“Divorce your theory” A conversation with Paul Farmer (part one)

Farmer’s thoughts encapsulate everything I think and feel about the contemporary state of anthropology. To this, I would also add something said to me by friend and colleague, James Rose: “…the solution is for real social anthropologists to stop identifying philosophers as their peers and instead start identifying medical professionals, scientists, teachers, and geographers as their peers.”


5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Doing Archaeology in Australia

As an anthropologist, I’m accustomed to answering people’s questions about what it is that I do:

Do you study spiders? No, I leave the arthropods (spiders) to the entomologists.

Have you dug up any interesting fossils lately? Well…. umm, no. That’s palaeontology, and whilst some of the people I work with might be unkindly described as ‘fossils’, they’re most certainly alive.

Anthropology is, of course, the study of human cultures. In my case, it’s working with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to help protect their sacred sites.

Of course, most people probably assume that anthropologists know what archaeologists do in the field, and vice versa, as the disciplines share a lot of similarities.

In reality, this isn’t quite the truth – which is exactly what I discovered at a recent Flinders University field school on archaeological field methods at Redbanks (near Mallala).

1. It’s Not About the Digging

I thought I’d be carefully excavating artefacts in neatly squared trenches with all manner of natty little trowels and brushes.

I was sadly mistaken.

Most archaeology in Australia involves field surveys, which means you’re looking for artefacts on the ground: lots of walking, surveying, measuring, flagging and recording artefacts in the database at night.

2.You Will Be Mistaken for a Surveyor

Theodolites. Dumpy levels. Red and white sticks.

Archaeologists use all of these – and more.

People driving past your field site WILL mistake you for a surveyor.

After several days of holding up a red and white stick and making sure it’s level, you will mistake yourself for a surveyor, too.

3. Archaeologists Love Gadgets

Studying archaeology gives me a whole new excuse to buy more gadgets!

There’s callipers, portable desks, prismatic compasses, weather-proof notebooks, brushes, scales…

…and at last a real excuse to buy an iPad for work!

4. No Snakes, But…

Indiana Jones always seems to find snakes. During 11 years of outback fieldwork, I’ve rarely encountered snakes.

Beetles, ants, flies and spiders, however, are everywhere:

Do NOT forget the Aeroguard!

5. Flagging, Tagging and Bagging

Despite the Hollywood stereotypes, archaeology has plenty of repetitive-but-necessary tasks.

Like flagging, collecting and recording more than a thousand glass fragments, broken pieces of ceramic and and clay bricks.

Whilst we didn’t uncover any buried treasures, I did walk away learning something that’s true for both archaeology and anthropologyalways expect the unexpected.

Tales From the Field

In the last few weeks we’ve had more than our entire year’s rainfall. The country is  striking – almost like a slap in the face as you travel through green, green grass, violet blue sky…

…and burnt red earth.

I drove down into the top of South Australia and saw the Hugh River flowing like I’ve rarely seen it flow before. The birds were incredible, budgies and cockatiels, and Songlarks and Crested Bellbirds and of course, Honeyeaters:

…And the road and sacred sites

… the reasons I was let loose on the world.

Into the Wild


Last Saturday night we watched the movie, Into the Wild. If you’ve been a reader of this blog or my other blog, you might glean that I’m a fan of Jon Krakauer’s work. Into the Wild was Jon Krakauker’s first notable book, written in 1996, before Into Thin Air. Sean Penn is one of the directors of this movie. Whilst the movie is at times as frustrating as it is disturbing, it’s well worth seeing for the reasons I’m going to give below.

I love the ‘vagabond, living free and simple’ genre of books and movies. I enjoyed Huckleburry Finn as a child, Jack Kerouac’s books as an adult, travel lit of all kinds, and Rolf Pott’s book, Vagabonding, Thoreau’s Walden and so on. So, whilst I enjoyed the sense of adventure and simplicity portrayed in Into the Wild, there are other aspects of it that disturb me greatly. Incidentally, Into the Wild is based on a true story.

*If you have any other suggestions for literature that fits in the vagabonding genre, I’d love to know.

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Fun With Social Theory


My daughter is in the first year of a degree in mass media and communications. Several of the subjects she’s studying draw heavily upon various social theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Bathes, Marx, Stuart Hall etc.  I am kind of reliving my undergrad days, recalling names I studied in social theory in third year sociology and my honours year.

Unfortunately, she’s doing subjects which are largely ‘cultural studies’ by another name; the same discipline responsible (in Australia) for having Year 12 student study posters as ‘texts’.  I say unfortunately, because … well … how do I say this politely? I’m not convinced cultural studies should be a discipline in itself – but I should save that for another post. Which brings me to the reason for this post.

Social theorists seem to come in two camps: the exceedingly dull (in writing style or personality) or the flamboyant. For example, his prose might not rock your world -and he is no longer THE theorist whom all aspiring social scientists MUST quote in their essays, but you could hardly call Michel Foucault dull. Thus, in writing this post, I am picking up on the humourous, the bizarre, the odd little snippets to make you smile about the social theorists whose names drove you spare in Sociology 101.

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