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Wards, words and citizens: A.P. Elkin and Paul Hasluck on assimilation (1).

By 1951 A.P. Elkin had urged the social assimilation of Aborigines into settler society for a decade and a half. As the second Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney--Australia's only professor of anthropology from 1934 until 1951--President of the Association for the Protection of Native Races, prominent spokesman for Aboriginal rights, advisor to the Commonwealth government on Aboriginal policy in the 1930s and Vice-Chairman of the Aborigines Welfare Board of New South Wales, Elkin was well placed to publicise the assimilationist agenda. In 1951 Paul Hasluck became Commonwealth Minister for Territories, and thereby responsible for the relatively large Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory. Under Hasluck, assimilationist policies and practices were refined, extended and systematised. Although Commonwealth authority was limited to the Northern Territory, assimilation became the guiding principle of Aboriginal administration in the various state jurisdictions also. Hasluck's term as Minister for Territories (1951-63) marked the high-water point of assimilationism in Australian Aboriginal policy. Yet throughout this period Elkin expressed not acclamation for Hasluck's policies, but criticism. While both men were ardent advocates of assimilation, each conceptualised assimilation in quite different terms. Their differences are nicely encapsulated in the following interchange.

In 1953 Hasluck drafted an ordinance which, to hasten the process of assimilation, provided for the declaration of all Northern Territory Aborigines as 'wards'. No longer were Aborigines to be 'Aborigines'; they were to be simply 'wards', in need of the state to manage their lives. The status of wardship could be revoked in the case of individuals whom the authorities deemed capable of managing their own affairs. Such individuals would then be entitled to the full range of rights and benefits enjoyed by other citizens of the Commonwealth. They would remain, in administrative terminology, non-Aborigines. (2)

Elkin quickly responded with a critique of the proposed ordinance. 'The Bill', he informed Hasluck,
 is not satisfactory, basically because it underestimates the
 importance of being Aboriginal.
 1. The Aborigines--A Distinct Group.
 The Aborigines are racially different from us, and recognizably
 so. In spite of the economic, religious, social and political
 assimilation at which we aim, they will be a distinct group,
 or series of groups, for generations to come. Indeed, they will
 develop pride in their own cultural background and distinctness
 while at the same time being loyal and useful citizens.

So Elkin continued, with eight pages of characteristically polite but nonetheless strong criticism of the shortcomings of the ordinance. Wardship, he declared, was 'an abuse of justice'; the term 'ward' itself was demeaning to Aborigines as it was a 'repetition of the old convenient fallacy' of the 'child race'. While endorsing assimilation as a 'laudable' and 'praiseworthy' objective, Elkin insisted that the proposed ordinance was founded on an inappropriate concept of assimilation: 'the type of assimilation envisaged by the Bill, is the complete change of the Aborigines in all but skin colour'. This, he continued, is 'impossible'. (3)

This interchange provides an appropriate starting point for the issue I want to explore in this paper: the contested meanings of 'assimilation' in the era of assimilation. Hasluck's proposed ordinance, like Commonwealth assimilation policy as a whole, was rooted in the assumptions of liberal individualism. The individual Aborigine was expected to extricate himself or herself from Aboriginal society and become part of the (white) Australian way of life, itself conceived in individualist terms. Aboriginal identity and community cohesiveness had no role in the transition toward citizenship in a civilised state. Against this was Elkin's assertion that the maintenance of Aboriginal identity and community was not incompatible with their assimilation, and might indeed promote that process. Elkin's model of assimilation was cultural. Assimilation to him was not a matter of individuals abandoning one society in favour of another; rather it was a matter of fostering and directing change in Aboriginal cultures, assisting them toward the state that he called 'civilisation'. Perhaps we could conceptualise assimilation as a process of bringing Aborigines into modernity. For Hasluck, it was a process of bringing individual Aboriginal persons into modernity; for Elkin, it was a matter of ensuring the transition of Aboriginal cultures into modernity. Beyond the disagreement between Hasluck and Elkin, (4) in this paper I shall also explore some of the ambivalences and equivocations in Elkin's writings on assimilation.

By focussing here on the writings of Hasluck and Elkin, I am not suggesting that the ideas of these two men represented the full range of assimilationist thinking in the mid-twentieth century; merely that they stand as appropriate exemplars of the fact that assimilationism was not the monolithic construct implied in much of the recent literature. (5) Indeed, 'assimilation' seems to be often used today as a mere shorthand, to designate a determined strategy to erase Aboriginality. Perhaps such usages have viable polemical purposes, but there is also a place for attempting a more historically contextualised understanding of assimilation. To revisit the heyday of assimilationism--roughly the middle third of the twentieth century--is to find that then 'assimilation' had no single meaning. It was a discourse which was informed by a diversity of intellectual currents and which produced significantly divergent visions of the Aboriginal destiny. Like all such discourses, assimilationism was characterised as much by ambivalence and contention as by consistency and consensus. Appreciating the fact that assimilation was not unitary in meaning, nor necessarily totalising in outcome, may allow us to understand why, in the mid-twentieth century, it was attractive not only to politicians and other agents of the state but also to activists, humanitarians, churchmen, feminists and, not least, Aborigines themselves. (6)

Nonetheless, some points of agreement on assimilation may be identified. The transition to modernity, as has already been noted, was intrinsic to the assimilationist project. But as the example of Hasluck and Elkin demonstrates, there was disagreement over how this was to be attained and what was thereby entailed. Modernity was an agreed-upon goal, but modernity itself was disputed territory. The attainment of Aboriginal citizenship was another point of assimilationist consensus. Conceived as a constellation of political and civil rights and responsibilities, citizenship might seem a more secure or concrete objective than the vagaries of modernity. Certainly there was agreement on the desirability of Aborigines acquiring the fundamentals of citizenship--the vote, social security benefits and so forth--but there was disagreement over the basis on which such rights should be conferred, and beyond that, disagreement over what was entailed in the notion of the Australian citizen. Citizenship provided something of a rhetorical centre for assimilationist campaigning; but the meanings of citizenship itself were neither static nor uncontested. Besides, there is the problem that after 1948 all Aborigines were already, formally, Australian citizens, by virtue of the Nationality and Citizenship Act of that year (Chesterman and Galligan 1997:119; Attwood and Markus 1997:16). At the same time, Aboriginal civil rights were circumscribed by both legislation and administrative fiat, rendering their citizenship little more than a hollow formality. But since Aborigines already possessed the formal shell of citizenship, the real issue facing assimilationists was how to ensure the transformation to an effective and participatory citizenship. On this question there was no unanimity. Modernity and citizenship lent some coherence to assimilationism, but here I am more interested in the ambivalences and contestations that they equally generated.

Historicising assimilation

Assimilation in some form goes back to the first British settlement of Australia. Early colonists like Governor Phillip and Captain Watkin Tench, imbued with Enlightenment notions of a universal human nature and a universal pathway of progress, assumed the ready incorporation of the indigenes into settler society. After the turn of the nineteenth century, such assumptions were overwhelmed (albeit incompletely) by countervailing discourses of race, and for more than a hundred years the majority of colonists agreed that the Aboriginal race was doomed. During the inter-war years, and more particularly during the 1930s, assimilation came again to the forefront of public discussion of the Aboriginal destiny. These years held greater significance for Aboriginal-European relations than the majority of historical accounts would suggest, as they were a time when the doomed race idea lost its grip on the imaginations of white Australians. For as long as white Australians believed the extinction of the Aborigines to be inevitable they could be left out of account in imagining a national future. They were omitted, for example, from the founding document of the nation-state, the constitution, apart from two brief mentions (both exclusionary). The doomed race idea did not disappear in the 1930s, but its credibility was severely weakened and with this went the realisation that Aborigines could not be left out of account in imagining a national future. This was the significant shift of the 1930s: a shift from an assurance that Aborigines belonged solely to the past and had literally no future in the Australian nation, to a realisation that Aborigines may have a viable future, that this continent would have to be shared with the indigenous inhabitants. The implications of this shift remain with us today, as indigenous and non-indigenous Australians negotiate and renegotiate the terms of their occupancy of the continent and their membership of the nation. Back in the 1930s, the growing realisation that Aborigines would be a continuing presence in the future of the nation promoted vigorous debate over how that future was best assured (McGregor 1997).

It was in this context of a fundamental reassessment of the Aboriginal destiny that Elkin devised his assimilationist scheme in the 1930s. (7) In his many writings of the time (and later) he seems to be constantly looking over his shoulder at the doomed race idea, seeking to avoid its fatalism but unable to evade its fundamental premises. The doomed race was premised on the assumption that Aborigines were incompatible with modernity. Elkin insisted on their entry into modernity as the only means of circumventing extinction. However, this transformation entailed not the extirpation of Aboriginal culture but its transmutation, as Aborigines built 'their own' civilisation upon the foundations of their indigenous traditions. Elkin's 1934 article on 'the future of the Australian Aborigines' concluded that if Aborigines were to make the transition into civilisation, it was necessary to 'safeguard for them their ties to the past, to the land, to one another, and to the "eternal dream-time"'(Elkin 1934b:18). In an unusually colourful (for Elkin) turn of phrase, he condemned attempts to sever Aborigines from their indigenous traditions as 'cultural vivisection', insisting rather that those traditions embodied 'the foundations of future development' and that the task for well-meaning whites was 'to help the Aborigines furnish their lives with treasures both old as well as new' (Elkin 1947:9).

While Elkin wrote of Aborigines building up 'their own' civilisation, even he was not so arrogant as to prescribe its precise content. On some occasions he referred to the creation of 'an Aboriginal version of the European view of life and religion' (Elkin 1944: 40). In other instances he wrote of 'building the new into the old'. (8) Perhaps his most commonly-used idiom was 'cultural blending'. As he explained to Henry Wardlaw, secretary of the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights in 1951:
 Assimilation does not mean ... the breakdown of the Aborigines as a
 people. For along [sic] time to come, I have no doubt they will
 order their lives by many of their former social rules, will retain
 the essence of their former beliefs and keep up numbers of their
 rituals. This will in no way prevent them finding satisfaction in
 economic activity or in being educated. A blend of culture is what
 will appear. (9)

The envisaged socio-cultural change followed a Western ideal of progress. But Elkin was adamant that the continuity of indigenous tradition was an integral--not merely a superficial--aspect of Aboriginal advancement into civilisation.

Although Elkin's utterances on a new 'civilised' Aboriginal culture were necessarily vague, they were consistent with his more general pronouncements on progress. All humanity, he argued, had the potential, even the right, to progress into civilisation. But the diversity of human cultures ensured a degree of diversification in this process. Elkin's concept of progress was unilinear only in general trend or outline. It followed the stages from hunting and gathering to civilisation (defined largely in economic terms) that had been set out by the philosophes of the Enlightenment. (10) Within these broad stages there was space for the retention of cultural diversity. In a document on 'The Rights of Man in Primitive Society', prepared for UNESCO in 1949, he asserted as a "basic right of primitive man':
 the right to be civilised according to the pattern which he will
 develop--to each separate people its own pattern--but fitting into
 the general pattern of human values and rights on the world-scale,
 with its economic and cultural relationships (Elkin 1949b:228;
 italics in the original).

Elaborating on this theme of a universal human trend with distinctive ethnic variants, he argued that 'primitive peoples' should have access to 'world thought, science, technical achievement, literature and religion', to be 'built into their own changing culture as they find possible' (Elkin 1949b:228-29). These formulations remained vague; grand gestures, perhaps, rather than concrete proposals. However, his words suggest that while Elkin conceded a degree of diversity in socio-cultural progress, the Western model was in some sense the original and the best--or at least the dominant. Other cultures could learn from it, borrow from it--even diverge from it to some extent--but the West set the standard.

Assimilation: the politician's model

Like Elkin, Hasluck first propounded assimilation in the 1930s, as a young journalist for The West Australian newspaper (Hasluck [1938]). Like Elkin too, Hasluck upheld a vision of progress, writing of 'the blessings of civilisation' that assimilation would confer upon the Aborigines. (Hasluck 1953:17; Hasluck 1988:7-8). But whereas Elkin's Aborigines faced the task of constructing their own civilisation (albeit with the assistance of whites, especially those with expertise in anthropology) in Hasluck's version of assimilation, the civilisation into which Aborigines would progress came ready-made. They fitted into the established culture and society of white Australians, as in the much-quoted statement from the 1961 Native Welfare Conference:
 The policy of assimilation means ... that all aborigines and
 part-aborigines are expected eventually to attain the same manner of
 living as other Australians and to live as members of a single
 Australian community enjoying the same rights and privileges,
 accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and
 influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties as other
 Australians. (11)

There was not much room here for the retention of anything that was distinctively Aboriginal.

For Hasluck, the key to assimilation was not cultural transformation but individual opportunity. In an address to the Commonwealth House of Representatives on the Native Welfare Conference of 1951 he expounded 'the major argument for a policy of assimilation':
 It is a policy of opportunity. It gives to the aboriginal and to
 the person of mixed blood a chance to shape his own life. If he
 succeeds, it places no limit on his success but opens the door
 fully (Hasluck 1953:18).

This is a bald statement of the liberal panacea for social ills: opening the door of opportunity for individual advancement. The notion resonates through Hasluck's many contemporary policy statements on Aboriginal affairs, as well as through his later published reflections on his role in those affairs, Shades of Darkness. It was not merely that Hasluck's assimilation was individualist in process; it was also individualist in outcome, as the Aborigine assimilated into the 'Australian way of life' of the Menzies era. (12)

Hasluck (1953:17) maintained that his policy of assimilation did 'not mean the suppression of the aboriginal culture'. This was probably true, in the sense that an active suppression of Aboriginal culture (in the way, for example, that some missionaries sought an outright prohibition of certain Aboriginal cultural forms) was not inherent to his policy. But his emphasis on transforming individual Aborigines into individualistic citizens meant that there would inevitably be no place for Aboriginal cohesiveness, community or culture. Precisely because the process was individual, it was total. In an individualistic society, Aboriginal culture did not need to be 'suppressed'; it would simply wither away.

Yet perhaps no socio-cultural process is quite as total as that. Hasluck later claimed that his assimilation policy did allow a space for the retention of Aboriginal identity. In his published reminiscences he remarked that assimilated Aborigines 'could recall and honour their own origins and traditions (in much the same way as Scotsmen wear kilts, play bagpipes, dance reels, celebrate ancient festivals and try to preserve Gaelic)' (Hasluck 1988:30). Perhaps. However, his comparison with 'Scotsmen' is revealing, for he presents their kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing and so forth as bits of cultural exotica, frozen remnants of old 'origins and traditions', rather than as vital and viable parts of contemporary Scottish culture. In similar vein, during the assimilationist era Aborigines were routinely paraded out to dance corroborees, throw spears and play didgeridoos for the entertainment and edification of visiting dignitaries. (13) As items of exotica such practices could be permitted--even encouraged, to supplement the paucity of Australian nationalist symbols. But in none of Hasluck's utterances that I have seen did he recognise the possibility of any more substantial form of cultural continuity between Aboriginal traditions and modern Australian citizenship.

Implicit in Hasluck's version of assimilation is a model of society that conforms well with Tim Rowse's description of liberal social thought in general, whereby society was 'conceived as an ensemble of atomistic individuals', each of whom owe allegiance direct to the state, with little to mediate between the individual and the vast collective of the state (Rowse 1978:15). (14) It was a vision that emphasized the citizen of the nation-state and left little space for other identities or alternative senses of belonging. In her recent brief political biography, Judith Brett discusses Hasluck's individualism under the wonderfully apt heading 'lonely liberalism'. Brett remarks on his ability to avoid many of the crude racial stereotypes of the day and 'to see Aborigines as individual human beings'. But, she continues,
 his belief that society is made up of a collection of individuals
 held together only by the self-discipline of a responsible
 commitment to duty, and his blindness to the binding power of
 people's natural sociability and cooperativeness, leave him unable
 to comprehend Aborigines' embeddedness in their social world or the
 emotional and psychological costs of assimilation (Brett 1997:122).

Hasluck himself admitted (if that's the right word) as much. In his published retrospective he wrote with characteristically acute self-reflection (though without resiling from his assimilationist position):
 With hindsight ... I now see that my outlook on aboriginal welfare
 and indeed the approach made by many others of that period who were
 in the forefront of discussion of social reform had been derived
 from and were still influenced by the evangelism of mid and late
 Victorian England which placed emphasis on the individual. The
 individual made the choice and made the effort and as a result was
 changed. This influence may have meant that we did not see clearly
 the ways in which the individual is bound by membership of a family
 or a group (Hasluck 1988:130).

Hasluck may have aptly summed up his own outlook. Yet (and his Shades of Darkness falls short in not acknowledging this) there were others at the time who did 'see clearly the ways in which the individual is bound by membership of a family or a group', and did point out that this was a fundamental flaw in his assimilation program. Elkin was one of them.

Assimilation: the anthropologist's model

Elkin's criticisms of Hasluck are all the more interesting for the fact that not only was Elkin committed to assimilation, he was also liberal in political outlook. His published output, particularly around the war years, included a good many works devoted to the issue of individualism and the problem of how to maintain individuality in the face of an ever-expanding sphere of state intervention. (15) But these publications also point toward a significant difference from Hasluck. Whereas Hasluck seems to have taken the individual pretty much for granted--and individualism as a taken-for-granted good--Elkin displayed an awareness of the problematic nature of individualism, its limitations and the need to constantly renegotiate the concept of individuality in the face of social/cultural change. (16) More directly pertinent to his concept of assimilation, Elkin recognised that the individual was not merely embedded in society but individuality was itself socially and culturally constructed. In this regard, his views were congruent with more general trends in British social anthropological thought since the early twentieth century. As Kuklick (1991:24, 72-3, 120, 267) has pointed out, the notion that individual character, behaviour and attainment were the outcome of social conditioning and cultural patterning was intrinsic to the social anthropological endeavour. This was not necessarily to assert an uncompromising social determinism, nor to imprison the individual in an iron cage of custom; but it did draw attention to the socially contingent nature of individuality. Social anthropology was not antithetical to liberal principles; indeed Kuklick (1991:25) goes so far as to claim that 'anthropology has nearly always constituted a vehicle for liberal political thought'. But by emphasising the socio-cultural constructedness of individuality, social anthropology complicated the liberal project. As an academic working in this field, Elkin understood society in terms radically different from Hasluck's model of society as an aggregation of freely-thinking and freely-acting individuals. (17)

Kuklick (1991:264-71) has also pointed out a pervasive tendency among anthropologists of various theoretical persuasions in the decades after the trauma of World War One to re-evaluate 'primitive' societies more positively than hitherto, and to express a concomitant disenchantment with Western modernity and its illusions of progress. 'Simple' societies were idealised as models of social and cultural integration, their individual members finding fulfilment in harmonious personal and group relations, as against the perceived alienation of civilised Western societies. (18) Such ideas resonated, albeit tentatively, through Elkin's writings. While he remained committed to an ideal of civilisation and never privileged the primitive over civilised modes of life, he certainly placed a high valuation on the integrated sociality of Aborigines. And it seems no accident that one of his strongest affirmations of Aboriginal sociality was written in 1940, when, for the second time in Elkin's life, the Western world was tearing itself apart in total war (Elkin 1940). Without relapsing into romantic adulation of the primitive, he explained how the integration of individual and society evident among Aborigines might help Westerners (specifically white Australians) to better understand the need for such integration in their own society, According to Kuklick (1991:267-68) an idealisation of social integration as a paramount virtue, and of 'primitive' peoples as exemplars of this virtue, was upheld by anthropologists of diverse theoretical orientation: evolutionists, diffusionists and functionalists. Certainly Elkin expressed a yearning for integrated sociality. (19) In this connection, Tim Rowse (1998:207) has noted that Elkin's views 'owed much to the Durkheimian quest for the moral and cognitive conditions of social integration'. The extent of Elkin's direct intellectual indebtedness to Durkheim is open to question. (20) He seldom referred to Durkheim in his published works, and as far as I have seen the same goes for his unpublished writings. Nonetheless, Elkin's social thought is congruent with Durkheim's, with their mutual preoccupations with the sources of social solidarity, the relationships between groups and individuals, and with religion as a socially integrative force binding together a moral community. (21)

Elkin's emphasis on social integration--of individual with group, and of group with group in ever-ramifying networks--points toward the fundamental difference between his and Hasluck's concepts of assimilation. For Elkin, unlike Hasluck, society was not a collection of atomistic individuals but a series of overlapping or intersecting groups, ideally in harmonious interrelation. 'What is society?' he asked rhetorically in his 1940 Livingstone Lecture: 'Is it a combination or association of independent individuals, or is it a combination of individuals into groups, and of such groups into larger groups, and finally into the total, society?' (Elkin 1940:13). The remainder of his lengthy lecture was premised on the latter option. On this assumption, the maintenance of groups and group identities such as 'Aborigine' or 'Pitjantjatjara' was not necessarily inimical to incorporation into larger groupings such as the Australian nation. And if the nation were to be inclusive, these group identities and their cultural traditions were to be respected. The incorporation of Aborigines into the national polity, he argued, 'does not mean their elimination as a people nor that their culture will be completely changed'. (22)

Elkin's vision of assimilation allowed a space for cultural distinctiveness and diversity. However, he did not extol distinctiveness and diversity as in themselves good and laudable; still less did he advocate the fostering of separate identity as a deliberate goal of policy. Elkin defended, rather than celebrated, Aboriginal distinctiveness; and his defence was more from pragmatic than idealistic motives. Indeed, as I read Elkin, he had little enthusiasm for cultural diversity or distinctive identity. (23) Rather, he seems to have taken these as bald socio-cultural facts, of which any sensible policy had to take cognisance. No proposal for socio-cultural change had any chance of success if it were founded on the false premise that society was no more than a collection of fully autonomous individuals. In Elkin's view, Hasluck was misguided in neglecting the social and cultural dimensions of Aboriginal life and seeing only the individual citizen-to-be. Such neglect, according to Elkin, would promote social chaos and thus inhibit rather than promote what he regarded as the central imperative: progress into civilisation.

Insofar as Elkin placed a positive value on Aboriginal social solidarity and cultural continuity, it was as means, not ends. They provided the means by which a grander Aboriginal future could be constructed. In his 1944 polemic, Citizenship for the Aborigines, he insisted on the need to recognise the 'strong and potent solidarity' that bound Aboriginal communities together, and that this solidarity was beneficial because 'progress must be made in all aspects of life by the whole native community' (Elkin 1944:26-27). A decade and a half later, in another tract on citizenship, he declared: 'In general, though not necessarily everywhere, the Aborigines will move up into a realization of citizenship as a series of groups or distinct communities' (Elkin [1959]:24). As the 'not necessarily everywhere' indicates, he conceded that assimilation on an individual basis could, sometimes, be viable. (24) But to deliberately direct policy, along Hasluck's lines, toward prising individuals out of their social and cultural communities and relocating them in white Australia was worse than futile; it was counter-productive. Elkin was critical of exemption certificates, perhaps the ultimate in individualised assimilation, as they awarded specific persons with citizenship rights on the basis of their individual behaviour, including, generally, their dissociation from non-exempted Aborigines. In his assessment of the 1951 Native Welfare Conference, Elkin declared that 'exemption certificates ... will have to be discontinued' because, by undermining group cohesion, they fostered anti-social tendencies of resentment (Elkin 1951a:15-16). In another address the same year, he pointed out the problem with the exemption model of citizenship: 'Aborigines find cold comfort in the privileges of citizenship if it denies them the primary natural right of association with their own kith and kin'. (25)

While Elkin had argued the need for Aboriginal social cohesion and cultural continuity since the 1930s, (26) from the 1950s he became increasingly adamant on the issue. In an article published in 1951, he took it to the point of suggesting that Aborigines in the remoter regions of the north and centre of the continent may have better chances of assimilation than those in the more closely settled south and east, because the former retained to a greater degree the integrity of their social structures and culture. (27) This was a significant inversion of contemporary popular wisdom, according to which assimilation would be more likely successful among those Aborigines (especially of mixed descent) who had endured the most intensive interactions with Europeans. According to Elkin, such interactions had already significantly eroded the socio-cultural foundations of their communities, thus diminishing their prospects for 'advancement'. As a means of partially remedying these deficiencies, he defended--somewhat guardedly--attempts by east-coast Aborigines to revitalise and renovate aspects of their indigenous cultures. He endorsed, for example, the revival of indigenous languages in north-east New South Wales in the 1950s, insofar as it would promote a 'group solidarity' from which they could 'go forwards towards assimilation'. (28)

Hasluck's model of assimilation had at least one major virtue lacking in Elkin's: it was simple and straightforward. Elkin's contained inherent tensions. According to the anthropologist, it was essential to maintain Aboriginal social integrity, communal cohesiveness and cultural traditions; without these integrative factors, chaos would ensue. But it was equally necessary to maintain the smooth social and cultural functioning of the larger groupings that comprised the nation. What if there were no compatibility between the groupings at these different levels--not an implausible scenario given their significantly different cultural backgrounds? Elkin conceived socio-cultural groupings not as radically disparate ethnic, economic or class blocs but, ideally, as mutually-supportive elements of the larger collective. What if this ideal of harmony should not obtain, again a situation that was far from implausible? Out of these problems, among others, emerged Elkin's persistent equivocations, to be discussed below. They also reinforced his commitment to the need for expert scientific management, to guide the development of the smaller (Aboriginal) groupings such that they would fit, with some degree of harmony, into the myriad other groupings that together comprised the larger community of the nation. For Elkin diversity was permissible, even inevitable, but it always had to be circumscribed, and if necessary managed, in the interests of a larger social cohesiveness.

Without appearing too cynical or eager to discern ulterior motivation, Elkin's defence of Aboriginal distinctiveness could be linked more instrumentally to his professorial role. By arguing both for the incorporation of Aborigines into the nation and for the continuity of Aboriginality, he was simultaneously affirming the practical relevance of his discipline and ensuring the survival of its subject matter. To put it more bluntly, if Aboriginal distinctiveness disappeared, so would Elkin's academic discipline. Whether Elkin consciously thought along these lines is beyond my knowledge. But even the most sympathetic commentator would concede that Elkin's writings are infused with a powerful spirit of self-aggrandisement and a strong commitment to the advancement of academic anthropology--and he didn't make much distinction between the two. (29) Whatever Elkin's conscious motivations, the academic empire-building in which he was engaged demanded that Aborigines were different, would remain different into the foreseeable future, and that specialist expertise would continue to be necessary to translate these differences into terms comprehensible to white Australians.

Elkin equivocates

Elkin's endorsements of Aboriginal distinctiveness were frequently equivocal, or at least guarded. Underlying this, it seems, was an apprehension that distinctiveness might spin off into separatism. Aboriginal social cohesion and cultural traditions provided the foundations for advancement into civilisation. But he feared that they could also provide the grounds for asserting autonomy, deflecting Aborigines from the desired goal of a participatory citizenship. Thus he could simultaneously insist on the value of Aboriginal cultural and communal cohesiveness, and express misgivings about attempts to retain or regain it. His 1951 article, 'Reaction and Interaction', provides a good example. A central argument here was that the maintenance of Aboriginal social integrity and cultural tradition were essential to assimilation. Yet his postulated phases of contact included 'the return to the mat', designating a stage in which those Aborigines who had been subjected to intensive European pressures attempted to regain a 'lost' socio-cultural integrity through the revival of tradition. He concluded this section:
 The "return to the mat", with its blend of native and European
 custom, is itself a transition phase in Australia. Wisely
 acknowledged and accepted as a basis for policy, it can lead
 to assimilation into the general cultural and economic
 life, the Aborigines contributing something worth while out of their
 "treasures new and old". If, however, this "return" be ignored, it
 will in time lead to further resentment, and to opportunities for
 demagogues (Elkin 1951b:177).

The salient words here are 'wisely acknowledged and accepted as a basis for policy'. Only by grasping these developments in Aboriginal communities, and propelling them in the desired direction, would they be of positive value. If Aborigines themselves were to take these developments wherever they may, resentment and demagoguery lay ahead. Out of fear of such

tendencies, Elkin adopted a managerialist (some might call it paternalist) stance toward Aboriginal social change, insisting on the need for experts to manage the process--preferably experts like himself, anthropologists. This points back toward the comments already made about the academic aggrandisement that characterises much of Elkin's work.

For all his proclamations on Aborigines developing their 'own' civilised society and culture 'from within', Aboriginal autonomy was not on Elkin's agenda. Far from it. Guidance was always essential. This emerges most clearly from his commentary in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Aborigines were becoming increasingly vociferous in opposition to official assimilation policy and demanding recognition as a distinct people. At the same time, public rhetoric changed from 'assimilation' to 'integration', with the implication that group identity was compatible with citizenship. Since the 'assimilation' that Elkin had advocated for more than twenty years was perfectly congruent with the 'integration' of the 1960s, one might expect him to have welcomed it with enthusiasm. He didn't. At an academic level, he recognised the close compatibility between his 'assimilation' and the new 'integration'. (30) And he certainly did not oppose integration. Yet when it came to actual integrationist developments on the ground, and actual demands by Aborigines for the recognition of their distinctiveness, Elkin's comments remained guarded and equivocal. I shall exemplify this with three selections from Elkin's writings of 1959-1960.

His 1959 booklet, Aborigines and Citizenship, included a section headed 'Aborigines--A Distinct Group', in which he paid due respect to Aboriginal desires to maintain their distinctive communities and cultures and recognised the reasonableness of integration. In the following section he warned that because of mutual suspicion between black and white Australians, the transition to full citizenship was 'not easy', and 'those who advocate integration, meaning the preservation of separateness, may be making the transition more difficult' (Elkin [1959]:26). This was no repudiation of integration, rather a discussion of its possible difficulties. Yet here, and elsewhere, Elkin expressed unease at the fact that distinctiveness was voiced most insistently by those Aborigines from south-eastern Australia whose Aboriginal cultural traditions were allegedly attenuated and whose social solidarity he interpreted as, at least in part, a retreat from a hostile white world. (31) Resentment and alienation, anathema to Elkin, tainted their proposals. Not that he denied their Aboriginality. The majority of Aborigines in eastern Australia, even those 'of very light caste', he stated, 'retain much of the old Aboriginal attitude, communal behaviour, and values' (Elkin [1959]:28). The problem was that many had not also acquired the requisite Western attitudes, behaviours and values to fit them for citizenship. The necessity of Aborigines acquiring these Western attributes was hammered particularly strongly in this 1959 polemic on citizenship--far more strongly than in the majority of Elkin's writings--suggesting, perhaps, a degree of unease at the new trends in Aboriginal political demands.

Similar, though more moderate, views informed the 'Reflections' he wrote after attending a conference on Aboriginal welfare at Armidale in 1959. (32) Elkin reported on the disagreement among Aboriginal delegates over the relative merits of assimilation and integration, remarking that some preferred to 'break away completely from the Aboriginal background'. 'On the other hand', he continued,
 a forceful spokesman emphasized that the Aborigines should not be
 expected to lose their group identity or organization. Rather,
 they should be provided with sufficient land and opportunities to
 maintain their own community life and not be lost in the general
 community. Preservation as a people was his plea. That is, he, like
 many well-wishers today, advocated integration of Aboriginal groups
 into the Australian social structure.

This was perfectly in keeping with Elkin's own long-held views. Yet he went on to state:
 It is significant that this Aboriginal spokesman was one of those
 who for a couple of generations and more had lived on, and were
 associated with, Government Stations and Reserves, with their
 aspects of security, of dependence on the Government as though it
 were a right, and of group solidarity over against the general

Here the suspicion is not of the reasonableness of the spokesman's arguments, but that he argued from a false sense of social solidarity based on economic dependence and societal rejection. A little later in his reflections on the conference, Elkin remarked that
 probably a majority of the Aborigines see their future as a minority
 group, Aborigines irrespective of caste, within, but distinct from
 the general Australian population. If their advance works out along
 these lines, that does not mean that they cannot at the same time be
 full citizens in every way, provided that they develop economic
 independence and social responsibility.

Note the proviso at the end. It was to ensure that Aborigines developed these desirable social qualities that expert guidance was necessary. To be fair, it was not only Aborigines whom Elkin considered at risk of falling into economic dependency and social irresponsibility, particularly with the social dislocations of the post-war era. (33) Recognising the fragility of the social ties and cultural traditions that he valued, and fearing their possible disintegration, he maintained that expert scientific management was as essential for the effective functioning of modern industrialised societies as for the assimilation of Aborigines. (34)

In 1960 Elkin again attended a conference at Armidale on Aboriginal welfare. His address to that conference included a section entitled 'Assimilation or Integration', which began:
 Assimilation, introduced as policy in the late 1930's, is still
 accepted officially as the means to achieve citizenship, or as
 synonymous with it. But we realise that in some parts of the
 continent, assimilation is not acceptable to the Aborigines,
 particularly to those of mixed descent, but not only to them. They
 regard the term as meaning dispersal in the general community and
 implying the loss of their identity as a distinct group. And we
 must agree that Aborigines are a distinct group with roots going
 back into an indigenous past in Australia (Elkin 1960:17-18).

Without overt adjudication, he went on to recount the differences of opinion among Aborigines, with some 'trying to be "lost" in the general community' while others sought 'the realisation of citizenship ... through their own community projects and co-operatives, all aiming at the maintenance, at least for the time being, of an Aboriginal minority in Australia'. He persisted in maintaining that those following the latter option were not so much developing Aboriginal traditions as reacting against white prejudice and rejection; and he suggested that the east-coast Aboriginal exponents of integration upheld 'the distant full-bloods' as their 'symbol of the solidarity of the Aborigines as a whole'. (35) Generally, however, he was here less equivocal on the maintenance of Aboriginal distinctiveness than he had been at the 1959 conference. His concluding remarks in 1960 included a suggestion 'that a dual society is coming into being in Australia--the Aborigines and ourselves--both full citizens and with the boundaries between us neither sharply nor irrevocably marked'. Two sentences later, he raised the possibility that this might 'prove no more than a transition phase' (Elkin 1960:18).

This last remark points toward another uncertainty in Elkin's writings. He frequently tacked phrases like 'for generations' or 'for a long time' on to his references to the persistence of Aboriginal cultural distinctiveness. What did he mean by this? Was he intimating that distinctiveness would not endure? Or was he merely expressing a reluctance to pronounce definitively on the future? The vagueness of Elkin's phrases prohibits any categorical answer. But he seems to be simply suggesting that, whatever its longer-term prospects, Aboriginal socio-cultural distinctiveness would long outlast the fluctuating fashions of government policy. Aboriginal distinctiveness would endure into the foreseeable future; that was all that could be known, and all that need be known for the formulation of policy. As he remarked to Olive Pink in 1954, assimilation did not mean 'the loss of the Aboriginal minority in the general population; that might happen a very long way in the future, but we have not to envisage it'. (36)

Concluding remarks

Elkin's writings often juxtapose a tone of preacherly, almost banal, self-righteousness with a reflective indeterminacy of argument. On assimilation, he veered this way and that, sometimes emphasising the need for Aboriginal adaptation to Western culture, sometimes the necessity of Aboriginal cultural continuity, then back to an emphasis on Westernisation, depending on the polemical purposes of the moment. Beneath these shifts, he assumed, as a matter of sociological fact, the persistence (not necessarily in perpetuity) of indigenous tradition and identity. Elkin's plea was not for an end to socio-cultural diversity, but for a workable diversity wherein Aboriginal cultural and community formations could be made compatible with those of the larger national grouping. In this endeavour, he pinned his faith on progress and the scientific management of social problems. These faiths have since taken a battering from more sceptical intellectual trends. Yet this should not inhibit a recognition that Elkin's assimilation entailed an attempt to reconcile Aboriginality with Australian citizenship. And Elkin was not alone in this attempt. When mid-twentieth century Australians urged the assimilation of Aborigines, they did not automatically endorse government policy. Hasluck's model of assimilation may have been in accord with certain strands of liberal individualism that have been particularly salient in Australian political culture, and he may have possessed the political power necessary to put his model into effect. But it would be mistaken to imagine that this, and this alone, constituted assimilation. When Australians of the time used the word 'assimilation', they did not articulate a singular, agreed-upon meaning. They entered into a discourse: a discourse that runs throughout the history of Aboriginal-European interactions and that re-emerged into prominence in the 1930s with the realisation that Aborigines would constitute a continuing presence within the nation. Beyond the agreed-upon goals of modernity and citizenship, assimilationist discourse (or perhaps it should be discourses) ramified into all sorts of variants. Assimilationism was less closed, more indeterminate, than seems generally to be recognised. As Elkin remarked in 1960, reflecting on decades of involvement in Aboriginal affairs: 'We are only learning what assimilation is as we go along. We don't particularly know which way it is going' (Elkin 1960:23).


(1.) This is a revised version of a paper originally presented to the Australian Anthropological Society Annual Conference, 2-4 October 1997 at Magnetic Island, Townsville. I thank those present, especially Gillian Cowlishaw, Geoff Gray and Myra Tonkinson, for their comments. Thanks also to Di Menghetti, Christine Mitchell and Rowland Weston for their comments on an earlier revision, and to the two anonymous referees for this journal for their helpful critiques.

(2.) This legislation, the Welfare Ordinance 1953, NT, did not come into operation until 1957 (Chesterman and Galligan 1997: 174).

(3.) Undated typescript headed 'Wards, not Aborigines, In the Northern Territory: The Proposed Ordinance "To Provide for the Care and Assistance of Certain Persons": Comments by Professor A. P. Elkin in Elkin Papers, University of Sydney Archives (hereafter EP) box 71, item 1/12/187 (underlining in the original). Probably sent to Hasluck in February 1953; see Elkin to Hasluck, 2 February 1953, EP, box 189, item 4/2/459. Eikin evidently regarded the issue as important. In April 1953 he wrote to the West Australian Commissioner of Native Affairs, S. G. Middleton, strongly advising him against following Hasluck's 'very undesirable' policy direction; see Elkin to Middleton, 9 April 1953, EP, box 189, item 4/2/454.

(4.) Their disagreement erupted into the public arena at the 1959 ANZAAS Congress in Perth: Wise (1985:228-32) provides a good account of this incident.

(5.) Good examples of such monolithic representations of assimilation, from opposing political perspectives, can be found in Partington 1996 and Dodson 1996. Tim Rowse (1987:135-37) more appropriately points out that assimilation was a 'vague doctrine' that was 'powerful because of its appeal to the notions of fairness and national unity'. More recently Rowse has published an insightful and finely nuanced study in which he draws attention to the contestations among assimilationists and demonstrates the inadequacy of monolithic or unitary representations of assimilation. In his book Rowse refers to the disagreement between Elkin and Hasluck; although the present paper was drafted before the publication of Rowse's book, it may be read as extending the points raised by him in this regard. See Rowse 1998 and my review of his book (McGregor 1999)

(6.) On the assimilationism of Aboriginal activists in the late 1930s, see Markus 1986 and McGregor 1993a. The assimilationism of post-World War Two Aboriginal activists has received scant scholarly attention. Goodall (1996:276-77) acknowledges an assimilationist strand in Aboriginal political discourses in the 1950s, but her study understates the importance of this strand. The 'insider' history of at least one prominent Aboriginal pressure group of the time (the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship) indicates a strong commitment to assimilation (though not necessarily to official assimilation policy); see Bandler and Fox 1983.

(7.) For detail on the development of Elkin's assimilationist ideas in the 1930s, see Wise 1985:112-45; McGregor 1997:205-23.

(8.) See, for example, Elkin's comments in Commonwealth of Australia: House of Representatives. 1961. Report from the Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines, Part 2:491.

(9.) Elkin to Wardlaw, 12 July 1951, EP, box 182, item 4/2/313. See also Elkin 1937:499-500.

(10.) I have argued elsewhere the extent to which Elkin's intellectual outlook was indebted to Enlightenment ideas of progress, and more specifically eighteenth-century stadial theory; see McGregor 1993b:101-103; McGregor 1997:206-223.

(11.) Native Welfare Conference: statement by leave by the Minister for Territories (the Hon. Paul Hasluck, M. P.) In the House of Representatives on Thursday, 20th April, 1961, pamphlet in EP, box 56, item 1/12/14. Similar definitions of assimilation appeared in other contemporary Commonwealth statements, some change appearing at the 1965 Conference where the definition was amended to include the notion of Aboriginal choice and to replace the word 'same' with 'similar'; see Broome 1994:171-73.

(12.) On the post-war 'Australian way of life' see White 1979; more specifically on its individualism see Brett 1992 and Murphy 1995:547,551.

(13.) Perhaps the best examples are the Aboriginal displays for the 1954 Royal Tour; see Spearritt 1986:87-88.

(14.) As Rowse goes on to detail in his book, this generalisation does not hold true for all Australian liberals. For a more complex--and sometimes idiosyncratic--appraisal of liberalism in Australian culture see Melleuish 1995.

(15.) See for example Elkin 1940; Elkin 1943a; Elkin 1943b.

(16.) It may be objected that this was merely a function of the fact that Elkin was an academic, Hasluck a practising politician, hence they wrote within different discursive conventions. Whatever truth there may be in this, the fact remains that Hasluck was himself a former academic (briefly) and his retrospective, Shades of Darkness, published after his period of office, bears out the generalisation that I am making. Besides, the majority of Elkin's writings on assimilation were not works of academic analysis but polemical interventions in public debate.

(17.) Elkin, of course, imbued human beings with free will; apart from anything else, it was an essential theological doctrine of the Anglican Church in which he was an ordained priest. But the doctrine of free will does not necessarily (if ever) imply the level of individual autonomy entailed in Hasluck's liberalism.

(18.) For an exposition of similar trends in contemporary American anthropology see Stocking 1989.

(19.) Elkin himself was eclectic in theoretical orientation; Wise (1985:224) aptly characterises his theoretical stance as a combination of functionalism, diffusionism and Darwinism.

(20.) On the larger question of the significance of Durkheim in the development of twentieth-century British social anthropology, opinion is divided. George Stocking (1984a; 1984b) credits Durkheim with a major role, especially in relation to that strand of functionalism founded by Radcliffe-Brown. Jack Goody (1995) also suggests that Durkheim was a major influence on British social anthropological studies. Kenelm Burridge (1973) points out the pervasiveness of Durkheim's influence, specifically on Australian Aboriginal studies. Henrika Kuklick (1991:120; 1996:249-50) on the other hand, minimises the intellectual impetus of Durkheim, suggesting that he was installed at the head of the social anthropological lineage more as an ex post facto myth of origins.

(21.) Gregory Melleuish (1989:9-10) discusses Elkin's insistence upon social cohesiveness in terms of his religious beliefs rather than his anthropological orientation. I have no dispute with this, and indeed the confluence of social science, social integration and religiosity tends to bear out the suggested connection--or at least compatibility--with Durkheim.

(22.) Elkin to Wardlaw, 12 July 1951, EP, box 182, item 4/2/313.

(23.) True, Elkin's writing was normally dry, severe, dour--not the stuff of enthusiastic endorsement of anything--although there were exceptions, especially when he wrote on the religious issues close to his heart. My assessment of Elkin's lack of enthusiasm for cultural diversity is based on a reasonably comprehensive reading of his published and unpublished writings from the early 1930s to the late 1970s. Nowhere have I found any passage clearly extolling the virtues (rather than the mere existence) of cultural diversity. Perhaps the closest he comes is in passages such as that at the end of his 1948 article on 'The Future of the Australian Aborigine', where he rather blandly notes that Aborigines 'might enrich' the 'general pattern' of the national culture. (Elkin 1948:15) The high value he placed upon Aboriginal studies seems to have rested not so much on the intrinsic worth of Aboriginal culture (though that was acknowledged) as on the conventional anthropological notion that Aborigines afforded a unique opportunity for 'studying man and man's nature'; see Peterson 1990.

(24.) See also Elkin, Some Reflections on the Conference [on Aboriginal Welfare, Armidale, 1959], EP, box, 76, item 1/12/267.

(25.) Elkin, Background Notes for Australian Broadcasting Commission Series: Is the Australian Aborigine getting a Fair Deal?, 1951, EP, box 76, item 1/12/265.

(26.) See, for example, Elkin 1934a:55-60; Elkin 1934b:18; Elkin 1937:466-72.

(27.) See Elkin 1951b; for further discussion of this point see McGregor 1996.

(28.) Elkin to P. Pentony, Department of Psychology, University of Western Australia, 18 August 1950, EE box 182, item 4/2/300; Elkin to Wardlaw, 12 July 1951, EP, box 182, item 4/2/313.

(29.) See Wise 1985; McGregor 1996:123-24. Others have represented Elkin's self-aggrandisement and disciplinary devotion in less kindly terms; see Gray 1996 and Gray 1997.

(30.) See for example the concluding paragraph of Elkin 1963:153-54.

(31.) For further examples see Elkin 1951b:176-77; Elkin 1953:636-37; Elkin to Pentony, 18 August 1950, EP box 182, item 4/2/300; Discussion on assimilation of Aborigines between Mr A. G. Kingsmill, Professor Elkin and Mr Colin Davis held on 7th April 1960, EP box 72, item 1/12/195.

(32.) Elkin, Some Reflections on the Conference, EP box 76, item 1/12/267.

(33.) For a good account of intellectual responses to post-World War Two social change in Australia, see Brown 1995.

(34.) Elkin's founding of the Australian Institute of Sociology and its journal, Social Horizons, in the 1940s was very much motivated by his conviction of the practical applicability of sociology and the need for scientific management to avert the looming social problems of post-war Australia.

(35.) He elaborated on this notion, and the concomitant growth of Aboriginal nationalism, in his evidence to the Select Committee on Voting Rights for Aborigines in 1961; see Commonwealth of Australia: House of Representatives. 1961. Report from the Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines, part 2:490-91.

(36.) Elkin to Pink, 26 October 1954, EP, box 38, item 1/10/7. Interestingly, this correspondence includes a rare instance of agreement between Elkin and Pink (who resolutely opposed assimilation); they concurred on the undesirability of Hasluck's 1953 Welfare Ordinance and the injustice of 'turning [Aborigines] into wards by the say-so of the Administration'.


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Russell McGregor

James Cook University
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