In the past the production and use of knowledge about Australian Aboriginal societies and cultures has been of principal, although not exclusive, concern to anthropologists and at certain periods it has played a central role in the creation of social theory. The restructuring of the Institute via the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Act (1989) is an explicit recognition that institutional structures have an influence on the kinds of knowledge produced and the ways in which it is organised, used and distributed. Of course such institutional structures and arrangements are themselves shaped in complex ways by historically specific conjunctures of intellectual interests, personal and public agendas, and institutional histories.
It is these issues of history that Professor Peterson addresses in this Wentworth lecture. Specifically, he considers why there was support for the establishment of the Institute given that anthropology had existed as an independent university discipline since 1926.
In providing an answer to this question he also answers other related questions raised, but not dealt with, in the existing partial histories of the discipline. In particular, why the first chair of anthropology was established in Sydney rather than Melbourne, the home of the most distinguished anthropologist in the country at that time; why the older generation of scholars in Adelaide believe the chair was really meant for them; and why American philanthropists should have played such a key role in funding Australian anthropological research and publication prior to the war.