Abstracts - McDougall

Debra McDougallStructure in transformation: Reflections on the influence of Alan Rumsey’s scholarship

Debra McDougall

Senior lecturer in Anthropology, University of Melbourne

In the mid-1990s, I moved away from my undergraduate major in history to pursue postgraduate degrees in socio-cultural anthropology. I was motivated by the (possibly naïve) hope of understanding historical change on the ground and in real time rather than from a distance and retrospectively. At the time, however, anthropologists were in the midst of problematizing fieldwork, and anthropological theory seemed increasingly unmoored from empirical research. In this context, Alan Rumsey’s work demonstrated how richly detailed ethnography could be the basis for a sophisticated theoretical analysis of structural transformation. Ku Waru (1991), co-authored with Francesca Merlan, was exemplary in this regard, and has had a lasting influence on my work. Throughout his career, Alan has explored structural transformation on different scales: from micro-level changes in patterns of children’s language learning to macro-level articulations of different cultural orders. He has contributed to important debates in social theory, semiotics, and linguistics with insights drawn from his own and others’ careful observations of linguistic and cultural practice. I am grateful for the model that Alan’s scholarship provides for all of us doing linguistic and socio-cultural anthropology and for his mentoring and support over the last decade and a half since I have been in Australia.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University