The personality of public documents: a case study in normalising Aboriginal risk

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

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Publication date: 20 April 2012



The purpose of this paper is to explore the potential usefulness of public documents as subjects of ethnography and propose that public documents offer a way to understand modern cultures. It examines the multiple personalities brought into being through the dissemination of policy documents. It shows how the ritual use of policy pronouncements manages the arena of social crisis and normalises the subjects of policy.


The paper examines three statements of intent produced by the Council of Australian Governments about relations between the majority settlers and the Aboriginal peoples. These are the 1992 National Commitment to Improved Outcomes in the Delivery of Programs and Services for Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders; the 2004 National Framework of Principles for Delivering Services to Indigenous Australians; and the 2008 National Indigenous Reform Agreement. The paper borrows methodology developed for the ethnography of internet virtual communities to examine these public documents.


If the virtual communities of public documents are analysed as if they could be self‐generating and self‐referring, they can show us through their internal structure a different, possibly deeper, truth about their origins than if we view them as a mere artefact or by‐product of the cultures that produce them.


The paper encourages the development of a field of ethnography that analyses public documents as constructed virtual worlds.



Sullivan, P. (2012), "The personality of public documents: a case study in normalising Aboriginal risk", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 52-61.

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Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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