Donald Thomson’s hybrid expeditions: Anthropology, biology and narrative in Northern Australia and England

Saskia Beudel

Research output: A Conference proceeding or a Chapter in BookChapterpeer-review


Donald Thomson belongs to a lineage of biologists-turned-anthropologists tracing back to his mentor Alfred Cort Haddon and to Baldwin Spencer. He was also a trained journalist and prolific and gifted photographer. This chapter proposes that Thomson’s anthropological expeditions to Arnhem Land in the 1930s hark back to recognizable characteristics of ‘cultures of exploration’ of the nineteenth century – especially the contested heterogeneous activities (including intrepid adventure, scientific enquiry and literary narration) fundamental to the concept of exploration – while also producing knowledge of particular peoples and environments in innovative ways. While on expedition, he was always doing more than one thing at once – anthropology, zoology, photography, cinematography, natural history collecting, narrative and journalistic writing – which in turn enabled him to operate both within and apart from the conventions of functionalist anthropology dominant during his lifetime. This chapter suggests that Thomson undertook an overarching form of interdisciplinary enquiry influenced at least in part by the example of Haddon’s interdisciplinary Cambridge Expedition. Thomson’s approach was pioneering through its close consideration of people and their local biophysical environments as interlinked rather than separate realms of concern. Further, through his journalistic skills and literary flair he used the idea of the expedition to engage public audiences beyond the strictly anthropological or academic.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationExpeditionary Anthropology: Teamwork, Travel and the 'Science of Man'
Subtitle of host publicationTeamwork, Travel and the 'Science of Man'
EditorsMartin Thomas, Amanda Harris
PublisherBerghahn Books
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9781785337734
ISBN (Print)9781785337727
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018


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