Radical roots: Looking back at 50 years of Anthropology at Macquarie

Radical roots: Looking back at 50 years of Anthropology at Macquarie

By Robert Norton, one of the founding members of the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie.

The first anthropology classes at Macquarie University were held on 20 July 1969, the day of the first moon landing. Back then the University comprised just two large buildings, a couple of smaller ones, and a few old farmhouse-type cottages, one of them housing the bookshop. It was a semi-rural scene with extensive open fields and bushland, very few houses and fewer businesses.

To understand the beginnings of anthropology at Macquarie, it is important to understand the background and intellectual strengths and interests of the founder of the department, Chandra Jayawardena.

Bringing anthropology into the modern world

Anthropology in Australia in the early 1960s was very conservative.   Most anthropologists were immersed in research and teaching on so-called tribal societies, giving little attention to the forces of wider society, economy, and politics that were increasingly impacting on the lives of such peoples.

Chandra Jayawardena was one of a new breed of anthropologists who brought to their teaching and research an acute awareness of the importance of these forces. He achieved a reputation as a brilliant, imaginative, innovative teacher at the University of Sydney, and took the lead in broadening the Sydney department’s vision well beyond the ethnography of “tribal” societies that had dominated the curriculum since that department’s establishment in the 1930s.  He brought this spirit to guide anthropology at Macquarie.

Sri Lanka to South America: Chandra’s work

Chandra was the son of an upper middle-class Sinhalese Buddhist family in Colombo Sri Lanka; his father was a medical doctor. He gained his BA (Hons) degree at the University of Ceylon in 1951, specialising in English literature.  In London he enrolled for a PhD in anthropology,  researching the social life of sugar cane plantation workers in the colony of British Guiana (Guyana) on the north coast of South America. He focussed on patterns of conflict and conflict regulation among the workers, and how, in the conduct of such conflicts, egalitarian values were regularly reaffirmed.

For a young man recently come of age as Sri Lanka achieved its independence from British rule and who had dabbled in left wing student politics and the socialist Lanka Sama Samaja Party, it was an exciting time to be in Guiana and the Caribbean as the colonies there approached their own independence.

In 1960, soon after gaining his PhD, Chandra was appointed a lecturer at Sydney University.    His teaching and further research were energised especially by his interest in questions of equality and inequality in social life, an interest fired by his experience of growing up under colonial rule and by his study in Guyana.  In Fiji he followed up his study of the Indo-Guianese plantation workers with research on society and culture in a predominantly Indo-Fijian district. In Sumatra he took a particular interest in the rebel movement in Aceh and its relation to local culture and social organisation.

“I like to imagine the photo of Chandra on the motorcycle as a salute or sympathetic allusion to Che Guevara.  He was certainly sympathetic to movements of radical reform.” – Robert Norton

When in 1968, he was invited to take the newly established anthropology chair in the School of Behavioural Sciences at the almost equally new Macquarie University, his response was at first ambivalent: even asking me, a young PhD student, what I thought of the possibility. He saw an attractive opportunity to take anthropology in new directions. But what might be the future of this infant university out in the sticks?

A critical lens on colonialism

Our classes were very small for the first few years. But we were soon growing strongly with a wide range of research expertise. By the mid 1970s the department had eleven full-time staff.

We had begun our teaching when the radical social and political protest movements that had emerged in the mid 1960s were at their peak.  This influenced our curriculum, encouraging many of us to give much attention to issues of inequality and power. Ten years earlier, our teachers at Sydney and elsewhere had given little attention to the political, cultural, and social realities of colonial power. For us it was now a major issue given that in our neighbourhood, the western Pacific, colonial power persisted.

Our studies of complex structures and processes in late colonial and early post-colonial societies, and in other developing societies, as well as a continued focus by some of us on small-scale traditional societies, marked the character of our department as a project of comparative sociology. This had long been Chandra’s vision of anthropology.

In his obituary following Chandra’s untimely death at 52 in 1981, Clive Kessler, professor of Sociology at the University of NSW, one of Chandra’s early honours students, remarked that the group of scholars he had brought together at Macquarie represented one of the most vital and intellectually cosmopolitan centres of Australian anthropology.

Chandra Jayawardena possessed an exceptional ability to inspire and encourage his students to bring forth their best, helping to prepare many for academic careers. He was also a humanitarian with warmth, sensitivity, generosity and humour that equipped him well for his field work among culturally diverse peoples.  They were qualities that endeared him to students and encouraged a spirit of egalitarian collegiality among his staff.

1 July 2019

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