W.E.H. Stanner

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Emeritus Professor W.E.H.Stanner, C.M.G., died in Canberra on 8 October 1981. In the fifty years since he completed an honours degree under A.R. Radcliffe-Browne at the University of Sydney, Stanner had transformed academic, official and public opinion about Australian Aboriginal societies.

Stanner, born in 1905, first planned a career in economics or politics, and worked full-time as a journalist from 1927 to support his studies. In April 1932 he left his job as a chief sub-editor to begin fieldwork on the Daly River under the supervision of Raymond Firth. The ideas and the friendship of these teachers shaped Stanner’s life. But it was A.P. Elkin, the sole staff member left in a department blighted by the withdrawal of government funding, who supervised Stanner’s 1934 M.A. thesis. Its topic was ‘the important and neglected problem’ of studying alien contact and cultural change. Stanner’s concern with Aboriginal welfare and the practical politics of administration was sharpened during his 1934-35 fieldwork as an Australian National Research Council Fellow. His task was a survey of the Warramunga and eight other tribal groups scattered on pastoral properties in central and northern Australia. He found occupants of the Tennant Creek Aboriginal Reserve resisting official plans to remove them so mining could proceed. They asked Stanner to intervene. His warnings about the effects of economic development on land use and religious life, and his advice on administrative reforms, were not heeded. Aboriginal poverty and ill-health, and the moral issue of Aboriginal land rights, were still a major focus on Stanner’s writing nearly half a century later.

During this 18-month expedition, which included another season on the Daly River and his first journey to Port Keats, he collected the material for his 1938 doctoral thesis on ceremonial economics and economic change among these northern tribes. A stint as speech-writer to the State Premier had enabled him to save for further study, but at the height of the depression in 1936 he had to sell his books to raise the fare to England. As Oxford held no opportunities for part-time employment, Radcliffe-Brown advised him to go to LSE. There he served as birth’s research assistant and in the summers found work as leader-writer and sub-editor on The Times. His interest in politics led to a temporary post as private secretary to the Australian Treasurer during the Imperial Conference of 1937.

Like his compatriots Ralph Piddington and Phyllis Kaberry, he found Malinowski’s seminars gruelling but exhilarating. He was stimulated, too, by attending lectures on economics, sociology and political theory, and by debating the inevitability of war and the future of colonial rule with fellow students. His dismay at the exploitation of Aborigines had not abated. His published cricisms and an address to the RAI early in 1938 led its Committee on Applied Anthropology to send a detailed memorandum (drafted by Stanner) to all Australian governments. The suggested reforms impressed Commonwealth authorities but action was deferred by the exigencies of war.

War also cut short Stanner’s 1939 fieldwork among the Kitui Kamba of Kenya, which was supported by the Oxford Social Studies Research Committee. He served with distinction during the war as a broadcaster in the Australian Department of Information, as a research officer on the staff of the Minister for the Army, as a ‘bush commando’ leader, and as Assistant Director of Research for the Army in which post he was posted to British North Borneo to cope with problems of economic recovery.

After demobilization in 1946 he worked for the Department of External Affairs in Canberra, drafting plans for the proposed South Pacific Commission. He then undertook a field study of post-war reconstruction (the basis of his The South Seas in Transition) for the Institute of Pacific Relations. In September 1947 he accepted a renewed offer of appointment as foundation director of the East African Institute of Social Research at Makerere but resigned after a year of research in Uganda and Tanganyika and returned to London to prepare reports on research needs.

In September 1949 Stanner was appointed Reader in Comparative Social Institutions at the new Australian National University. He was nearly 44 and had never held a tenured University post. But he wanted to work among Aborigines once more and, although sceptical, was intrigued by the founders’ plans for government-funded research schools which would focus on problems of national importance. He was promoted to Professor in 1964 and served as alternate head of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology until his retirement at the end of 1970. His interest in administration and economic development continued and he represented Australia on the South Pacific Commission 1953-55. But his fieldwork was once again devoted to the people of Port Keats and the Daly River. His journeys there continued until 1978.

Stanner’s research interests were diverse, but all had relevance to his attempt to construct a new theoretical approach, expounded in On Aboriginal Religion, which demanded intensive study of the historical dimension in human affairs and greater precision in comparative analysis. His studies of Aboriginal religion and symbolism, economic organization and social change were written in a kind of intellectual isolation when such topics were unfashionable. Yet his graceful and passionate essays, public lectures and broadcasts (many of them collected in White Man Got No Dreaming) immediately influenced a wide audience of scholars and concerned citizens. He effectively challenged accepted views on Australian defence and the writing of Australian history. His analysis of Aboriginal local organization and systems of land tenure influenced courts as well as his colleagues. Stanner himself deprecated his ‘journalism’ and regretted his ‘failure’ to publish more anthropological monographs. He was surprised to learn that his writing was well known to Australian and North American students and had attracted many to postgraduate research. He had few opportunities for undergraduate teaching, yet shaped the growth of Australian anthropology through his work in founding the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1961 and subsequent service on its governing council and committees.

From 1967 to 1976 Stanner served on the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. Until the end of his life much of Stanner’s time was devoted to securing recognition of Aboriginal rights to land. He acted as expert witness and consultant in the 1971 Yirrkala case and for various claims subsequently heard by the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, and became a founding member of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee. He accepted such tasks as a matter of conscience, for he believed that anthropology should be useful and that its insights should not be confined to academic seminars. Despite severe illness he went on organizing information on the past to serve the present-day needs of Aboriginal communities. Descendants of men and women he had known half a century earlier, and the anthropologists and lawyers helping them to prepare a land claim, were using his records when the news of his death was carried to them at the Daly River.

The recently published memoirs of Australia’s senior economic adviser H.C. Coombs, who had known Stanner’s work since the 1930s, describe him as perhaps the best-informed and certainly the wisest of Australian anthropologists. He deserved this tribute.

Diane E. Barwick

(The Times published an obituary on 26 October)

This obituary first appeared as: Barwick, Diane E.. 1982. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 48, p. 16 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

BARWICK, DIANE E.. 1982. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 48, p. 16 (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/w-e-h-stanner).


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online https://aio.therai.org.uk/aio.php?action=doquicksearch&qs_resultsmode=fullkeywords&qs_decades=all&qs_keyword=Stanner