McKnight, David 1935-2006 (John David McKnight)
McKnight, David 1935-2006 (John David McKnight)
Born March 4, 1935, in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada; died May 14, 2006, in Rome, Italy; married Meg Phillips, 1962 (marriage dis- solved); married Alessandra Solivetti, 2005; children: two sons, four daughters (all from first marriage). Education: Bishop's University, B.A., 1957; University College London, M.A., 1965; London University, Ph.D., 1977.
Writer, educator. Edinburgh University, Edinburgh, Scotland, lecturer in social anthropology, 1968-1971; London School of Economics, London, England, lecturer in anthropology, 1971-1982, senior lecturer, 1982-1997.
Lardil: Keepers of the Dream, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1995.
From Hunting to Drinking: The Devastating Effects of Alcohol on an Australian Aboriginal Community, Routledge (London, England), 2002.
Going the Whiteman's Way: Kinship and Marriage among Australian Aborigines, Ashgate (Burlington, VT), 2004.
Of Marriage, Violence, and Sorcery: The Quest for Power in Northern Queensland, Ashgate (Burlington, VT), 2005.
David McKnight was born March 4, 1935, in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. He earned his undergraduate degree at Bishop's University, then continued his education, first at University College London, where he earned both a second bachelor's degree and a master's degree, and then the University of London, where he earned his doctorate. McKnight served on the faculty the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, where he was a lecturer in social anthropology, from 1968 to 1971. He then moved on to the London School of Economics, where he was on faculty from 1971 to 1997, first as a lecturer and then a senior lecturer in the department of anthropology. McKnight was a well known and respected anthropologist and ethnographer beyond the scope of his academic duties, whose research interests focused in particular on the lives of the Australian Aborigines. For his dissertation, he wrote about their unique marriage class system, based upon his research performed among the Mornington Islanders of Northern Queensland. Toward the latter part of his career, he published several volumes resulting from his life-long research into the Aborigine people, offering readers a detailed look into their lives and culture, as well as insight into the inhuman treatment by Western, so-called civilized societies that has led to the loss of many of the Aborigine traditions and lifestyle. His style of writing and research were heavily influenced by the early emphasis on the humanities in his own education, and he took a literary and philosophical outlook on his work as well as addressing his work from the social science perspective. A writer for the Independent Online commented on this dichotomy, stating: "This not only drove his theoretical development and achievements in social anthropology, but also provided his writings with a freshness, delicacy and innovative thrust." The writer went on to comment on McKnight's delay in publishing: "It was McKnight's strength that he waited until the latter part of his life to write his major books, long after he had understood aborigines in any conventional anthropological sense—when he had become wise enough to understand from his own life experiences how they felt. He was one of our best ethnographers because he knew the details, theirs and his, that allowed him to feel their world."
In From Hunting to Drinking: The Devastating Effects of Alcohol on an Australian Aboriginal Community, McKnight begins with a general history of the aborigine people over the last one hundred years, focusing on the region where he conducted his field research since the 1960s, Mornington Island, in the Gulf of Carpenteria, which is located off of Northern Australia. He chronicles the ways in which white settlers mingled with the aborigines and gradually began to infect their culture, slowly shifting them from their traditional lifestyles as they began to fall in line with the expected behavior of the society springing up around them. At the start of this period, the initial influence was from a nearby Presbyterian mission, but as laws changed, making it mandatory for children to attend school, and more and more aborigines began venturing out to find work on the mainland—primarily at cattle stations—the line of demarcation between the aborigines and the white settlers became less and less clear. However, according to McKnight, the true change in the aboriginal population came in the 1970s when, instead of just assimilating, they began to fall prey to cultural vices. At this time, it became legal for aborigines to obtain and consume liquor, and the introduction of alcohol into their lives served as a draining force that demoralized the population. The access to liquor corresponded to a time when aborigines were also finding greater funds available to them by way of government assistance and unemployment, and much of the extra cash was funneled straight into the coffers of the new government-run canteen that was opened in 1976. Violence escalated among the aboriginal population, along with the homicide and suicide rates, and according to McKnight, approximately half of the income generated by the island-dwellers is now spent on beer. Robin Room, reviewing the book for Contemporary Drug Problems, pointed out this is not an isolated phenomenon, stating: "The book is valuable as a record of the demoralization of a small society that can occur in a situation of sudden and ready availability of alcohol." Lee Sackett, writing for the Australian Journal of Anthropology, noted: "McKnight avers that nothing has been, or is being, done to alleviate this calamity because the shire not only controls the canteen, it is heavily dependent on canteen profits to fund it own existence and activities." While Sackett agreed with many of McKnight's findings, he took issue with his suggestions of ways to solve them, commenting: "Not only are there serious flaws in McKnight's rather one-eyed approach and strategy, he all too often and readily tosses off remarks and opinions in lieu of analysing situations and contexts."
Going the Whiteman's Way: Kinship and Marriage among Australian Aborigines, which again focuses on the Mornington Island Aborigines with whom McKnight spent so much time doing research, looks at the various ways in which Western styles of living and technology have affected that society, slowly but surely drawing them into more modern ways of life, and how that has impacted their traditional relationships and systems of marriage. The book is arranged in three sections, the first of which offers readers an explanation of the Aboriginal kinship and affinal traditions, including how rights and obligations are classified within those relationships. In the second section, he addresses class structure and various social categories, as well as the basis of the totemism practiced within the society. The final section looks at disputes within marriages, including any objections to proposed marriages and how these would be expressed within that structure of the relationship system. Robert Tonkinson, in a review for the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, remarked; "My major concern about this book is McKnight's conclusions that there never was any ‘system’ underlying kinship, and that Aboriginal explanations were merely ex post facto rationalizations in defence of the strategic and political choices that they were making." However, Tonkinson nevertheless concluded that "the interested kinship specialist will find much solid data in Going the Whiteman's Way."
Of Marriage, Violence, and Sorcery: The Quest for Power in Northern Queensland, the last book McKnight published prior to his death in 2006, addresses social constructs within the Mornington Island population of Australian Aborigines once again. In particular, he addresses the question of whether violent behavior increased within this society as it became more entrenched in Western influences. As with his previous works, he collects the research of several decades, which allowed him the luxury of not only chronicling the Aboriginal way of life before it disappeared completely, but also gave him the opportunity to bear witness to many of the changes in the society as they occurred. The book discusses how the Aborigines continue to have complex relationships, that often involve sexual jealousy, politics, competitive drive, violence, and in some case rituals that involve both violence and sorcery. David F. Martin reviewed the work for the Australian Journal of Anthropology, and commented that, while the details included were fascinating, he "sought without success at times for a more nuanced analysis of the cultural logic underlying the practices McKnight presents with such detail." However, he praised McKnight's work as a whole, calling him an "insightful man with an abiding passion for ethnography, a keen appreciation of the humanity of others including their foibles and idiosyncrasies, and a patent enjoyment in participating in the lives of those with whom he worked."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Australian Aboriginal Studies, spring, 2003, David H. Turner, review of From Hunting to Drinking: The Devastating Effects of Alcohol on an Australian Aboriginal Community, p. 81.
Australian Journal of Anthropology, August, 2004, Lee Sackett, review of From Hunting to Drinking, p. 240; April, 2007, David F. Martin, review of Of Marriage, Violence, and Sorcery: The Quest forPower in Northern Queensland, p. 109; August, 2007, "The Unwavering Eye: David McKnight's Ethnographic-Historical Legacy," p. 227.
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, June, 2005, W. Arens, review of Going the Whiteman's Way: Kinship and Marriage among Australian Aborigines, p. 1863.
Contemporary Drug Problems, winter, 2003, Robin Room, review of From Hunting to Drinking, p. 911.
Contemporary Sociology, March, 2005, review of Going the Whiteman's Way, p. 221.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September, 2003, Dwight B. Heath, review of From Hunting to Drinking, p. 601; December, 2005, Robert Tonkinson, review of Going the Whiteman's Way, p. 877.
Language, June, 2000, Edward J. Vajda, review of People, Countries, and the Rainbow Serpent: Systems of Classification among the Lardil of Mornington Island, p. 487.
Language in Society, December, 2000, Chet Creider, review of People, Countries, and the Rainbow Serpent, p. 606.
Oceania, December, 2000, Peter Worsley, review of People, Countries, and the Rainbow Serpent, p. 155.
Reference & Research Book News, November, 2005, review of Of Marriage, Violence, and Sorcery.
Independent Online,http://www.independent.co.uk/ (July 22, 2006), "David McKnight."