Stanner, W. E. H.

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STANNER, W. E. H. William Edward Hanley Stanner (19051981) was born in Sydney, Australia, and spent much of his childhood playing on the shores of Sydney Harbor and the surrounding bushland. On leaving school Stanner worked as a bank clerk, a job he tired of quickly, before training as a journalist. In 1926 a life-changing encounter with A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, the newly appointed foundation chair of anthropology at Sydney University, saw Stanner return to school to matriculate, eventually enrolling in a degree program with a major in anthropology and economics.

After completing his degree with first class honors, Stanner was encouraged by Radcliffe-Brown to consider a career in anthropology. He undertook his first fieldwork in the Daly River region of north Australia in 1932, and he returned to this area from 1934 to 1935 to undertake more lengthy research for his Ph.D. He would return to the Daly River region throughout his life, in the 1950s undertaking the work that would most fully inform his writings on Murrinh-pata religion.

On completing his Ph.D. at the London School of Economics under the supervision of Bronislaw Malinowski and Raymond Firth, Stanner joined an anthropological survey team in East Africa. On the outbreak of war he returned to Australia. His most noted wartime contribution was as leader of the North Australia Observer Unit. He also worked on a series of postwar reconstruction programs in Europe and the Pacific. In 1949 Stanner was appointed reader in comparative social institutions in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the newly established Australian National University, Canberra, where he remained for the rest of his working life. In the 1960s and 1970s Stanner rose to public prominence as a government adviser, and his engagements in Aboriginal affairs became more consciously political.

Stanner's works on religion, the most important being a series of essays republished in 1963 as the monograph On Aboriginal Religion, simultaneously serve as a broad critique of structural-functionalist approaches to the study of society and culture. He was extremely critical of earlier anthropological accounts of Aboriginal religion influenced by the work of Émile Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown that categorized religion as merely one of a series of elements in a bounded social system. These writers had overlooked the experiential and emotional sensibilities associated with religion. Stanner argued that religion was significant in its own right, not as a subset of society or anything else. Murrinh-pata religion contained objects and symbols "beyond egotism, beyond social gain." The great symbols he observed, were "valued for their own sakes." As he sought to elucidate Murrinh-pata religious systems as "expressions of human experience of life; as essays of passion, imagination, and striving," Stanner concurrently sketched the frame of a new theoretical approach to the study of society (Stanner, 1965, p. 222). He saw human affairs not in terms of persisting social structures and enduring relations between persons in role positions, but rather as "a structure of operations in transactions about things of value." His "operational anthropology" would study real relations"giving, taking, sharing, loving, bewitching, fighting, initiating"and "make human sense of their cultural varieties" (Stanner, 1963, p. ii).

While seeing the definition of religion as beyond the task of anthropology, Stanner argued that Aboriginal religion must be grasped as a rich and multilayered entity: it was at once an ontological system, a moral system, a "contemporary form of thought and feeling toward the whole of reality," and "content for a devotional life" (Stanner, 1963, p. vi). He rejected Durkheim's dichotomy of secular and sacred as a framework for comprehending Aboriginal religion, arguing that it necessarily was both. Where the functionalists had offered up a desiccated view of Aboriginal religious systems as lacking imaginative and intellectual substance, or as reducible to the study of totemism, magic, and ritual, for Stanner, Murrinh-pata religious belief and practice provided a window onto all manner of aspects of Murrinh-pata being. It was in Murrinh-pata rites that one witnessed "a genius for music, song, and dance applied with skill and passion" (Stanner, 1963, p. 18). Moreover, Murrinh-pata religion was not a "dead plane of uniform changelessness" but a dynamic system, its content being enacted and articulated variably by differently gifted performers, and transformed according into the changing needs and circumstances of each generation (Stanner, 1963, p. 84).

Stanner's work contributed much to contemporary understandings of "The Dreaming," the linkage of specific Aboriginal persons, places, fauna, and flora in the present in identifiable groupings extending back to a timeless conception. Within this ontological frame, Stanner argued, there was no tension between past, present, and future. He teased out aspects of this logic and its narrative content in Murrinh-pata myth to illustrate the basis of Aborigines' acceptance of reality as a necessary connection between life and suffering. In the Murrinh-pata theory of reality, life was conceived "as a joyous thing with maggots at the centre" (Stanner, 1963, p. 37).

Critics argue that Stanner failed to fully transcend the limitations of structural-functionalism and sufficiently integrate his theoretical ideas with his ethnography. He shied away from analyzing those aspects of his materialthe conjunction of religion and politicsthat would have furnished the development of a theory of action. Stanner himself regarded his work as unfinished. It was a contribution to a general reappraisal of Australian Aboriginal religion that would "require the efforts of many scholars." A humanist with untiring commitment to social justice, a campaigner for land rights, a sensitive intercultural interpreter with a great gift for writing, Stanner sought to conjure up the richness and philosophical depth of Aboriginal religious systems.


Keen, Ian. "Stanner on Aboriginal Religion." Canberra Anthropology 9, no. 2 (1986): 2650.

Morphy, Howard. "The Resurrection of the Hydra: Twenty-five Years of Research of Aboriginal Religion." In Social Anthropology and Australian Aboriginal Studies: A Contemporary Overview, edited by Ronald M. Berndt and Robert Tonkinson, pp. 239265. Canberra, 1988.

Stanner, W. E. H. "The Dreaming." In Australian Signpost: An Anthology, edited by T. Hungerford, pp. 5165. London, 1956; reprinted in Stanner, 1979, pp. 2340.

Stanner, W. E. H. "Continuity and Change among the Aborigines." Australian Journal of Science 21 (1958): 99109; reprinted in Stanner, 1979, pp. 4166.

Stanner, W. E. H. On Aboriginal Religion. Sydney, 1963; reprint, 1966, 1989.

Stanner, W. E. H. "Religion, Totemism, and Symbolism." In Aboriginal Man in Australia: Essays in Honour or Emeritus Professor A. P. Elkin, edited by Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt, pp. 207237. Sydney, 1965.

Stanner, W. E. H. "Reflections on Durkheim and Aboriginal Religion." In Social Organization: Essays Presented to Raymond Firth, edited by Maurice Freedman, pp. 217240. London, 1967.

Stanner, W. E. H. After the Dreaming: The Boyer Lectures, 1968. Sydney, 1969.

Stanner, W. E. H. White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays, 19381973. Canberra, 1979.

Melinda Hinkson (2005)

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Stanner, W. E. H.

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