Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this interview may contain images and names of deceased persons.


James Rose explores patterns of social variation between cultural communities  

Interviewer: Courtney Boag 
Images: James Rose 
(James working with Kaytetye elders in Tara in 2023)

20 July 2023

“[A]dventure emerges from thinking about social relationships and social culture, and how they are experienced differently. Because when you are interested in relationships with people outside of your own culture, even if your own culture is blended, you are more likely to discover new and interesting things, including ways to contribute positively to the world.”

James Rose

James Rose is a forensic and expert social anthropologist specialising in culturally based land claims and cultural heritage protection, data governance and geographic information systems.
His methodological focus includes network-based population dynamics and social and kinship network analysis. He holds two decades' experience working with state, territory and federal government agencies and departments, Commonwealth institutes, industry regulators, health service providers, universities, community-controlled organisations, and the private sector. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow with the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, and maintains a private consulting practice.

Growing up in the APY Lands, the passion for social justice emerged for James at a young age. Today, he is eager to combine his skills in social anthropology with technological methodologies to better understand what patterns of social variation exist between cultural communities so that better policies around health and wellbeing can be developed.  I was excited to hear from James and to learn more about his innovative research projects and the very real and positive impacts they are having on achieving better health outcomes, particularly for those most vulnerable.

James I understand that you grew up in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (also known as the APY Lands) which is located in the remote north-west of South Australia. Can you describe your experience of growing up here and how you came to be an anthropologist?

Yes, that’s right. I can see in the wording of those questions that there might seem to be a tacit link between those two things: Growing up in a remote community, and then training as a social anthropologist. It’s a little bit complicated though, so let me step through the two questions in sequence. Before we get started, the first thing I want to say is that I have no Aboriginal ancestry. My mother is a first-generation migrant, and my father is the descendant of Welsh and English convicts brought from Britain to Newcastle in the 1840s, and free Irish colonists who were the first British invaders of the country around Wagga in the 1830s.

The history of the APY Lands is really interesting. There’s not enough space to do it real justice here, but I will sketch out a summary for context.  APY is a concatenation of three words that mean different things. ‘Anangu’ means ‘people’. ‘Pitjantjatjara’ is the name of the people and language from the Western Musgrave and Mann Ranges that run parallel to the South Australia/Northern Territory border out to Western Australia and out into the desert from there. ‘Yankunytjatjara’ is the name of the people and language from the Eastern Musgrave Ranges and out from there. Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara languages are very similar. So APY means ‘the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people’.

The APY Land Rights Act 1981 (South Australia) was the first act of parliament anywhere in Australia to transfer freehold title back to a community of Aboriginal people after the British invasions on the coast between the 1780s and 1830s. Anangu had been fighting to get their land back from the British since the British invaded their area of the Western Desert, and began expropriating it for sheep farming in the 1920s. Because the country is very dry, those sheep farms all failed after about 30 years. Even as the British switched from sheep to cattle, by the 1950s it was clear that pastoralism was not commercially viable in the far northwest of South Australia. The South Australian government purchased most of the failed pastoral leases and amalgamated them under a government-administered land trust in 1966, with an administrative centre at an old Christian mission called Ernabella. The South Australian government took over the running of the mission when the reserve was gazetted. Up until that time, Anangu had been working partly for the mission and partly for the sheep farmers. People had received training in building, carpentry, farming, baking, healthcare, teaching, and stock work. When the government took over, those jobs were dissolved, and everybody was switched over onto welfare. It was a bit of a disaster. There was basically no more work for anyone. Anangu continued to struggle for real self-determination for another 15 years, until in 1981 they succeeded in convincing the South Australian government to pass the APY Land Rights Act. This converted the so-called ‘native reserve’ into freehold title, which was transferred from the South Australian government to a governing body elected by Anangu themselves. Anangu have been running their own affairs ever since.

My parents moved to the APY Lands in 1983, two years after the APY Land Rights Act was passed, when I was 4 years old and my younger brother was 2. My father was a builder at the time, and had responded to an employment ad seeking a builder to work with Anangu to develop housing infrastructure across the Lands, under Anangu direction. The job had three parts: 1) consult with Anangu community leaders about their housing needs and design housing in collaboration; 2) train Anangu workers in the skills necessary to source materials and build houses, and 3) oversee the building of those houses. In other words, Anangu were attempting to regain the technical education programs lost by a generation of youth due to government negligence in the 1960s and 1970s after the Ernabella mission was shut down. My mother was a registered nurse at that time, but she was busy looking after my baby brother and I.

My parents went first to Amata, which is a little community that had previously been a cattle station known as Musgrave Park. The senior Anangu leadership all belonged to what you might call the ‘First Contact Generation’. They had grown up in the desert as hunters and gatherers, and met British colonists for the first time as either children or teenagers. Their children were the same age as my parents. At that time, the Western Desert kinship system required that anyone coming to live long-term in the community had to be assigned a kinship role. My father was taken on as the adoptive son of a senior couple named Ilyatjari and Nganyinytja Lyons. Ilyatjari was from the Mount Davies-Wingellina area near the Western Australia border and Nganyinytja was from the Mann Ranges, about 100km west of Amata. They became my kamiand tjamu, or grandmother and grandfather. They had six children who were all around the same age as my father and mother, so they all became my aunts and uncles, and their children my siblings and cousins. Ilyatjari, Nganyinytja and the other senior community leadership instructed my father to go first to Cave Hill homeland north of Amata, and design and build housing for the family there. Cave Hill is a very important site for the Kungkarangkalpa or ‘Seven Sisters Dreaming’. There is a spectacular cave there that the seven sisters used as an escape from the giant Nyiru. We lived there in a tent while the houses were being built. I spent my days playing with other kids, collecting the eggs of the nyinyi or zebra finches that nest in the acacia scrub, and cooking them over hot coals as snacks between lunch and dinner. We went hunting, and played at camping out in the bush. It was a big adventure for me, but it was hard for my mother looking after two small children.

After the houses at Cave Hill were built, we went back to Amata, where there was electricity, flushing toilets, and a telephone at the council office. There was no real housing there either, so the community leadership offered my family the disused community garage, which my father converted into a small two-room house. Amata was very different to Cave Hill homeland. There was a lot of petrol sniffing, and a lot of fighting and carrying on. The community leadership was confounded by the effects of petrol stiffing on their children and grandchildren. They had never experienced anything like it, and by the mid 1980s, it had reached a crisis-level, so they developed a coordinated diversion strategy. The strategy was to take the young people who were struggling with petrol out bush to the homelands, to get them away from the petrol and the fighting in Amata and the other communities on the lands, like Fregon, Mimili, Ernabella, Indulkana and elsewhere. This required vehicles and other logistical support, as well as housing. Therefore, Ilyatjari, Nganyinytja and the other leadership instructed that my father be re-allocated from the building program to a new petrol sniffing diversion program based at the homeland that belonged to Nganyinytja’s family, in the Mann Ranges.

That place is called Angatja, and we went to live there. At first, there was only one single-room house, but soon there were more, and we went to live with the Lyons family full-time. By that stage, my third brother had been born, so my mother had her hands full with three small boys. There was no school. My mother arranged remote schooling where school assignments are sent to kids on the little mail plane every couple of weeks, but I was not very interested. I was much more interested in hunting, riding motorbikes, climbing trees, and lighting fires with my sprawling Anangu family. I wasn’t worried about the things that adults worry about, like running water, electricity, telephones, education, healthcare, unemployment, substance misuse, or community policing.

James and friends at Cave Hill, 1983.
James with his tjamu (grandfather) butchering kalaya (emu) in the Mann Ranges, 1989.

By the time I started university in Adelaide in the late 1990s, a number of my Anangu family had already died from preventable causes. I had lost close friends my own age. I was the only one among my age group from Amata and Angatja who had finished high school, let alone started university. The problem with petrol sniffing had metastasised into problems with alcohol and other drugs. Nobody had proper jobs. The senior leadership was now elderly and passing away and many of the homelands were being abandoned.

Because I had witnessed the immediate and fatal consequences of unequal access to healthcare, education, and employment in my immediate community, I had a very strong commitment to resolve that inequality as a cause of real and tangible harm. I was also in my late teens and had a strong desire for adventure. Social anthropology seemed to me to be the only qualification that offered to unite those two things around a theory of universal human equity and equality, combined with a practical methodology for putting that theory into practice. The reading I had done suggested that social anthropology was a field that studied variations in social organisation between communities of people, arising from variations in autochthonous theoretical models of society. This is a system that was said to arise from a process of feedbacks between real-world social life and theoretical models of social life, which in turn, give rise to distinctive social cultures. I was interested in this model of human society and social culture because I had grown up in a culturally diverse setting without an understanding that there was a difference between myself and my Anangu family until I was about 7 or 8 years old. After that, like a lot of kids who grow up in blended communities, I spent a lot of time thinking about social relationships and social culture, and how they are experienced differently. Of course, adventure emerges from that because when you are interested in relationships with people outside of your own culture, even if your own culture is blended, you are more likely to discover new and interesting things, including ways to contribute positively to the world.

Well, I was shocked by what I found was being taught under the banner of social anthropology at university. It was mostly very abstract and detached philosophy that had nothing to do with real human experience or diversity, and it certainly did not teach any practical skills. Out of the entire social anthropology degree in which I initially enrolled, there were only two subjects that were linked to real life. One was a media studies subject about the distorted coverage of the 1991 US invasion of Iraq, and the other was a subject on Australian kinship terminologies. The rest of it was waffle that seemed to be obsessed with name-dropping French and American philosophers. I tried switching to another university for my honour’s year in 2001, but that was even worse. I decided to look into why this field of expertise, which was supposed to study social variation between communities of people and the cultural causes of that variation, was instead so disinterested and detached from real-world social and cultural life. What I discovered was that the field had suffered a severe moral crisis in the 1980s, triggered mostly by the US invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and had derailed into self-referential philosophy that no longer taught students anything substantial about how human society and culture function. I felt almost cheated that I had enrolled in a degree that had promised to teach me about how to work across societies and cultures in a useful way, but in reality did nothing of the sort.

The year after I received my honours degree, I was offered a job based in Alice Springs as a sacred sites protection officer, enforcing the Northern Territory Sacred Sites Act (1989) by working with Traditional Owner communities to ensure equal access to justice under the law. Although the job required an honours degree in social anthropology, nothing I had studied at two separate universities prepared me for that job. Everything that I needed to work as a social anthropologist in the real world came either from my upbringing on the APY Lands, or from the job itself. Ever since then, for the past 20 years, I have been committed to developing better theoretical, methodological, and ethical frameworks for the teaching and practice of social anthropology. I hope that the field might offer something useful to students who are interested in what the field is supposed to offer: Expertise in social variation between communities of people, and the cultural basis for that variation, including practical methodologies, and best-practice ethical standards that meet international benchmarks.

James with his mama(paternal uncle), kuta (older brother), and kuntili tjuta(paternal aunts), hunting for ngintaka (perentie) and tinka (sand goanna) in the Mann Ranges, 1987.
James helping his kami (grandmother) build a wiltja (shelter) at Angatja, 1993.

James with his kuta (older brother) and malanypas (younger siblings and cousins) in Amata, 2001.

Had you always wanted to work with Indigenous communities and in sacred sites and eventually in native title work?

I was barely conscious when I went to live with Anangu at the age of 4. I grew up strongly identifying with Anangu culture and society. I found it difficult to integrate into mainstream schooling when my parents took me to live in the city. Bizarrely, even though I am White, I faced intense racism when I first went to a mainstream school. As soon as the other White kids found out that I had been raised in an Aboriginal community, the racist abuse started. It was obvious to me that they had been taught this behaviour by their parents. From that point forward, I became fiercely committed to combating racism. I also learned that racism is not just a personality problem, but also a mental health problem, and furthermore, a cultural problem. When you hear the phrase ‘structural racism’, this is what it means: The convergence of maladaptive personality traits, mental ill-health, and a form of institutionalised social organisation that promotes and rewards discrimination based on ethnicity, where children are taught to discriminate against others on the basis of ethnicity, and are rewarded for it.

When I started university, I had no specific commitment to work for Indigenous communities in general. Indigenous cultures in Australia are diverse. This is why Anangu mostly refer to themselves as Anangu, as people of the Western Desert, rather than by a more generic term. I had a strong and very specific commitment to Anangu because of my personal relationships. On the other hand, I also had a strong commitment to work against structural racism and the harms that it causes for any person or community that become its targets. Not just Indigenous people, but all people. It had become clear to me that unequal access to health, education, employment, justice, and other factors that are essential to human life and individual fulfilment, are largely a consequence of structural racism, not only in Australia but all over the world.

Having said that, it had also become clear to me by my early 20s that as an Australian, the primary targets of structural racism in this country are Indigenous people, starting with the original crime of the British invasion in 1788, and extending through time to the present day. Because I had grown up surrounded by inequality, because I had lost friends as a consequence of that inequality, it therefore made the most sense to me to work towards dismantling those features of structural racism in Australia that seemed to be the causes of that harm. The most obvious feature of structural racism in Australia was and remains stolen lands, waters, and natural resources. That was how I became involved in the native title sector later on, as a forensic and expert social anthropologist working with the Federal Court and Traditional Owners in New South Wales.

James working with the late Tjuki Pumpjuck (left) and Sandra Armstrong (right) in Imanpa, 2003.

James working with Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara elders in Indulkana in 2017.

I understand that a lot of your work currently explores population dynamics and social and kinship network analysis. Can you explain these terms and the nature of the work you do in these specialised areas?

When we say that social anthropology is the study of social variation between communities of people, what we are talking about is variation in the patterns of social interactions between the people who make up specific communities. Contrary to what some philosophers might argue, social interactions are not abstract. They are very real and they can be measured and counted, both in an intuitive way by the people engaging in those interactions, and in a more scientific way by social anthropologists. Every 7-year-old knows for example, that the social interactions they have at school are different to the social interactions they have at home. At school, there are friends and teachers, while at home there are generally parents, siblings, and other family members. So, a 7-year-old has an autochthonous cultural model of different domains of social life, the different types of relationships that constitute those social domains, and the different people who form participants in those relationships. From that point forward, as we grow from children into adults, our social networks become more elaborate and more complex, as reflected both in our own autochthonous cultural models of our social relationships, and in the real-world instantiation of those relationships, which can be independently modelled. We progress from having two domains of social activity - home and school - to having multiple domains, such as work, hobbies or sport, ideology and politics, love, and so on. Most of these are universal domains of human social experience, and most people distinguish between them when recounting their social relationships, but there is a lot of variation between these domains from one community to another, both in terms of cultural models, and in terms of objectively observable interactions.

What social network analysis does is to formalise that intuitive understanding, and to introduce methods for empirically measuring it. Very briefly, social network models have three elements: 1) Pairs of individuals; 2) Relations between individuals, and; 3) Types of relation. From these three basic ingredients, it is possible to build network models of potentially infinite size and complexity, spanning the entire planet and the whole of human history. The most impressive feature of social network analysis, is that it fits both an intuitive model of experience, and a scientific model that can be formally measured. This means that we can look for the similarities and differences between the models that people hold in their own minds, and the patterns of social interaction that can be modelled independently. This feature makes social network analysis extremely useful for a broad range of social anthropological investigations.

I was the lead forensic investigator and expert witness on three of the four largest native title claims in New South Wales, the Gomeroi People claim, the Ngiyampaa claim and the South Coast People claim, which together cover 25% of that state. Thousands of claim group members participated in consultations that contributed to the development of geographic claim boundaries spanning hundreds of thousands of square kilometres, and hereditary claim group descriptions that incorporated tens of thousands of people. That was all made possible using social network analytic techniques, particularly a specialised branch of social network analysis known as kinship network analysis, and a technical augmentation that I developed as part of my PhD research in 2016, known as spatiotemporal kinship network analysis or stKNA.

James that sounds really interesting and I know you are now using these techniques in the health space. So, I’d love to ask you about how social and kinship network analysis and population dynamics can contribute to better health and well-being outcomes for culturally distinct communities? And why is anthropology well placed to do this sort of work?

Social network analysis and kinship network analysis can be used for modelling both ideas about social interactions, and instantiation of those ideas in real-world interactions. Earlier I gave a brief example of the way a child distinguishes between the types of relationships that comprise a school community, compared with the types of relationships that comprise a home community, or family. For the sake of variation, let us use another example, of an office worker. If we were to use social network analytic techniques to investigate that office worker’s social world, we would start by asking them about who they regularly spend time with each day, and what they spend that time doing. The worker might say that they get up in the morning, and then have breakfast with certain other people in their household. Maybe a partner, children, or an older relative or flatmate, etc. We can then ask the office worker to tell us who else in their life fits that same description, whether they live with them or not, so then we can build a model of the kinds of relationships that capture those people. Next, the office worker commutes to their workplace and interacts with a number of people, and we repeat the questions. This time, we begin to build a model of the kinds of relationships that constitute the workplace, including managers, colleagues, direct reports, the barista around the corner, etc. Because most of us are familiar with the difference between home life and work life, we would not expect the same kinds of relationships to occur in both social domains. Maybe if we were looking at a family business that would be so, but otherwise it would be unlikely.

So, just by talking to one person, we have already developed a complex network model of different kinds of relationships that extend outwards from this one office worker. What we do next in a social network analysis, is to speak with as many of the other people in that network as possible, and to ask them the same questions. At this stage in the analysis, we will begin to see patterns emerge out of the modelling. A lot of people will corroborate each other’s descriptions of the network, but a lot of people will also give varying accounts. This variable convergence between ideas about social interaction is what tells us, as social anthropologists, what the shared cultural models are, and how those cultural models influence maintenance and reproduction of the community, both at home and at work. We can also make independent records of people’s interactions with one another, using participant observation techniques, and look at the convergence and divergence between ideas and instantiated interactions as well. We can also bring in secondary sources that tell us about other members of the network who we cannot consult. Maybe other members of the office worker’s family interact with mutual acquaintances, such as a schoolteacher or an auto mechanic. Maybe that schoolteacher also teaches children of other workers in the same office. Maybe that auto mechanic services vehicles in the office fleet. This introduces a network phenomenon known as ‘redundancy’ or ‘cyclicality’, which can point towards cultural linkages between otherwise apparently discrete social domains.

When it comes to healthcare, we can apply these techniques to tracking the transmission of disease and other illnesses, to help medical professionals develop effective health interventions that minimise harm for people in one or more communities. In the hypothetical case of the office worker, they might present to their GP with elevated levels of stress, poor sleep, reduced appetite, and other corollary symptoms. The GP may then refer the office worker to a psychologist, who finds that the office worker is having negative interactions at work, then going home where their stress is impacting on members of their household. From a social anthropological perspective, what we can contribute is a model of the social networks that form the medium through which that stress is propagating. If the office worker’s employer was sufficiently enlightened to recognise that it had an emerging problem with its workplace culture, a social anthropologist would use social network analysis and participant observation to model the origins of the stress that were causing that problem. It may turn out to be one relationship between two people in the workplace, or multiple relationships all leading back to one person, or multiple intersecting relationships with nobody in particular at the centre, but with a clear cause in the workplace culture. The teacher or the mechanic may even be playing a role, or the relationship in the home may be intersecting with others in a particular way. The social anthropologist would then provide an anonymised report either to the employer or directly to the psychologist, who then develops an intervention strategy that targets the cause of the stress in the context of that workplace culture. There are many other possible examples, but that is one that might be more widely recognisable because so many of us work in offices at one time or another in our careers.

James working with Western Desert elders in the Haasts Bluff region, 2022.
A spatiotemporal kinship network analysis (stKNA) model of Traditional Owner populations in western New South Wales and Victoria, spanning 230 years, demonstrating a new modelling technique developed by James for his PhD in 2016.

Clearly your work engages in new methodologies, and you adopt the use of technology in your research. Do you think this is the future of anthropology and social science research more broadly?

I think that it would be reasonable to observe that social anthropology, as a whole, does not have a healthy relationship with technological innovation. Since the 1970s, and especially since the 1990s, there has been a recurrent trope in the more philosophically oriented anthropological literature that derides technological innovation as somehow hegemonic, as advancing a sort of technocratic conspiracy emanating from something called ‘Western Science’. This trope is deliberately designed to discourage social anthropology students from making use of powerful, cheap, and accessible technologies that can be used to greatly enhance innovative and ethical research. The result is that very few social anthropology students graduate with any training in either qualitative or quantitative data management, coding, geospatial information systems, or other critically relevant technologies.

Social network analysis is an example of such a technology where thousands of native title claimants have been able to effectively pursue their rights under the law because of access to better social anthropological evidence that makes use of sophisticated database and geospatial mapping technologies. There are lots of other examples. Think of GPS technology. Thirty years ago, Indigenous lands and religious sites could only be mapped using cumbersome, expensive, and very laborious theodolite technologies, which required trained surveyors with compasses, tripods, and whole kits of heavy equipment, that were often inaccurate. Today, we can make maps instantly using our mobile phones’ in-built GPS units, even without a mobile radio signal, to within 1-metre accuracy. This not only turbocharges social anthropologists’ ability to work more effectively, it also makes participant observation techniques more effective, because we can confer with research participants in real-time regarding the accuracy of the data that we are collecting.

In summary, scientific and technological innovation makes social anthropology more effective and more ethical. Although the professional practice of social anthropology in Australia has resulted in great advances in the use of innovative technologies, those professional advances have not been incorporated into the academic teaching of social anthropology in Australian universities. It is a strange paradox that I think arises from the historical derailing of social anthropology from science into philosophy, which I mentioned earlier. This is a particularly acute problem in Australian universities, but not so much for universities in other countries where social anthropology is taught.

You've mentioned previously that an anthropologist is like a 'cultural broker' in that they can provide helpful advice in the 'cultural translation space'. Can you describe what you mean here and why you think this is important for the broader society?

The phrase ‘cultural brokerage’ comes from the writing of a French social anthropologist, Professor Livia Holden at the University of Paris, who has developed a theoretical, methodological, and ethical framework termed ‘cultural expertise’. This is a framework that is designed to assist courts and legal professionals in providing more ethical access to justice for individuals and communities whose cultures are not the same as those of the judges and lawyers overseeing court proceedings. In that setting, the phrase ‘cultural brokerage’ is used alongside ‘cultural translation’, and is applied to a whole range of expertise besides social anthropology, such as psychology, linguistics, and journalism, as well as legal practice. I have worked with Professor Holden and her research group at the University of Paris since 2021 to further develop and specify the links between cultural expertise and social anthropology as it is used in legal-administrative settings. Among all of the specialist fields that can assist courts and other legally empowered bodies to enhance equal access to justice, I would say that social anthropology is more suited to cultural explanation and translation, rather than brokerage.

This is reflected in the work that I do with the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI), which is indirectly linked to the work with Professor Holden and the University of Paris. For the past three years, I have been assisting the RAI to develop an international training and certification framework for social anthropologists who currently work, or who would like to work, in legal-administrative settings, where their research contributes forensic and expert evidence to just outcomes for marginalised culturally distinct peoples. The training program commenced on the 17th July this year, and will be expanding from September. We hope to have the first round of certification exams opening shortly afterwards. The program is titled ‘Forensic and Expert Social Anthropology’ (FESA), and is drawing a lot of interest both in Australia and internationally.

What do you hope people can take away from your research?  

I would be thrilled if my work provided some encouragement for students of social anthropology who may be frustrated or disappointed by the more incoherent philosophy-heavy tropes in the dominant contemporary literature. To those students I would say, social anthropology is much more practical and helpful to making a real change in the world than that. Don’t give up or be fooled into thinking that social anthropology is just philosophy and ethnographic travel writing. It is a real, tangible, and highly useful scientific field. If that is not what your university is teaching, let the faculty know. I would also say, don’t be afraid to look abroad for inspiration. There are some very exciting theoretical, methodological, and ethical innovations happening in social anthropology internationally. We need new social anthropology graduates to bring those innovations back to Australia so that we can continue to make a positive and tangible contributions to cultural equity and equality here.

Interested to learn more about the work that James does? Follow his work here

Excited to learn more about how you can get involved in the RAI courses that James is hosting? Check out the RAI website for further information about upcoming courses and events.

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We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.