Australian Aboriginal anthropology at the crossroads: Finding a successor to A. P. Elkin, 1955



A. P. Elkin, who had dominated Australian anthropology since his appointment to the Chair of Anthropology at the University of Sydney in 1934, was concerned that coinciding with his retirement in 1955 was the possibility of the demise of Aboriginal anthropology as the core of the Sydney department. He thus attempted to influence the University authorities in their selection of his chosen successor, Ronald Murray Berndt. Such a selection would ensure the continuance of the department as the pre-eminent authority on all matters to do with Aboriginal ethnography and affairs, and maintain its critical role in the formulation of policy with mission bodies and government. The other long-serving member of the department, H. Ian Hogbin, was equally determined to see this did not happen. Hogbin wanted an appointment of a scholar who was in no way connected to Elkin. This would address the problem, inadvertently, of changing the focus of the department and would open the possibility of a shift in theoretical orientation and renewal. This article examines the machinations of the protagonists, the selection process, the quality of the candidates and the role of the mostly British-based referees, especially the LSE-based anthropologists Raymond Firth and Isaac Schapera, in shaping and influencing the decision to appoint the Africanist J. A. Barnes.