Emerita Professor Francesca Merlan

Professor of Anthropology
ANU College of Asia and the Pacific and ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences
T: +61 2 61258228

Areas of expertise

  • Social And Cultural Anthropology 160104
  • Anthropology Of Development 160101
  • Linguistic Anthropology 160103
  • Studies Of Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Society 169902
  • Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Languages 200319

Research interests

Social transformation, social theory

Kinship, gender, person

Indigeneity, local and global



I completed my doctorate in anthropology at the University of New Mexico in 1975, on the basis of research conducted in North American plains Native American and settler communities.

Shortly thereafter, in 1976, I was awarded a research grant from the (then) Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, an exceptional research opportunity which allowed me to spend most of 1976-9 in northern Australia, laying the foundation for my enduring association with that region, concern with Australia’s indigenous-nonindigenous relations, as well as with wider indigenous issues. In 1981-3 my husband Alan Rumsey and I conducted a first period of fieldwork together in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and our involvement continues to this day, with research emphases on segmentary sociality, warfare and peace-making, exchange, language and politics, and, most recently, language socialization.

Additionally, in 1999, and in keeping with family circumstances (young children) at that time, I began field research in Southern Germany on transformations in farming, rural conditions, occupation and government measures to mitigate the impacts of change. This research association also continues, and has developed into contacts with other European locations and institutions (in Spain, Italy and France) concerning questions of agrarian transition, social change and conflicts over homely belonging in various locations (including, most recently, ones of intensive tourist visitation). I remain committed to ethnographic fieldwork in these areas.

Researcher's projects

I have done research over many years in Northern Australia, where I have been interested in changes in the lives of Aboriginal people who have moved into regional towns (Merlan 1998), in their relations with the areas from which they originate, and in their new circumstances.  Over the time I have done research in the north, and given the emphasis on land claims and native title, I have been involved in these processes, by which the state has sought to regulate and restore indigenous associations with land. It has been one of the bases of my theoretical interest in socio-cultural transformation and attempts to model and understand it.

I have done research in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea (Merlan and Rumsey 1991), where the lives of people have clearly changed under outside influence, but where relations to land largely remain outside the sphere of state regulation and the land itself under indigenous tenure. Here research emphases have been on the continuing vitality of (but also change in) segmentary sociality and politics, periodic warfare which has occurred in the Nebilyer Valley and region, and Western Highlanders' own interest in change and market participation.

My field research in southern Germany has been in a region of Bavaria where farming remains very important, ideologically and as livelihood, and where many see themselves as having deep-rooted relations of indigeneity to specific local areas and villages; nevertheless, the long-term process of exit from agrarian occupation has continued apace. I have attempted to describe how people see and deal with this, and to document and analyse the ways in which people here attempt to limit the effects of change (Merlan 2004, 2010). This of course has required engagement with an historically and culturally complex set of issues in relation to the wider German, European and global settings.

I have plans to collaborate on research in Venice on various aspects of the current situation there including: concerning on the part of `real Venetians' with the overwhelming tourist visitation and economy; the simultaneous partipation of Venetians and others in that economy; questions around belonging and regulation in an environment of this intensive touristic kind, and around homely and family belonging in Venice.

Current student projects


Paul Hayes
Thesis title: Migration in Northern Sudan

Simon Theobald
Thesis Title : Desiring Perfection: Utopia and its critics in contemporary Iran

Diana Tung [just starting 2019

Topic: Ayahuasca Tourism, Peru

Past student projects

  1. Gould, Jacqueline Lisa 2011. Being in the black: The business of development in northern Australia.
  2. Raftery, David 2011. Pursuing quality and resisting commodification: An analysis of value creation among Clare Valley family wine businesses.
  3. Bowen, Zazie Jay 2012. Children and play in Mayurbhanj District, Odisha [India].
  4. Harradine, Mark Andrew 2014. Alienating customary land: People of the land and people of property in Vanuatu.
  5. Adams, Elise Katharine 2015. Losing ground? Issues of autonomy in an urban indigenous organization.
  6. Blakeman, Bree Melanie 2015. An ethnography of emotion and morality: Toward a local Indigenous theory of value and social exchange on the Yolngu Homelands in remote north-east Arnhem Land.
  7. Jakob, Lina Birgit 2015. “Hooray, I am a Kriegsenkel!”: Transgenerational transmission of World War II experiences in Germany.
  8. Watt, Elizabeth 2016. Mission modern: an ethnographic history of the origins and reception of the Cape York welfare reform trial in Hope Vale [Queensland].
  9. Shakuto, Shiori  2017. Anxious Intimacy: Negotiating gender, value and belonging among Japanese retirees in Malaysia.
  10. 10. Ying-Cheng Chang 2018. Journey from the rainbow bridge: Separated Christian socialities in an indigenous Truku village of Taiwan.


Projects and Grants

Grants information is drawn from ARIES. To add or update Projects or Grants information please contact your College Research Office.

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Updated:  05 March 2024 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers