The genealogy of the genealogical method

Discoveries, disseminations and the historiography of British anthropology

Helen Gardner

This seminar explores the historiography of British and colonial anthropology through the remembering and forgetting of the origins of the genealogical method of kinship collection. W. H. R. Rivers’ development of the genealogical method has iconic status as a foundation moment in the history of the discipline. Yet there is compelling evidence that a genealogical method for kinship collection was employed in the Australian colonies from the early 1870s, developed by Gunaikurnai man Tulaba with magistrate A. W. Howitt. The method was spread throughout Australia and the Pacific Islands using printed questionnaires on kinship and social organisation. In comparison with the Rivers’ method, the Tulaba/Howitt system was deeply influenced by Lewis Henry Morgan.

The seminar explores the development of two distinct genealogical methods, first in Gippsland and then in the Torres Strait, and concludes by questioning whether the narrative structures of Anglophone anthropology have denied or downplayed the importance of Australian analyses before ‘the field’ became the sine qua non of the discipline.


Helen Gardner is an Associate Professor of History at Deakin University. She is interested in the colonial history of the anthropology of Oceania in the nineteenth century from a Southern perspective and has recently completed the co-authored book with Patrick McConvell Southern Anthropology: A History of Fison and Howitt’s Kamilaroi and Kurnai (Palgrave Macmillan). Her other strand of research focuses on the significance of the culture concept in the decolonisation of the Pacific Islands.

This lecture was part of the History, Culture & Collections 2016 lecture series held at Melbourne Museum.

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