David McKnight

Empathetic ethnographer of the Australian Aborigines


John David McKnight, anthropologist: born Saint John, New Brunswick 4 March 1935; Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Edinburgh University 1968-71; Lecturer in Anthropology, LSE 1971-82, Senior Lecturer 1982-97; married 1962 Meg Phillips (two sons, four daughters; marriage dissolved), 2005 Alessandra Solivetti; died Rome 14 May 2006.

The anthropologist David McKnight, a leading ethnographer of Australian Aborigines, published four exceptional volumes between 1999 and 2005 that disclosed the drama, intelligence and humanity of their culture. He also detailed, systematically and with immense insight, the pain, violence and inhumanity of processes that have led to the loss of their distinctive ways of life.

The first of these, in 1999, was perhaps the most brilliant work of his career, People, Countries, and the Rainbow Serpent: systems of classification among the Lardil of Mornington Island; then in 2002 came From Hunting to Drinking: the devastating effects of alcohol on an Australian Aboriginal community; in 2004 Going the Whiteman's Way: kinship and marriage among Australian Aborigines; and in 2005 Of Marriage, Violence and Sorcery: the quest for power in Northern Queensland.

McKnight intended these works to be read as a set. Together they are a sophisticated tour de force, unfolding the richness and fascination of another world, a different way of thinking, acting and living from our own that could not survive the arrogant processes of Western colonisation.

Born in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1935, McKnight received his BA in English Literature and Philosophy at Bishop's University in Quebec in 1957. Arriving in Britain in the early 1960s, he studied Anthropology at University College London, receiving a BA in 1963 and a master's degree in 1965, for which he wrote and then published a highly applauded thesis, "A Comparative Study of Cults of the Dead with Reference to Selected African Societies". For his PhD from London University in 1977, his dissertation, on the intellectually intimidating marriage class systems of Australian Aborigines, was based on long field research among the Mornington Islanders of Northern Queensland.

Over the years, he continued field research among Aborigines. A teacher well loved by his students, he was on the faculty of the Department of Anthropology at Edinburgh University from 1968 until 1971 and the Department of Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics from 1971 until 1997.

His early training in the humanities was crucial to the directions in which his anthropology developed. Never fond of the jargon of social science, and suspicious of its grand narratives, McKnight remained faithful to his early training in philosophy and literary studies. This not only drove his theoretical development and achievements in social anthropology, but also provided his writings with a freshness, delicacy and innovative thrust. His intellectual depth, humour and graceful writing style were much admired.

In field research that spanned nearly 40 years, McKnight embodied the fundamental truth that you cannot do good anthropology if you do not have empathy for the people themselves. He listened to them, became their close friend, and thus was able to speak of them in very human terms. He was forever telling stories that illustrated that Aboriginals were not mere actors in some anthropological set-piece. For him, they were never material to illustrate this or that anthropological theory, for they were above all human beings.

This is one of the reasons that he was so committed to empirically grounded ethnographic fieldwork. He understood that theoretical insight must always emerge from the details, and not the other way round. His stories about his fieldwork, and his writings, captured the small events, the everyday relationships and arguments that allow the listener or reader to transcend the superficial elements of Aborigine culture. Australian Aborigines were, ultimately, always people caught in webs of their own making, trying their best to sort it all out.

It was McKnight's strength that he waited until the latter part of his life to write his major books, long after he had understood Aborigines in any conventional anthropological sense - when he had become wise enough to understand from his own life experiences how they felt. He was one of our best ethnographers because he knew the details, theirs and his, that allowed him to feel their world. He was a man whose country was the heart.

Claude Lévi-Strauss once remarked that Aborigines were mathematically precise in thinking about their societies. This was his conclusion in his elegant formal analysis of the complex subsection systems they used for the calculating of correct marriages. For decades after he made this pronouncement, other anthropologists tried to find an all-encompassing formal system that might unite all categories through which Aboriginals thought about their social relationships. David McKnight's fundamental contribution to Aboriginal studies was to recognise that such a feat was impossible, for the Aborigines did not have, nor recognise, such an integrated model of society.

It was only if one examined a single dimension of their categorisation of relationships, as Lévi-Strauss did, that one could find, in the purely formal sense, an ordering that was precise and mathematical. Rather, as McKnight disclosed, for Aborigines, one set of rules, linked to one way of ordering social relationships, such as their sub-section systems, often enough contradicted the next. In real life Aborigines daily debated and argued over which set of obligations should prevail, for each classification carried its own individual perspective. Two people could be related through genealogy in one way, and through section terminology in another. Their social life could not be reduced to a formal principle of order, for it was not mathematical unity they privileged, but ambiguity, and complexity. Lévi-Strauss, in admiration, came to embrace McKnight's solution.

The Lardil people always played with perspective. They used three different languages, each of which allowed subtly different ways of understanding and arguing over their environment and world of kinspeople. Even when all three languages made the same distinction, they presented different information, for instance relevant to hunting, but perhaps not to gathering, or ritual. Their symbolism of decorative art provided a fourth "language" through which to view and judge the world.

McKnight knew well all of the Lardil languages - and their uses. He wrote with insight and wit on the multi-referentiality of their language use, and argued against the academic nonsense that the absence of a word (in linguistics a so-called "lexical gap") for an abstract concept signals the absence of the concept.

He showed irrefutably that complex abstract ideas can be expressed in ways other than spoken language. He described dance for Lardil people as religious thought in action. Through dance and body decoration, Lardil could express in an instant, or in a series of movements, a number of contradictory statements, thereby overcoming the straitjacket of spoken language.

Lardil recognised David McKnight as a great hunter, and a dancer of the dreamtime. Eventually he became a prized elder and close kinsman. In appreciation of his great interest in their lives, they gave him the totemic name "Boora-rung-ee" - "the man who asks why" - and, sadly, in later years, he became recognised as the sole remaining "Keeper" ("speaker") of Demiin, their language of dreamtime ritual. His Lardil: keepers of the dreamtime, a non-technical introduction to Aboriginal thought, was published in 1995.

McKnight's scholarship made incisive contributions to debates in a number of areas both within and without anthropology - in social theory, symbolism, gender studies, linguistics and performance theory. With his powerful work From Hunting to Drinking, he leapt into the midst of post-colonial debate. This book dwells on the disintegration of Aborigines of Mornington Island, where Lardil people dwell, and their descent into heavy alcohol abuse and appalling personal violence.

Alcoholism set in among these peoples from the mid-1970s, when the "Shire", an Australian form of local government, was imposed upon them and stripped them of control over their own lives. State benefits replaced the practices of hunting and gathering. Drinking and gambling became the main social activities, for men and women alike.

McKnight's writing on the situation carries sophisticated messages on the violence of neo-liberal "best-of- intentions" solutions. He is at his very best when juxtaposing the political values of Western political philosophy with those of Aborigines. The depersonalised institutionalised power of Western democracies, along with its types of domination that we take for granted, are anathema to the Aborigine. It is out of despair that they drink, but the despairing gaze of the Aborigine teaches us. We have been taught to "colonise" ourselves, as well as others. The true horror of this story of subjugation and its effect is that it is a global story. It was with deep sorrow, but great determination, that McKnight wrote his book.

Having spent time in Italy since the late 1980s, after his retirement from LSE in 1997 he had moved to Rome. In the end, his scholarship was prodigious, and it was the years in Rome that had provided him with the tranquillity to achieve it. At the time of his death, McKnight had almost completed two further monographs on Lardil people, one on dance, the other on body decoration.

Joanna Overing, Guy Lanoue and Chet Creider

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