Staying with the state

On helping and hindering within complicit systems

Public lecture by Associate Professor Tess Lea, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.

Drawing on case studies from my work on Indigenous social policy in Australia, this paper argues the importance of ‘staying with the state’ ethnographically. ‘Staying with the state’ clearly borrows from Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (Haraway 2016), and her call to actively resolve the ecocidal challenges we are surrounded by, from within the thick of our complicit exploitations, even as we cannot master the depths of the challenges we face.

Mine is less an argument about anthropocentric catastrophes and more about understanding the human-made liberal governance systems that welfare professional work, humanistic and social sciences, and modern western life-forms as such are embedded within. It comes from a long period of trying to understand how to do better with the forms of service and support we have available in liberal democratic systems, without sugar-coating the state’s exploitative credentials.

Government bureaucracies can be sites for enacting counter-damage too. The question is how, when we know individual tilts might not be enough, given what they are part of. To think these issues through, this lecture takes as a core problem that remediation efforts in Indigenous social policy are continually ineffective, despite the enlarged bureaucratic presence in everyday Indigenous affairs. Understanding the omnipresence of bureaucratic formations in Indigenous-other relations under continuing liberal settler occupation in Australia requires critical analysis of the human-made governance systems we are embedded within and a sense that our systems can be otherwise.

The lecture will be essential for everyone interested in social policy and welfare professional work’s intent of ‘doing good’, including education and its way of being interweaved with social, cultural and political processes.


Tess Lea is an anthropologist who specialises in the anthropology of policy. She is the author of Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts: Indigenous health in northern Australia (2008).
Tess Lea is invited by The History and Sociology of Welfare Work Research Group, Section of Education, University of Copenhagen, Trine Øland.