? Tomlinson’s portion of research began in March 2017 with the Canberra Spiritualist Association, who have very kindly allowed him to record services and ask nosy questions. Research is scheduled to continue through 2019.


The Power of the Past: Cultural Heritage Fever in China by Yujie Zhu

Little attention has been paid to the role that cultural heritage plays in politics and policy outcomes. Based on critical analysis of heritage policies, interviews with policy-makers, and interactions with practitioners and scholars in China, this project aims to analyze the ways in which cultural heritage facilitates China’s diplomacy, nation-building, economic strategy and local governance. By approaching heritage as a space of cooperation, negotiation, and contestation, this research will add conceptual and empirical depth to the literature on the politics of cultural heritage. It will also provide Australia with a new analytical economic and socio-cultural framework to engage with China and the region.

Some example publications that have come out of this research are:

Yujie Zhu. 2017. ‘Uses of the Past: Negotiating Heritage in Xi’an International Journal of Heritage Studies. [Online]

Yujie Zhu. 2016. ‘Heritage making of Lijiang: Governance, reconstruction, and local Naxi life’, in Christoph Brumann and David Berliner eds. World Heritage on the Ground, Ethnographic Perspectives, 78-96, Oxford: Berghahn

Yujie Zhu. 2015. ‘Cultural effects of authenticity: Contested heritage practices in China’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, vol. 21(6), pp. 594-608. 


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