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Consultancy, neo-liberal conservatism and the politics of anti-politics.

The above quote is from Julie Finlayson who has been a past president of the Australian Anthropological Society. Her husband, David Martin, has been repeatedly on the executive of the society and indeed much of the recent Society's executive includes anthropologists who have done consultancies. (1) This certainly belies the main point of David Trigger's (2011) recent paper that consultant anthropology has been marginalised within the discipline of Australian anthropology. Indeed, many of us consider that it is now the dominant group shaping agendas within Australian anthropology. Along with its rapid expansion, consultant anthropology has been increasingly corporatised and has sought to professionalise itself. For example, Finlayson and Martin have run training courses for consultants linked to major universities and they have managed and worked in perhaps the largest firm offering anthropological consultancy research dealing with Australian Aborigines. In the above quote, Finlayson was publicly scolding a respected professor at the Australian National University (ANU) for not showing proper gratitude to where his academic income was coming from, because on the AASnet he had dared to criticise publicly the growing influence of neoliberal corporate agendas in Australian universities. For Finlayson, these just do not exist and certainly not at the ANU, where she also currently works. Yet, ironically, Finlayson's quote reveals how demands for corporate loyalty are being normalised within Australian universities and internalised by some academics. Here the hegemony of new corporate management styles is realised not just through coercive hierarchical directives from above (the Dean or Vice-Chancellor), but also through the self-governing democratic politics of academics scolding and policing each other through public debate. There, academics monitor acceptable arguments but also both explicit and implicit professional rules, which today supposedly should include intellectual debts to the hands that feed (mostly corporations and the state). All of this is ignored in Trigger's (2011) idealistic model of impartial, practical anthropologists who deserve suitable professional remuneration and who work on the basis of good will and are kept ethical and empirically rigorous by the checks and balances of the legal system. (3)

Trigger's paper is not an ethnography of the diverse work, motives and political commitments found within consulting anthropology. Instead, he offers safe abstract generalities and simple dichotomies, which reduce debates about the state's recent interventions into remote Aboriginal communities to a simple division between academic and consultant anthropologists which is then equated (even more simplistically) to a sacred-profane dichotomy. Such a simple binary logic ignores anthropological consultants who have opposed the 2007 Federal Government's Intervention in the Northern Territory. It ignores the many senior consultants who have permanent and temporary positions in the academic system, something which serves to supplement their uneven income and to give academic respectability to their consultancy reports. It also ignores how most academic anthropologists studying Aborigines are nowadays involved in consultancies. Rather than a simple division between consultants and academics, it is more accurate to talk about the emergence of a conservative neo-liberal philosophy, which seeks to draw members of both groups into an encompassing ideology of apolitical professionalism. (4) The recent massive expansion of consultancy has ideologically shifted Australian Aboriginal anthropology to the political right in ways that are not evident in other parts of Australian anthropology. This politico-ideological shift has also coincided with some senior anthropologists moving away from doing just native title land claims so as to offer welfare policy advice that augments the state's neo-liberal sociocultural policing and planning objectives.

Rather than offering an analysis or even a good description of these transformations and the resulting tensions within contemporary Australian anthropology, Trigger's paper does other kinds of intellectual work. It is part of the articulation and management of current disciplinary tensions, through their symbolic displacement and reformulation into more encompassing and befuddling binary terms. In particular, Trigger's paper seeks to unify diverse anthropological consultants (not just those working on Australian Aborigines) within a sense of threatened professionalism. This is done by promoting a fear that consultant anthropology in general is being intellectually marginalised and devalued by academic anthropologists. It is being profaned by an elite group asserting its monopoly over sacred knowledge. This rhetorical and absurd use of a pseudo caste hierarchy to reformulate historically specific intellectual and political differences downplays the specific problematic theories of society, culture and person which some recent anthropologists have been promoting as part of their legitimation of new ways of governing Australian Aborigines. Those theories are similar to previous culture of poverty arguments, which have had a long history of debate within the international academic community (Bourgois 2001; Leacock 1971; Valentine 1968). Yet, somehow it is socially improper, that is it is elitist, to question the recent use and reformulation of those theories by prominent Australian consultant anthropologists, for this besmirches and profanes them collectively. This moral-rhetorical appeal to the democratic-political values of egalitarianism (with their implicit local Australian nationalist overtones) is an attempt to control growing criticisms of what consultant anthropology is becoming by redefining such criticisms as coming primarily from an emotional, vested defence of privilege by condescending, detached academics. One suspects, it is the professional status and scientific authority of consulting anthropology in the eyes of commerce, government and the wider public, that is really being defended by Trigger's attempts to side-line academic criticisms of the intellectual-ideological status of the new hybrid forms of knowledge that some consultants are producing.

Perhaps the most disturbing intellectual/ideological work done by Trigger's paper is in how its binary opposites work strategically to homogenise and merge all the different kinds of work and positions within consultancy. In particular, Trigger's paper uses the less problematic and more ethical parts of consultancy (land claims for indigenous people) to encompass and confer moral legitimacy to the more problematic, recent work of some consultants who justify more coercive, state controls around Aborigines. These state policies have included the compulsory acquisition of land; the selective allocation of state resources to resettle remote indigenous communities into growth centres; and the use of coercive models of welfare surveillance that could never be applied on the same scale and intensity to the white working class. Accompanying and justifying these state policies has been the use by some anthropologists of cultural essentialist arguments which pathologise and internalise the sources of contemporary social problems within indigenous communities.

Today, the impartial humanitarian claims of anthropological consultancy have been publicly damaged as some of its major anthropologists have moved away from specialising in land claims so as to offer advice and legitimacy to the state's imposition of exceptional forms of governance on remote Aborigines. To their utter shame, some anthropologists have justified the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, the use of military terror against ordinary civilians, and new coercive disciplinary-surveillance models of welfare control, which operate as forms of racial governance. On an internet newspaper, one senior anthropology professor advised the state: to end its school nutrition programs in remote Aboriginal communities; and to place less emphasis on human rights (which is supposedly ethnocentric) and more emphasis on people's responsibilities (which is supposedly closer to indigenous culture). Those anthropologists then tried to pass off as ethnography and anthropological theory their simplistic pathological models of society, culture and subjectivity; models that underpinned and legitimated not just more intrusive state interventions, but new exceptional models of racial governance (Altman 2010, nd; Lattas and Morris, 2010a; Morris and Lattas 2010a, 2010b).

Trigger's paper ignores such messy details concerning the engagement of contemporary anthropology in the articulation of neo-liberal forms of social control. Indeed, his paper is part of an anti-politics machine that seeks to de-politicise consultant anthropology by ignoring the problem of how particular structures of power require particular ways of knowing subjects and particular ways of not-knowing them (Ferguson 1990; Foucault 1977). Instead of treating seriously the critical concerns of other anthropologists, Trigger lumps them together as just haughty detached academics removed from the real world of indigenous suffering. (6) It is ownership of authentic knowledge over this real world of suffering, which a certain group of conservative anthropologists would like to monopolise as the morally empowering ground for their professional advice on how to govern Aborigines. Faced with growing scrutiny and criticisms of the anthropological theories and the interpretations of ethnography underpinning this 'professional advice', Trigger replies with a call for collegial unity grounded in egalitarian tolerance for difference and diversity. His scolding of academic anthropologists for competitive intellectual hierarchy is really asking them to be more indulgent and to turn a blind eye to the new compromised forms of knowledge being produced. Especially surprising is Trigger's reproach of academics for taking the moral high ground, for Trigger justifies consultancy on ethical grounds as providing real practical humanitarian benefits.

Trigger's position should not be appraised or dismissed as that of a quirky individual intellectual, for within Aboriginal anthropology, he has been mentored by senior Australian academics. (8) Despite all the evidence to the contrary, his work is widely cited as showing the simplicity and inadequacy of the resistance model for understanding contemporary everyday Aboriginal practices. From the publication of his thesis as a book, Trigger (1992) joined John Morton (1998, 2004) to form a conservative academic alignment, which has launched successive criticisms of intellectual positions that critically interrogate the forms of state power deployed around Aborigines and the resistances of Aborigines to those encompassing regimes (see also Rowse 1990; Sutton 2005). Thus, I am not surprised to find Trigger now arguing:

An anthropologist's personal political position on development, globalisation, capitalism and neo-liberalism ought not determine their professional analysis or provision of research services. This is to avoid what Morton (2011,35), in discussing Aboriginal studies over recent decades, has recently termed 'the complete confusion of anthropology and politics'. (Trigger 2011 : 244)

Here, Trigger repudiates the more critical analyses of contemporary capitalism and the state offered by rival academic colleagues as just personal opinion, implying that such social processes have no objective reality. Such arguments are part of a conservative desire to reshape contemporary anthropology so that it equates professionalisation with participation in a circumspect, circumscribed intellectual field, which can draw on continued support from dominant institutions (corporations and the state) by reassuring them that there will be no critical analysis of them, that is, no resort to 'personal opinion'.

The work of defining what is political is central to the politics of this conservative anthropology, which continuously mystifies and legitimates itself as being apolitical. In their defence of Peter Sutton, both Morton and Trigger regard as 'political' only the criticisms of Sutton and, certainly, not Sutton's own policy advice to the state about the dangers of multiculturalism, cultural relativism and the welfare state. Incongruously, Sutton's writings are not deemed political even though they were awarded Australia's richest prize for political writing, the 2010 John Button Prize. Blinded by the cleansing light of his anti-politics machine, Trigger never explores the dangers of anthropology offering advice and how this may be influenced by knowledge of what the government wants to hear and what the government wants to fund. Instead, Trigger's consultants remain magically and professionally removed from the politics of a wider socio-cultural context that disseminates and requires particular kinds of constructions of poverty, race, the nation and welfare recipients.

Trigger's paper has emerged in a context where the conservative discourse of some anthropologists (both academics and consultants) has been heavily criticised by other anthropologists like Jon Altman, Bruce Kapferer, Barry Morris and myself who argue that their policy advice participates in neo-liberal discourses for managing poverty, welfare and race. It is in the context of this moral and intellectual critique that Trigger and his supporters feel the need for a reinvigorated anti-politics discourse to reaffirm an ideology of professional impartial humanitarianism as the basis of professional competence. Trigger even takes offence at Gillian Cowlishaw's mild warning that anthropology should not be an 'abject instrument of governance' and that it needs to analyse 'the peculiar nature of state institutions'. According to Trigger, state officials in remote communities (namely, teachers, doctors, nurses and other service providers) would be surprised by Cowlishaw's claim that they are involved in 'social engineering'; and here Trigger singles out their participation in the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response Intervention. How should one interpret a senior professor, who professes so little understanding of how the state's utopian transformative projects are inscribed within its everyday practices and who instead wishes to reduce state policies and practices to what junior dependent state officials are willing to acknowledge publicly? Yet, ironically, when it comes to the Intervention, the state has publicly promoted its policies and practices as seeking to transform what it regards as a 'dysfunctional' culture of Aboriginal welfare dependency, truancy, domestic violence, demand sharing, and alcohol and drug abuse. The Intervention explicitly relates solving social problems to a transformation in the culture and social relations of Aborigines, so why cannot Trigger acknowledge these social engineering objectives? It is not a lack of intelligence that prevents Trigger from seeing what others can see clearly and what the state itself publicly proclaims. Rather, it is his participation within an anti-politics machine which strives to depoliticise the new problematic realms of power that certain parts of Australian anthropology have taken up as they participate with the state in developing neoliberal states of exception for governing marginal populations. Trigger is blind to the politics of his apolitical professionalism; and yet to see his approach as an ideology is especially needed at this point in time.

Editorial statement

This essay by Andrew Lattas was originally commissioned by the journal Anthropological Forum as one of a series of comments on a paper submitted by David Trigger to that journal, now published as 'Anthropology Pure and Profane: The Politics of Applied Research in Aboriginal Australia' Vol 21 (3). The AF editor's insistence on deletions of several sections of Professor Lattas' paper, ostensibly for reasons of length, led to the author withdrawing from that publication and resubmitting his essay to Oceania. As Oceania believes this work has considerable significance for anthropology, both in Australia and internationally, we are pleased to publish it here. The essay has been refereed, revised and somewhat extended.


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(1) Other recent members of the AAS executive (Alan Rumsey, Pamela McGrath and Katie Glaskin) have also done consultancy work on Australian Aborigines, whilst others have done consultancies outside Australia. This paper will focus on anthropological consultancy directed at Australia's indigenous communities.

(2.) Dr Julie Finlayson is credited as a 'project developer, coordinator and facilitator' with Authropos Consulting until December 2003, when she took up a position with Aboriginal and Tortes Strait Islander Services. Though she stopped being a staff member, Finlayson continued to provide advice and counsel for projects by Anthropos Consulting.

(3.) In the online newspaper Crikey Bob Gosford (2011) has powerfully criticized the compromised research and partisan activities of some consultant anthropologists working for mining companies.
 It is well-known that if an anthropologist does not come up to
 company standards and does not get the desired results, he or she
 can be easily removed and replaced by another anthropologist who
 will comply.... What some anthropologist are doing today [is]
 manipulating Aboriginal groups against another [sic] in order to
 achieve Company ends.... We have experienced firsthand attempts
 by company-hired anthropologists to solve things politically for
 their client by bringing in dissident groups to speak against
 local native title Claimants who are trying to protect their
 heritage sites.

On the AASnet, similar criticisms were made by some consultants against other consultants who seemed to be doing more than just advising about kinship and land ownership, for they seemed to be providing governments and mining companies with detailed knowledge about local differences over development, whilst also offering very high monetary payments to Aboriginal informants that could be seen as fuelling local divisions and preventing a unified Aboriginal opposition.

(4) Full-time consultants and academics doing part-time consultancies with Australian Aborigines are interlinked by way of peer reviews of each other's consultancy reports. They often give national and international conference papers together and socialize intimately with each other. Recently, some prominent full-time consultants have been appointed to major academic research positions.

(5) Recently, Trigger has sought to distance himself from some of these models, but he continues to understand these models as emerging from the particular flaws of individual thinkers rather than from the needs of particular institutions and a certain socio-historical context. As the chorus of criticism of the NT intervention has grown, some Australian anthropologists have done somersaults in their positions. For example, Austin-Broos (2006) has moved from being a major defender of Sutton to becoming a major critic, and without any convincing explanation.

(6) Yet these academic anthropologists have often done a PhD and years of fieldwork with indigenous people in third and fourth world situations of poverty which have similar social problems to those in Australian Aboriginal communities. However, that fieldwork and a PhD do not inoculate anyone from shifting positions and participating in conservative discourses. Ironically, some consultant reports are based on very brief visits of a few hours or days to an indigenous community.

(7) Such claims for the NT Intervention can be questioned, with a recent report (FaHCSIA 2010) showing a doubling in the number of attempted suicides in communities affected by the Intervention, rising from 109 in 2007-2008 to 229 in 2010-2011. About 32% of the NT's population are Aborigines and over the last 10 years, the imprisonment rate in the NT rose 46%; in 2001 it was 523 prisoners per 100,000 adults whilst in 2011 it was 762 prisoners per 100,000.

(8) On the world stage, some of Trigger's mentors promoted themselves as leftists conversant with the work of Eugene Genovese and James Scott on how racial hegemony shapes everyday forms of resistance. However, at home, they did much to sideline such analyses because they could not recognize the everyday contemporary forms that these acts of racial resistance assumed, especially in relation to the Australian criminal justice system.

Andrew Lattas

University of Bergen
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Author:Lattas, Andrew
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Date:Mar 1, 2012
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