Novelist LP Hartley wrote “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”. But Associate Professor Russell McGregor could take issue with that. His exploration of the past, whether it is the history of anthropology, Australia or the modern world, shows that while context inevitably changes, people have changed very little.
“As an historian I look at the past and of course that relates to the present,” Associate Professor McGregor says.
“People of the past were like people today, motivated by selfishness and altruism, high and petty mindedness - all the same things that motivate people now,” he says, “But the ideas of the past are different.”
If the consistencies of human nature combined with changing social contexts and values form the warp and weft of history, this intricate fabric of the past overtook Associate Professor McGregor’s interest in anthropology which he initially came to JCU to study. “I liked the narrative aspects of history against the more theory-laden mode of anthropology,” he says.
It was a timely choice. At JCU in the 1980s Aboriginal history was emerging as a vibrant, interesting and original aspect of Australian history under the scholarship of leading lights in the field such as Associate Professor Henry Reynolds who supervised Associate Professor McGregor’s Honours and PhD.
Associate Professor McGregor says the approach of these innovative thinkers at JCU posed a challenge to conventional views of Australian history.
“Up until then Australian history focused almost exclusively on the achievements - or non-achievements - of white Australians,” he says.
He didn’t abandon anthropology but instead studied its history and specifically, the part anthropologists have attempted to play in the formulation of indigenous policy and how residues of their involvement remain today.
Another of Associate Professor McGregor’s main research interests is the history of racial ideas and how those ideas from the UK and to a lesser degree the US and Europe came to be applied in 19th and 20th century Australia. His current major research project explores the changing relationship between Aborigines and the Australian nation from 1901 to 1972. During this time there was a noticeable shift from exclusion to inclusion of Aborigines in the national community, and the nation became more receptive to aspects of Aboriginal culture.
“I examine the reasons for these shifts, why they were so often hesitant and partial, and place them in the broader context of Australian and global history,” Associate Professor McGregor says.
His research draws on a diversity of archival sources, together with a range of empirical and theoretical studies of nationalism, race and racism. This project has already generated numerous journal articles and book chapters, and he intends to publish a monograph on the subject in the near future.
He is currently involved in a collaborative research project with anthropologists from Australia and Germany investigating the history of ethnographic collecting in the wet tropics of North Queensland. Covering the period from the 1870s to the present, their aim is to identify the major ethnographic collectors in the region, and explore the changing attitudes of collectors toward both the indigenous peoples whose artefacts they collected and the artefacts themselves.
There are rich veins of research material here for post-graduate students, according to Associate Professor McGregor. Research areas include the history of anthropology and racial ideas, indigenous policy formation and the white Australia policy, as well as topics focused directly on the northern parts of Australia.
“Students interested in careers in research and policy formulation can develop great research skills,” Associate Professor McGregor says. “They are skills valued by employers, particularly in government departments such as Foreign Affairs and Trade.”