TopEndSTS Symposium: Collaborative knowledge work in northern Australia

1pm – 6.30pm

Thursday 15 November, 2018

Charles Darwin University, Casuarina campus, Blue 2A.1.01


The TopEndSTS Symposium showcases place-based research projects which draw on tools and resources from STS in the areas of:

  • policy and evaluation
  • human/nonhuman entanglements
  • language and education

Science and Technology Studies (STS) is a field of research that unpicks the assumptions embedded in Western knowledge traditions, and provides resources for new forms of situated interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research work.

This half-day symposium brings together post-graduate students, early career researchers, and senior scholars from CDU to explore the question: What is collaborative knowledge work in northern Australia?

From 5.30-6.30pm a closing keynote will be presented by Michael Christie on ‘Languages and Yolŋu Ground Up Research: The metaphysics of translation and interpreting’

This is a free event that may be of interest to government staff, educators, language workers, environmental managers and academic staff working in the Northern Territory.

Register your attendance for the half-day symposium (attendees are welcome to attend some or all sessions) and the closing keynote through Eventbrite


Symposium registration     Keynote registration




SESSION 1 (1.00 – 2.30pm)          POLICY AND EVALUATION

Helen Verran - Introducing TopEndSTS (pre-recorded video)

We begin with an arrival story. Not the sort of arrival story that is really an invasion story though, like “The Arrival of Captain Cook”.  This story is inspired by the arrival stories I have heard my Yolngu friends tell, and sing and dance. I use this inspiration with great respect and utmost care, for listening and watching those stories I saw what generative arrival stories can do.

The time and place of arrival of what would become TopEnd STS, is Batchelor Institute in the late 1980s, and the bag that STS was hidden in was called ‘Maths Education and its Philosophies’. In my short talk I will wonder about what it has become.

Jennifer Macdonald - Doing the work of working together: collaboratively enacting Indigenous land management in central Australia

This paper begins with a story of mutual misunderstanding and disconcertment which arose during a conversation between senior Anangu (Indigenous people of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia) and Piranpa (nonAnangu) land managers about what does, and does not constitute land management work. The story comes from my experience as a research student living in the APY Lands for six months in 2014 and 2015. During this time I developed relationships with Anangu Traditional Owners, learnt cursory Pitjantjatjara (language) and worked with APY Land Management to develop discussions and understandings about Anangu ways of measuring effectiveness in land management. The story points to an interesting moment in the everyday practice of collaborative Indigenous land management, with this moment exemplary of many such moments that arise when working with different ways of knowing and doing ‘country’ and ‘management’. For both the Anangu women and the Piranpa land manager, collaborative land management includes relations of authority, remuneration, and responsibility. By detailing this empirical work we hope to strengthen intercultural land management. The story highlights the complexity of ‘going on together’ with different knowledges, practices and beliefs. Our differences provide a constant site of tension, which cannot simply be ‘resolved’ through the rigid application of protocols, guidelines and principles. Rather, sensitivity, good faith and skilled practice is required to collaboratively enact Country.

Matt Campbell - E/Valuation in Designing Indigenous Services Delivery in Alice Springs

The Integrated Services Program (ISP) is designed and delivered by Tangentyere Council (, an Aboriginal organisation in Alice Springs. The program grew out of past programs delivering alcohol support services for Aboriginal people. It is difficult even to fully describe the services delivered under the ISP which are animated by a logic quite foreign to the world of services delivery markets. This leads to painful puzzles and serious problems in evaluating the program. In Australian services delivery markets, services delivery products are required to include elaborate plans for evaluative processes. The evaluation, as defined by the ISP funding contract defines two key types of program evaluation. First, an assessment of whether the program is working—in terms defined by the funding body (the state) which includes a requirement for enumeration. Second evaluation in terms that can inform the iterative re-design and development of the program itself is required. This paper begins with narration of a series of vignettes which will be followed by commentary that attempts to articulate an approach that might be called good-faith evaluation. This will include a discussion of Verran’s approach to understanding the generation of numbers.

Michaela Spencer - Cosmopolicy-in-Practice

(with Endre Dányi) A turn to practices has become a popular analytic move in policy studies. Many scholars have pointed out that policy-making and implementation need to be studied as interrelated practices that participate in the making of ‘the world’ (Freeman and Sturdy 2015, Gill et al. 2017, Ureta 2015). However, there has been less discussion about policy contexts where different worlds (cosmologies, ontologies, normativities) meet. In this paper we tell such a story of on ground policy research focused around means for evaluating government engagement in remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. Located within community meetings where government and Aboriginal community members interact, these evaluation processes were designed both as interventions into business-as-usual, and as means for providing feedback on moments where differing governance practices intersect. We argue that accounting for these dual and situated evaluation practices involves an analytic shift to an engagement with cosmopolicy-in-practice.


Kirsty Howey - On gravel – materialities of development and expertise in Northern Australia

Gravel is not the first material that comes to mind in debates about resource extraction in northern Australia. Attention is usually focused on large and controversial developments and their unstable relationship with Indigenous property rights and the environmental movement (Neale and Vincent) – coal mines, uranium mines, rare earth mines, and shale gas exploration and production using “hydraulic fracturing” processes. But this quotidian resource is ubiquitous in the north – gravel is the key material scaffolding the bulk of the Northern Territory’s remote road network (which is itself described as an essential agent of more and better “northern development”), and searing heat and monsoonal deluges in the tropical north mean demand for it is unceasing and likely to increase with the infrastructural impacts of climate change. But, like larger scale subterranean extraction, obtaining and utilizing this apparently apolitical extractive resource conceals a web of regulatory regimes, scientific debates, environmental impacts, Indigenous land access issues and development controversies. In this paper, I reflect on recent ethnographic research with some of the “experts” associated with gravel extraction in the north – staff at the Northern Land Council, the Indigenous organisation tasked with responding to applications for gravel extraction agreements on Aboriginal land owned under Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth). I explore what an analysis of gravel, including the role of expertise in its extraction and utilization, can tell us about the often vexed interface of Indigenous land rights and development in the north of Australia.

Simon West - Introducing a practice perspective on adaptive management

Adaptive management (AM) is a prominent approach to ecosystem management, policy and planning. AM suggests that many management problems can only be solved through experience, and therefore that management actions should be structured as scientific experiments to enable ‘learning-by-doing.’ However, the AM literature has struggled to account theoretically for the dilemmas faced by those enacting AM in complex real-world situations. We address this gap by using contemporary practice theory to articulate a novel practice perspective on AM. We use our practice perspective, rooted in pragmatic philosophy and relational thinking, to interpret the activities of a group of scientists tasked with developing an AM approach to the restoration of threatened vegetation in an Australian National Park. A practice perspective enables us to trace in real-time the myriad improvised, situated, practical judgments employed by the scientists to navigate the tricky dilemmas they encounter. We thus highlight the active, open-ended nature of applied ecological work, and reveal the tacit labour and embodied experience that produces and sustains AM. In so doing, we contribute to ongoing theoretical efforts within the environmental and sustainability sciences to develop relational approaches to human-nature interactions. We also contribute to applied efforts to improve the practice of AM by drawing out the implications of our approach for project evaluation, the roles of ecologists and managers, and the use of ecological information in management.

Emma Schuberg - BODYTANK: Where do bodies go in a digital world?

This paper offers intradisciplinary understandings of complex, evolving relationships and dimensions between humans, more-than-humans and digital technologies. These matrices are being conceived of as maverick performances in the theatre of Darwin Harbour, remote Northern Australia. I engage with an emergent, performance ethnography, interrogating human agency and how humans co-design and perform with/without digital technologies in this locale. In this local investigation, I witness fringe theatre that takes place amongst transnational ‘common ground’: hybrid corporeal bodies—that process and perform, co-opt and confound—data and digital technologies. Here, data becomes embodied in multivalent ways, re-designed, re-interpreted or re-purposed arbitrarily according to physical environment, culture and intentions. A re-performance of some of this collaborative, co-produced data will be made in this presentation.

SESSION 3 (4.00 – 5.00pm)           LANGUAGE AND EDUCATION

Greg Williams - Doing Narrative Science – A TRANS (disciplinary) strategy

The doing of sciences in places at the margins of modernity, where different epistemic cultures meet, requires a careful rethink of scientific practices, both the premises upon which those practices are founded and sciences’ means for presenting their understandings and findings. Doing sciences at the margins requires us to attend to the assumptions we make when we practice our professions. It also requires reorientation of the way we approach both the actual doing of science and the communication of scientific knowledge to people whose assumptions, experiences and practices are different to our own. This paper seeks to examine the role of narrative in the doing of science and how a recognition and respect for narrative might help in the process of being more inclusive in our professional practice. A ‘narrative science’ may or may not change the methods involved in gathering and interpreting scientific knowledge, but it does seek to help us rethink our relationship to their use and recognise the cultural, social and constructed nature of our work. It opens a space for alternative ways of thinking and interpreting what we see and responding to the knowledge-making we do.

Cathy Bow - Digitising Language Practices – Boundary Objects in the movement of knowledge

This presentation details two digital infrastructures presenting Indigenous Australian language materials – the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages (containing digital versions of books created for bilingual education programs, available at and the Digital Language Shell (an online template for sharing Indigenous languages and culture, available at – which I have worked with and helped to develop over a number of years. Reading these as boundary objects, I consider how these infrastructures support and facilitate the movement of knowledge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous creators and audiences. Part of this involves considering how the infrastructure networks of software, web design, language data, digital objects, books, curricula, etc., reconfigure existing knowledge artefacts into digital formats, which then take on new performativities in the online space. I will also consider how such representation of language practices in the digital realm may shape and problematise certain issues, both enabling and restricting the movement of knowledge between very different knowledge traditions. Drawing on stories from users, I begin to consider and open up some of the means by which these infrastructures promote transitional language work, and might continue do so in more explicit and informed ways.

Yasunori Hayashi - Where Everyone and Everything is a Boundary Object

This paper begins with an ethnographically self-reflective analysis triggered by a social scientist addressing the presenter (me) as a boundary object. I was at the time translating and facilitating interaction between Yolngu Indigenous Australian landowners in East Arnhemland in the Northern Territory, and practitioners of Western scientific knowledges—both natural scientists (hydrologists) and social scientists. We are all participants in a current Australian Research Council project – ‘Crosscultural management of freshwater in the Milingimbi community’ This story is a case study to empirically and intellectually situate the presenter (me) as a boundary object – an ‘object’ that mediates between two knowledge communities. Then I highlight a core Yolngu epistemic practice, introducing gurrutu (kinship) in which everyone and everything is a boundary object by virtue of being a relation. An allegory galimindirrk (brackish water) – a favoured Yolngu metaphor representing the idea of joining differing life-sources, will exhibit how Yolngu do differences together within a collective matrix of boundary objects. I will then explore what STS academics might learn from the Yolngu epistemic enactments in everyday and ceremonial contexts. I hope this might lead academics to reconsider boundary objects in new and different ways when thinking about the movements of knowledge.

KEYNOTE (5.30 – 6.30pm)   

Michael Christie - Languages and Yolŋu Ground Up Research: The metaphysics of translation and interpreting

Indigenous research theorists often call for the ‘privileging of Indigenous voices’ in research. In this paper I look at one aspect of what this privileging has meant in our collaborative research with Yolŋu Aboriginal knowledge authorities.  Starting with a few stories to do with translating and interpreting, and then looking at examples from education, health communication, housing, and the current issue of English in the Northern Territory parliament, I make clear how working effectively with Aboriginal knowledge authorities and their languages entails taking seriously the metaphysical commitments which go along with Aboriginal understandings of languages and how they work.




PHOTO: Participatory water mapping practices in Milingimbi