Blame and responsibility: Concluding remarks [part four]

In the last post it became evident that there was some kind of mismatch between the concepts or understandings underlying the ‘responsibility process’ framework and the way that Yolŋu consider and attribute responsibility. There are, in fact, a few key points of difference, which also make sense of the attribution of responsibility in the case study.

So heres goes, as my Yolŋu sister would say, I will address each in turn before concluding in brief:

Four key points of difference

The first point of difference concerns affect and causality. The ‘responsibility process’ framework assumes that personal causality is the key point at issue when attributing responsibility and holding people to account – there is first an incident, after which people seek to determine the cause of the incident, considering what was empirically observed to have happened and factors of impersonal and personal causality. A judgement of responsibility is then made as per the determination of personal causality unless mitigating circumstances are considered to diminish personal responsibility. This gives rise to blame and may lead to punishment.

When considered in Yolŋu terms, however, it is difficult if not impossible to isolate or individualise causality in this way. Responsibility and accountability are considered in terms of a ‘string’ or chain of interpersonal influence in the Yolŋu case. This is, in part, because causality is about affect as much as it is effect. Feeling is something that someone has, but it is also something that people can do to one another, which can not only affect them but affect them in such a way that it effects action and/or physical states of health and wellbeing. Hence the string or chain of interpersonal influence for which people may be held to account.

The second point of difference is that, in the Yolŋu case, people are not necessarily concerned with what may have been empirically observed to have happened in any given situation or event. This is, in part, because the process through which people are held to account is not necessarily directed toward arriving at the ‘truth’ and personal accountability. As we saw in this case study, the responsibility process and the process through which people were held to account was directed toward the goal of dhunupa-kuma ŋayi raki’-nha (straightening out the strings [of relatedness]) and reestablishing ŋayaŋu waŋgany (one state or sense of feeling). This is effectively a goal of social order and good, ‘healthy’ relations. Similar to Kenneth Liberman’s description of sociality in the Western Desert, ‘the production and maintenance of a community of ‘feelings’ is considered to be something very serious, and much of the social activity is addressed toward the active production of such collective solidarity’ (1985:15). This seems characteristic of what I’ve described elsewhere as ‘stateless sociality’.

The fourth and final point of difference is the fact that, in the Yolŋu case, people are less concerned with the morality of particular ‘types’ or ‘kinds’ of acts and more with the question of ‘if or when’ any particular act negatively affects the state or sense of feeling among and between people. People’s behaviour, that is, is not generally considered an issue unless or until it affronts or upsets the state or sense of feeling among and between people. Hence the ‘event’ that initiated reparatory action in this case study was not the affair or potential affair, the argument or the fight, etc., etc. The event that initiated reparatory action in this case – which gave rise to the attribution of responsibility, blame and punishment – was the ‘event’ of dhukun-mirri (soiled, messy) relations  – the volatile social situation. Accordingly, the outcome that people sought to achieve was foremost that of reparation – of re-establishing the state or sense of feeling between those involved.

With regard to question of Gaymarani then, the issue is not so much ‘how or why he avoided responsibility and blame’ as it is a question of how blaming him and holding him to account could have contributed to the goal of straightening out relations and re-establishing ŋayaŋu waŋgany (one state or sense of feeling). The only reason that I can think of that may have warranted pointing the finger at Gaymarani is if he had not launched a public, impassioned defense. Then perhaps, he may have been the subject of blame or punishment – for not ‘following up the string’ and at least attempting to make it straight.


So what might this mismatch of models suggest about the nature and study of responsibility? It suggests, I think, that even the most basic ‘minimalist’ model of responsibility – as illustrated by Bernard Weiner’s ‘responsibility process’ framework – assumes a particular model of personhood. These models not only entail shared understandings about the nature of the self, others and the relationship between them, but they implicate shared models of emotion as well. It should not surprise us then, that they differ a great deal cross-culturally.

All this should make us particularly wary of analytical frameworks for exploring the attribution of responsibility, which are in fact cultural models of. It should also encourage us to pay close ethnographic attention to the terms and concepts that people themselves use when talking about issues of blame, responsibility and accountability. And importantly, it should encourage us to be ever on the lookout for those conceptual disjunctures which open out into glistening possibilities for exploring a different way of seeing the world. In short, it should encourage us to do rigorous ethnography, and to insist on an ethnographically grounded anthropology of responsibility. The end!



-  Thanks to Savage Minds for the opportunity to share dhuwala Yolŋu ethnography.



Works cited

–  Liberman, K. 1985, Understanding Interaction in Central Australia: An
Ethnomethodological Study of Australian Aboriginal People, London: Routledge and Keegan

–  Sansom, B. 1980, The Camp at Wallaby Cross, Aboriginal fringe dwellers in Darwin,
Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies

–  Warner W. L. 1937 [1964], A Black civilisation: A social study of an Australian tribe,
revised edition, New York: Harper and Row

–  Weiner, B. 1995, Judgements of Responsibility: A foundation for a theory fo social
conduct, New York: The Guilford Press


One thought on “Blame and responsibility: Concluding remarks [part four]

  1. Thanks for these posts Bree. I have been sick/travelling/moving/etc. and finally got to read them all just now. One thing that strikes me is how much of this is about speech. I wonder if it might be fruitful to look at this case study through the light of speech act theory? (And the critiques thereof.) Who is allowed to make an accusation, what is the proper form for such an accusation, once an accusation has been stated how is it evaluated, etc.

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