Book review In Australian Anthropological Society Newsletter 99: 19-23.

Draft published on


Minnegal, M. (ed.) 2005. Sustainable environments, sustainable communities: potential dialogues between anthropologists, scientists and managers. SAGES Research paper 21. Melbourne: School of Anthropology, Geography & Environmental Studies, University of Melbourne.

Isbn 07304030827  90pp.

Cost – $10


Simon Batterbury, Univ. of Melbourne


The 2004 AAS conference in Melbourne was followed by  a one-day meeting convened by my colleague Monica Minnegal on the question of how to strengthen anthropology’s role in environmental management and associated policy areas, and the contribution that the discipline can play in mediating the transmission of knowledge between local communities, scientists, and managers.


This volume is a polished and edited selection of papers from the meeting. The central theme is that anthropology certainly has value as a guide to management agencies and as input to understanding questions most often answered by scientists, and that a dialogue between all three is possible. This value exists over and above its intellectual contributions and explanatory power as an academic discipline. The general sentiment is not new; in the USA, where the divide between “pure” and “applied” anthropology is intense, it guides the SfAA and it journal, Human Organization. Others have argued for the adoption of a “civic science” model in environmental policymaking, where the knowledge of citizens, scientific experts, and policymakers are given equal weight (Tim O’Riordan, Environmental Science for Environmental Management, 2000 and Alan Irwin Citizen Science, 1995), although it is not clear where anthropology might sit in such a world (as an expert discipline? As a transmitter of citizen’s knowledge?). Such appeals have also been made by proponents of “deliberative democracy” in environmental policymaking, social planning, participatory development, and other fields.


As Minnegal notes in her introduction, most of the chapters suggest anthropologists can act as mediators, or what Olivier de Sardan in a marvelous book (Anthropology an Development, 2005) calls ‘interlocutors’ between different actors in the policy process, especially as interpreters of “…the ways in which people make sense of their worlds, and in how the meanings they negotiate shape the ways they act in relation to that world” (Minnegal, p2). One chapter, by MacRae, bravely suggests a more material contribution than this, in his case by using his linguistic and cultural knowledge to hook up Balinese farmers with much-needed contacts and support. Another, by Hyndman, recognizes the mediator role, but cautions that “…anthropologists…are merely another class of knowledge holder, and they cannot presume to speak for indigenous people.” (p57). Nonetheless it is clear from this volume that anthropologists feel they are presently under-appreciated - or less than successful - as mediators, and several contributors are defensive of the discipline and its contributions, and sanguine about the lack of uptake of anthropological insights in the policy world.


Toussaint’s chapter, for example, makes an appeal for anthropological relevance, applying a critical-realist approach to water management. People differ in the meanings and explanations they ascibe to natural phenomena like water. The job is to show why such cultural differences occur, and this can be relevant; for example in designing water restrictions that recognize a culture’s values or its own conservation practices. Strang’s paper, the strongest in the collection, argues the case for an anthropology that engages with and fully appreciates the natural sciences, and which transcends its presently circumscribed role, based on her work on river catchments groups in Northern  Queensland. O’Kane’s argument is similar to Toussaint’s – as an applied social scientist working in a management agency, he describes the sensitive process of redirecting the Todd River to avoid flooding in Alice Springs in 2003. His task was to stress to engineers the cultural and spiritual significance to the Arrernte people of certain riverine and landscape features.


Harrington, focuses on how heritage and landscape is interpreted by non-traditional communities in Queensland – such that on Magnetic Island, “nature is implicated in lived experience and the creation of place” (26). Further development of the Island is thought by residents to threaten not just the physical environment, but also senses of being and community. The concerns that Harrington raises have already entered the mainstream -   community and land use planning in Australia and elsewhere is increasingly attentive to community perspectives on “place-making” (my own Council in Melbourne is presently spending a year eliciting such views as input into a new Structure Plan). Levitus discusses the case of fire management in Kakadu, where the NPS has broadly accepted the legitimacy of Aboriginal fire-stick burning regimes, but insisted on subjecting them to scientific analysis. It applies their principles only to certain seasons and where fire has a measurable “conserving effect”, thus missing much of its cultural significance. Useful insights are offered on how further research might break down the remaining differences of opinion between Aboriginal owners and the Parks Service, in conditions of reduced Aboriginal migration across the landscape, and hence diminished surveillance of vegetation health.


Not all the contributors focus on the mediator role. Mulcock, McNamara and Trigger focus on the horse, not the cart: they argue that the task of promoting dialogue begins in the classroom, for example by exposing anthropologists to “…basic theoretical and methodological paradigms in the physical and biological sciences as well as procedural and evidentiary frameworks employed in law” (p21) -  as well as by students gaining the communications expertise necessary to conduct applied work.  MacRae’s paper, noted above, is concerned with what really constitutes ‘relevance’, while Macintyre’s deals with the near-impossibility of helping mining companies to make sure local communities are properly compensated around mine sites -  achieving “informed consent” is complex even when  anthropologists are on-site to interpret and to make recommendations about social issues.  Given changing power relations in Papua New Guinea, striking agreements with the right people, and not alienating others, is almost impossible.


Two questions arise from this excellent collection.  Firstly, the separation made between “anthropologists, scientists and managers” (p2) makes the assumption that we are talking here about social or cultural anthropologists, and that managers and scientists are not anthropologists. A small point perhaps, but it struck me immediately that many anthropologists (particularly in economic and environmental anthropology) actually have substantial scientific training, or as some contributors argue, might aspire to acquire some. Others, particularly in Australia, are already employed in state and federal agencies (and as far away as the World Bank, too), and are already managers of people, environments, or both. So there is additional organisational and personal complexity here, which might destablise the key argument for ‘mediation”. Ian Scoones’s work (Understanding Environmental Policy Processes, 2003, and much more coauthored with Melissa Leach and others at IDS, Sussex) explores this complexity in much more detail.


Secondly, the mediator role is already being performed by many non-anthropologists. Other disciplines have played a substantial role of course (the leaders in this field, the IDS Environment group, comprises scholars with differing backgrounds, including anthropology), but there are also a whole class of ‘interlocutors’ that work in and around conservation projects, mines, and in the places targetted  by international development organizations. This role is often taken on by literate and well connected local people. There is, therefore, no particular monopoly on cultural interpretation of the way people understand “nature”, conserve it, manage scarce water supplies, and so-on. As Filer identifies in his provocative paper, indigenous representation is now strong in international meetings on biodiversity, certainly outnumbering the western anthropologists involved in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (p81).  For him, the tendency to counterpoise indigenous and western ecological knowledge, trotted out in such meetings, is unhelpful and reductionist – but it does provide a clear role for anthropologists.  He does find the anthropological attachment to place-based knowledge (termed “local local”, p86) rather vexing, if this means that the political economy that controls and appropriates knowledge and formulates policy (Scoones’s focus) is not acknowledged. Nonetheless, the potential contribution of anthropological insights to the domains of ‘big science’ and biodiversity assessment is great.


The volume works well as Australasian contribution to an ongoing global debate. It feeds nicely into the growing movement for anthropological relevance – not by promoting advocacy or radical critique, as other have suggested, but through careful deployment of certain anthropological insights ands skills. It may be ordered from SAGES should you like a hard copy, but if you can wait a few weeks it should appear as a PDF file on an updated SAGES website ( ,  go to “publications”).