Learning how people live

Learning how people live

Dr Rosita Henry

Head of Department, Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology

Dr Rosita Henry

Dr Rosita Henry with dancers from Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park.

Dr Rosita Henry was lucky to discover anthropology. In Australian schools the subject is usually buried in the social sciences, unlike in America where it is taught as a subject in its own right. But once her career counsellor pointed her in anthropology’s direction Dr Henry realised the subject’s focus on the relationship between people and place was a perfect fit. With Sri Lankan and German parentage and six years in PNG as a child, her interest in different cultures was intrinsic.

As anthropology is regularly confused with archaeology, people assume Dr Henry’s passion is bones or ruins, but her interest in social or cultural anthropology focuses on how people are living today while seeing how the past is implicated in the present.

After completing her Masters in Anthropology in 1986 at ANU based on a field study in Sri Lanka and the subsequent arrival of her three children, she returned to study law part-time at JCU in Townsville in 1992. The Anthropology department discovered her background and offered her a tutoring position. After two challenging years studying law, raising children and tutoring full-time, Dr Henry surrendered to her first love, deciding on a PhD in Anthropology.

Kuranda’s transformation

The subject of her thesis was an enticing nexus of the ‘people and place’ paradigm: Kuranda, the historic rainforest village just north of Cairns. Dr Henry examined the conflict and social drama created by Kuranda’s transformation from a small, isolated community in the rainforest to a tourist mecca. The charged relationships between the Indigenous community, old settlers, new age settlers and competing business interests were the manifestation of each group trying to make the town their place. “There are lots of studies about the relationships between early settlers and Aborigines but settlement is still continuing,” Dr Henry says.

In her first year of Anthropology she had realised her dream of a field trip to PNG. She returned in 2000 to study the aftermath of the 10 year tribal war documented by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson in the trilogy of films - First Contact, Joe Leahy’s Neighbours and Black Harvest. She examined the role of women and the churches in the peacemaking process, the role of the coffee industry and again, people’s relationship to the land, “Particularly in regard to land ownership,” Dr Henry says, “which is not only about economic rights but also about being able to define who you are, and your social connection and responsibilities to others through time.”

Festivals of ideas

Indigenous cultural festivals, which Dr Henry describes as a poetic way of making a political statement, are another research focus. She is part of Pacific Alternative Projects, a network of researchers working on political innovation and heritage in Oceania funded by a grant from the Norwegian Research Council through the University of Bergen. She has written a grant proposal to study the Festival of Pacific Arts from its inception in 1972 - documenting a contemporary history of the Pacific seen through the lens of the festival - a way of charting political change in the region.

Dr Henry is collaborating with a group of anthropologists, historians and archaeologists on a study of early European collectors of artefacts in the wet tropics. This is seen in the context of contemporary Aboriginal engagements with the objects collected, property rights and transmission of intellectual property.

She is also editor of a book in collaboration with Dr Barbara Glowczewski from the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. Le Defi Indigene, Entre Spectacle et Politique is a collection of papers on different aspects of indigenous cultures making their voices heard through performance, originally published in French in 2007. It is being translated into English for publication by Bardwell Press, Oxford, in 2010.

Dr Henry says that cross-cultural understanding is the mark of an anthropology major, signifying a comprehensive understanding of cross-cultural issues.

“We tend to get a good cohort of students wanting to do Anthropology at PhD level - I think that’s because they come to it through life experience,” she says.

“They are usually passionately committed people who realise the vital importance of developing a comparative and holistic understanding cultural difference and what it means to be human in all our diversity.”


  • PhD, Anthropology, JCU, 1999; MA, Anthropology, ANU,1986; BA (Hons), Anthropology, ANU,1977.

  • Member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

  • Member of the Australian Anthropological Society.

  • Currently Head of Department of Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology, School of Arts and Social Sciences, JCU.

  • Teaching: Currently teaching a range of undergraduate subjects, including the 'Anthropology of Violence', 'Australia through Time and Place', 'Asia-Pacific Development: Culture and Globalization' in addition to supervision of honours postgraduate research students.

  • Research: ‘Social Change in the Tropics’ focusing on Indigenous peoples and the state, land tenure and conflict in Highlands PNG; the human dimensions of climate change in the Pacific; cultural festivals in Australia and the Pacific.

Rosita Henry is currently the Head of the Department of Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology at James Cook University, Australia. She has conducted research in relation to northern Australia, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and, most recently, Micronesia.

She is co-editor with Barbara Glowczewski of 'Le Défi Indigène, Entre Spectacle et Politique'. Paris: Aux Lieux d’Etre (2007). She is also co-editor of the 'Politics of Dance', a special issue of The Australian Journal of Anthropology, and 'Connecting the Miles', a festshrift issue of the Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology in honour of Douglas Miles.

She is the author of a number of papers on indigenous knowledge and intangible heritage, most recently 'Performing Tradition: The Poetic Politics of Indigenous Cultural Festivals' in the book 'The Arts and the State' edited by Judith Kapferer (Berghahn Books 2008).