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Bureaucratic process as morris dance: An ethnographic approach to the culture of bureaucracy in Australian aboriginal affairs administration

Patrick Sullivan (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra, Australia)

Critical Perspectives on International Business

ISSN: 1742-2043

Article publication date: 2 May 2008




Development of Aboriginal communities, particularly in remote Australia is notoriously difficult. Despite formal equality Aborigines in Australia remain materially deprived and suffer ill health, premature mortality and high rates of imprisonment. This paper seeks to explain one aspect of development failure in examining the organisational dynamics of the bureaucracy charged with Aboriginal affairs administration.


This is an ethnographic study of bureaucracy. It uses the anthropological technique of participant observation through the author's own engagement as an employee of the Australian Public Service (APS). It also draws on observation of other APS employees in the course of fieldwork with Aboriginal communities and organisations. This is supplemented by examination of APS documents from an ethnographic perspective.


The study finds that bureaucratic culture and Aboriginal culture are not overlapping but separate domains. Rather, they both perform within the same social field in which Aboriginal people become symbolic capital in patterns of action determined by the bureaucratic imagination. While the public sector has consistent procedures for both internal and external performance assessment, there is considerable space for the reinterpretation of information so that all requirements may appear to be met. In the new and complex policy environment of Australian Aboriginal affairs since 2004, the path to effective implementation is less clear than the path to the creation and elaboration of policy itself. This encourages bureaucratic involution.


There has been little ethnographic study of public administration, and none of Aboriginal affairs administration in Australia. The value lies in understanding the dynamics of the interaction of functionaries in the public sector in this field.



Sullivan, P. (2008), "Bureaucratic process as morris dance: An ethnographic approach to the culture of bureaucracy in Australian aboriginal affairs administration", Critical Perspectives on International Business, Vol. 4 No. 2/3, pp. 127-141.



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