Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Culture and Conflict: Rethinking the Theory and Practice of Ethnic and Indigenous Conflict and Conflict Management

Dr Mary Edmunds, Dr Patrick Sullivan, Toni Bauman, Michael Bissell, Prof Mick Dodson.

This colloquium explores the causes and management of ethnically defined conflict from the point of view of anthropologists and other stakeholders working in Australian indigenous affairs. Anthropology contributes to the critical humanities through its potential for insights into ethnic and indigenous conflict, yet historically it has occupied an uncomfortable position between the objectification and glorification of culture and the critique of expressions of national and ethnic identity and difference. Anthropology, and perhaps the humanities in general, tend to privilege the idea of ‘a culture’, being a set of social relations occurring within assumed boundaries - spatial, temporal, behavioural, ethical, symbolic. Yet, when this bounded culture expresses its own self-consciousness as ethnic or nationalist ideology, the discipline is uncomfortable with the results of its own privileging. Paradoxically, the human disciplines lead us to be sceptical of essentialist expressions of ethnic or indigenous origins or definitions and the unexamined right of 'culture' to its self-governance at the same time as we bring such cultures into existence by our theorising. Defining a group by its essential difference also establishes its Others and so it lies at the heart of many cultural or so-called ethnic conflicts. A third result is the need to conceptualise interstitial, hybrid or borderland experiences that owe their explanatory power entirely to the prior conceptualising of unitary and pure 'cultures'. However once the idea of boundary is problematised, there begins a fatal calling in question of the bounded 'entities' themselves.

This panel contribution will look at approaches to conflict management through the negotiation of indigenous/non-indigenous ethnicities. It will examine the causes of inter-ethnic conflict and, through questioning the nature of the conflicting actors themselves, reconceptualise both its trajectory and its desirable end. Conflict, in this view, is no longer conceived as arising out of the difference between certain categories of social beings and therefore tending towards a negotiated and static pact of compromised rights. The difference that gives rise to conflict is itself mutable, negotiable and contextual, integrated in the many ambiguities of ordinary existence. Conflict is a matter for continuing management rather than a problem to be wrestled into a submission that cannot last. The inequities underlying the various struggles for well-being which are now articulated in terms of cultural rights do not disappear by questioning the existence of cultures, but they do need to be advanced by new explanatory vehicles, modes of expression, and methods of recognition. In exploring such new approaches, the discussion will also raise questions about the conceptualisation of new directions in the humanities.


Dr Mary Edmunds  (Australia)
The Centre for Cross Cultural Research
Australian National University

(Colloquium Chair) Dr Mary Edmunds is a social anthropologist, with fieldwork experience in Indigenous Australia - particularly in native title - South-east Asia, and the Mediterranean.

Dr Patrick Sullivan  (Australia)

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Toni Bauman  (Australia)

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Michael Bissell  (Australia)

Minerals Council of Australia

Prof Mick Dodson  (Australia)

Australian Institute of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies

  • Culture
  • Ethnicity
  • Conflict
  • Indigenous
  • Boundaries
  • Mediation and facilitation

(90 min. Colloquium, English)