The Duality of Metric Concepts of Contemporary Indigenous Australian Lifeways: Kinship Categories and Numbers

Posted by : Helen Verran Sept. 14, 2022

Contact : helen.verran at Maps


The metric system of measuring - metres and kilometres; litres as cubic decimetres; grams and tons. We learn and teach the series of names with their precise relations in primary school classrooms. And think of the set of names and the defined processes as all there is to metrics. Reading this chapter you will learn that there is much more to metrics than that.

Metrics are systems of standardising and means for regulation in social situations. Metrics perform ordering functions in everyday life, speeding up communication and enhancing mutual trust in transactions. Metrics are part and parcel of knowing as an individual, and of knowing collectively in groups and organisations. This is so in both Indigenous and in mainstream lifeways.

This chapter will make an analogy between two quite different metrics that equally ‘have life’ in the organisations and institutions of both Indigenous and mainstream lifeways. As you will guess from my title I juxtapose Indigenous systems of kin names and numbers. Of course, I recognise that the systems of kinship names that have life in Indigenous Australia are profoundly different than numbers. But I hope I can convince you that in several important senses they are alike: different but partially same. When it comes to engineering and how it endures that sameness matters.

In the first section of this essay I introduce the general idea of metrics as systems of related concepts. The second part of the chapter lays out my argument that, as metrics, the number system and the systems of kinship categories that are common amongst Indigenous Australians, are in some ways the same, despite being very different. Then I tell a story that shows an Indigenous grandmother very capably doing the two metrics together simultaneously. In reading the story, the moves that the Indigenous Australian grandmother makes in handling what could have been a very unpleasant occurrence, should be contrasted to what the rather aggressive transit officer does. I include the story to show readers how the metrics systems are often done together in real life. The final section of the chapter concludes the essay and leaves readers with a question to ponder.

Extract from Chapter 20, Indigenous Engineering for an Enduring Culture, edited by Cat Kutay, Elyssebeth Leigh, Juliana Kaya Prpic and Lyndon Ormond-Parker. Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Author: Helen Verran

Location: Palmerston