Blame and responsibility: An unfolding ethnographic drama [Part one]

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Bree Blakeman. Bree recently submitted her Ph.D. through The Australian National University in Canberra, though you may know her from her more usual online incarnation, as author of the blog Fieldnotes and Footnotes. This is the first in a series of posts looking at the way Yolŋu consider issues of blame and responsibility.]

I have been thinking a lot about comparative concepts of responsibility lately, particularly in light of recent publications on morality and ethics. Given this, and the fact my political and theoretical views get airing-enough elsewhere, I thought I would take this opportunity to share one of my favourite ethnographic case studies to give a sense of the way that Yolŋu people consider issues of blame and responsibility. To this end I will present an unfolding ethnographic drama over a series of posts.

The case study itself describes a big ‘blow up’ fight between a young married couple which ends with responsibility being attributed in a way that seems counter-intuitive to the observer or reader. The exegesis will take the reader back through the anatomy of events to show how the attribution of responsibility actually makes complete sense when cast or couched in local terms. The last post will be a few brief concluding remarks on the case nature and study of responsibility.

But to begin with a preface of kinds – below is a minimalist framework for exploring the attribution of responsibility, based on a model put forward by social psychologist Bernard Weiner (1995). This is followed by a few preliminary, contextual notes on Yolŋu social organisation and ideas or concepts of affect.

The responsibility process

In a general sense to be responsible means to be morally accountable. To be accountable, in turn, is to be liable to be held to account. ‘To blame’ is to hold, or be held responsible for what is considered a morally or socially reprehensible act. If we accept this as a working definition, my particular interest is in understanding, in the Yolŋu case, what it is that determines who is responsible, and for what reprehensible act. And further, what determines who is to blame and who is it that is held to account.

The following schema offers a basic framework for what Bernard Wiener refers to as ‘the responsibility process.’

Incident → Causal Determination → Judgement of responsibility → Apportioning of blame → Social reaction or Punishment

As the above suggests, 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. The central points at issue in this process are those of ‘personal causality’ and ‘what actually happened.’ The process in general is aimed at determining ‘the truth’ and ‘personal responsibility.’

This is the framework I’ll use to work back through the anatomy of events.

Preliminary notes on Yolŋu social organisation and ideas or concepts of affect

Expectations about morality and responsibility, in any group or society, are enmeshed in, and structured by networks of social relations. In the Yolŋu case, expectations of responsibility, and morality in general, are informed, organised, and structured by kinship relations and proximal relatedness.

A person’s closest kin are those from or within the collective body of their bäpurru. These are the people to whom a person is most responsible as well as accountable. Bäpurru are patri-filial social groups that are anchored in place on country. While they are patri-filial, however, it is important to note that the collective social body of any one bäpurru is ‘joined together to each other’ (manapan-mirri) to or ‘with’ a number of other bäpurru, through what Yolŋu refer to as gurrkurr. The term gurrkurr refers to ‘veins, arteries or roots, and by extension physical strength.’ In this context, however, they are ‘strings’ of relatedness.

The most basic concept is the emotion lexicon in Yolŋu-matha is ŋayaŋu, which I generally translate as ‘state or sense of feeling.’ As a cultural concept of affect there are a number of things that make it different from English term ‘feeling’ or ‘feelings’ because ŋayaŋu does not necessarily distinguish between what Anglo-Europeans would normally consider distinct or different ‘senses’ – touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing – nor does it necessarily distinguish between affective and ‘physical’ feeling. Further, while ŋayaŋu is experienced or felt by individuals (it is associated with the gumurr [‘chest’]), it is always and necessarily relational; ŋayaŋu refers to the state or sense of feeling among and between people in any given situation or event. The individual experience or sense of ŋayaŋu is considered as or ‘in’ relation to significant others, and contingent upon the state of the relationship between them. This last point is significant as it gives rise to a theory of morality which foregrounds the affective influence that people have on one another in everyday life, and how this positively or negatively affects the state of feeling or state of relations among and between people.

As something shared and contingent or mutually interdependent, ŋayaŋu is something that people can do to one another; it is something that people can give and take – something that they can exchange. Any given state or sense of feeling, whether positive, negative, pleasant or hurtful, can be exchanged. A person can wekama (give) a particular state or sense of feeling such as gora (shame, embarrassment, guilt) to another person or group of people, or märrama (take, bring, carry) it from one place, or person to another. Ŋayaŋu can also be wutthun (affronted, hit, assaulted), or djaw’yun-märrama (snatched, stolen) or more positively, ŋama-thirri-yama (made good). Ŋayaŋu implicates both positive and negative capacities of affective influence – constructive and destructive potentialities – in interpersonal exchange and social relations more broadly.


The main protagonists in the case study to follow are aged in their early twenties.


Stay tuned for part two! – the case study.

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