John Connell (Australia-International Medal) Citation

Conferred Cairns, September 2009

John Connell completed his PhD at University College, London in the late 1960s, on community change in British villages (later published by Routledge as The End of Tradition). In 1970 he moved to the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University. Three years later Prof Fred Fisk at the Research School of Pacific Studies, ANU, offered John a research job in Bougainville, PNG (John recalls ‘when I found where it was on the map I was sold’(1)). This led to extended field work among the Siwai which fuelled many of John’s key research interests in development and cultural geography. In 1977 John took up a lecturing post at the University of Sydney, where he has remained ever since – apart from three years on secondment at the South Pacific Commission in Noumea (1981-84). John was elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia in 2000 and in 2007 won the NSW Geographical Society’s McDonald Holmes Medal.

John is most well-known as belonging to a grass-roots ‘school’ in development geography that emerged in the early 1970s (John was a Sussex colleague of Harold Brookfield and Michael Lipton – figures that John would later cite as major influences). This involved a commitment to the local scale – especially to village life – to the poor, to practical measures that could be taken to address social and environmental problems, and to small and remote places. John described this as the ‘muddy boots begets wisdom school of geography’ – or perhaps in some quarters in the South Pacific more accurately ‘the ‘dusty thong’ or ‘bare foot school of geography’, a style that spilled over into John’s departmental attire. His interest in field work in remote and inaccessible places was spurred by a formative experience on a UCL expedition to Persia (as Iran was then known). Subsequently research took him to villages across Africa, Asia and the Pacific, where he was critical of both the impacts of international capitalism and naïve attempts to promote western-style development in village society. Meanwhile, and unlike many anthropologists of the time, he avoided romanticising tradition, acutely aware of how everyday village life was being transformed by globalisation, cultural change and political developments. Drawn-in by the decolonisation of Tanzania and Julius Nyerere’s reforms in the 1960s, John explored the prospects of socialism for reorganizing village life (Connell 1974); he would later work with other poor communities in Africa; on urbanisation and slums in the Pacific (Connell and Lea 1993); on traditional Siwai agricultural systems in Bougainville, amidst political unrest, the impacts of mining and pressures of cultural change (in an arc of cultural fields as diverse as Taro growing, shell trading and medicine; e.g. Connell 1978b); on decolonisation in Tuvalu (well before postcolonialism’s rise in human geography in the 1990s); and on migration and the establishment of a transnational remittance economy in the Pacific (e.g. Connell 1980).

Particular commendation is warranted for John’s sustained work in the Pacific. There is possibly no-one with a longer or more influential track record on development in the South Pacific. New Caledonia or Kanaky? The political history of a French colony (1987) was described by Pacific Islands Monthly as ‘the most comprehensive single-author work ever to be written on New Caledonia’, and by Political Science (1989) as ‘the most representative and informative account of Caledonian history currently available in English or in French’. France’s Overseas Frontier (with R. Aldrich, 1992), much of which was centred on the Pacific, was described as ‘the standard English reference on France’s overseas territories’ (Pacific Research, 1993) while ‘no library which attempts to provide basic documentation of the contemporary world can afford to be without it’ (Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 1993). In a plenary at the IGU conference in Brisbane, given some thirty years after commencing research in the Pacific region, John was still rightly aggrieved about the neglect of the Pacific (in Australia and elsewhere) by geographers, economists and politicians – not just because marginalising the Pacific worsens injustice, but because important intellectual questions are brought into their most acute focus in the Pacific – about dependency, rural development, the reach of and limits to globalisation, the contradictions of decolonisation, the folly of market-based solutions to poverty, and gravitational forces of transnational migration (see Connell 1985a; 1987; 1997; Connell and Aldrich 1991). By continuing to work in the region John has personally sought to remedy the Pacific’s marginalisation in academic knowledge production, even when on occasion he paid a price in terms of his own promotional prospects within the University system.

John’s other great concern is for what is practical, reflected in a long line of international consultancies for the United Nations and other aid organizations, on labour migration and remittances (UNDP, 1988; ILO 1995 and 2002-2003; Asian Development Bank, 2004); rural livelihoods (AusAID, 2005); social and economic impacts of mining on indigenous peoples (PNG Government, 1988); on urbanization in the south Pacific (World Bank, 1993-1994); and the migration of health workers (WHO 2002-2003 and 2008-present).

And yet, perhaps unique among practical research of this type, ever-present is John’s foregrounding of culture as a relevant variable, highlighting its complexities and particularities. Culture is more than mere context for economic development: it shapes the possibilities for development, defines what development might mean in time and place. On this John has acknowledged the influence of anthropology at UCL, citing Mary Douglas as an early inspiration (she was at the height of her career at UCL at the time John studied there). Rather than seeing culture in a static, Sauerian sense, John is interested in culture as a site of transition and change, a contested field of meaning and identity where questions such as ‘what is tradition’ and ‘what does it mean to be modern’ were brought to bear on a development studies field otherwise trapped in the intellectual straightjacket of post-Rostow classical economics. It is no surprise then that John was highly critical of quantitative geography, which he considered paralysingly Eurocentric: ‘I saw the quantitative revolution as just irrelevant to geography, or at least irrelevant to social justice development issues; it seemed to have nothing to say, particularly in countries where it is astonishingly difficult to collect quantitative data, where there are major cultural variations of great significance. It seemed to me that it was much more useful, much more important, to examine cultures and their significance rather than try and reduce all these kinds of things to number crunching.’ This helps explain why when Migration from Rural Areas: the evidence from village studies was published in 1976 it was described as a ‘tour de force’ (Journal of Peasant Studies, 1978), an ‘excellent lively provocative compilation [which] blows like a breath of fresh air through the tangle of conventional assumptions which have clouded the thought of development economists on this topic’ (Economic Journal, 1978). And yet for all the focus on local culture, John also has important things to say about international relations, colonialism and the geopolitical, particularly in the Pacific and for small island states. Thus it was possible for a book such as New Caledonia or Kanaky? The political history of a French colony (1987) to encompass all of: the conflict between Melanesian and French political systems, the politics of migration, the emergence and consolidation of dual economic systems, the creation of a ‘consumer colony’, the French strategic role in the South Pacific and the social and political construction of variants of ethnic nationalism. In his somewhat iconoclastic way, just when development studies was coalescing into a professional specialism with technical experts and new money from development banks and international agencies, John eschewed the idea of development as narrow practice, preferring instead synthetic and comprehensive analysis of social, cultural, economic, environmental and geopolitical processes from the village to the UN, hopping scales and entangling related issues in a way that only the best geographers are capable of achieving.

Increasingly convinced that culture was more than mere outlier to fundamental processes such as globalisation and international mobility, John branched out in the 1980s and 1990s into a kaleidoscopic range of related topics and research projects, reflecting his own personal passions and the increasingly eclectic content of his entertaining undergraduate classes: on prospects of tourism for the poor (Connell 1993); on impacts of sea level rise on Pacific atolls (Connell and Roy 1991) the cultural geography of literature (Connell, King and White 1995), music (Connell and Gibson 2003); sport (Connell 1985b); shopping malls (Connell 1999) mega-churches (Connell 2005); and even bottled water (Connell 2006). Beyond development geography John is now equally well-known internationally as a key thinker in tourism studies, a scholar of popular music, a historian of the Pacific, and a consultant to the highest levels of the United Nations on international migration.

It would be neglectful not to mention John’s prolific output. There are no fewer than 74 books and edited collections by John on the shelves of the University of Sydney library – easily the most by any geographer at that university (home to Australia’s oldest geography department), if not the most books written by any Australian geographer to date. His work has been cited over 2000 times across four decades. One explanation is John’s bower-bird like approach to collecting data; when in the field he scavenges all manner of materials, from postage stamps to beer cans, from seemingly arcane policy documents to festival flyers. There are geographical resources everywhere, in seemingly the most mundane, everyday objects and texts – and for John, these simply must be analysed and written about. John compiles unsurpassed reading lists of supporting material from the most obscure and scattered sources – before even a word of a book is written. And above all, John has the knack for telling a story – reviews such as ‘a very satisfying and enjoyable mix of academic text and narrative history’ (Regional Studies, 1979, for The End of Tradition) are typical.

It is entirely appropriate that the IAG would award the Australia-International Medal to John Connell, for he is the consummate internationalist, illustrated no better than in his multiple passports (he regularly fills them before they expire) containing the stamps of the 120+ countries he has visited. In his teaching – that which attracted him to be an academic in the first place – John introduced new subjects at Sydney on third world development and cultural geography that themselves were sweeping in their internationalism. Fondly remembered by generations of students for his extraordinary South Pacific field schools, his funny and yet inspirational lectures, he has mentored honours students (more than anyone else in the history of his department) and trained postgraduates who have gone on to be academics, journalists, politicians and policy-makers, who contribute to debates about livelihoods, development and social justice in Australia, throughout the Pacific and beyond. To Australian geography John has bestowed an important legacy: his first honours student, Stephanie Fahey, is now Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International) at Monash; others include Andrew McGregor (now senior lecturer in geography at Victoria University, Wellington); Rachel Hughes (now lecturer in geography at Melbourne); Chris Gibson (at Wollongong); Barbara Rugendyke (now Associate Professor in geography at UNE); Wendy Shaw (Senior Lecturer at UNSW); and Carmen Voigt-Graf (at the University of the South Pacific).

In short, John’s career exemplifies how as geographers we can and should embrace an outward-looking, inclusive and intrepid view of the world.

Chris Gibson
University of Wollongong, September 2009


1. Interview with Barbara Rugendyke, 8 December 1998 as part of the Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) Millennium project. I thank Barbara for the opportunity to access and quote John from this interview throughout this citation.


Connell, J (1974) Ujamaa Vijijini: the recent evolution of Tanzanian rural development, Journal of Tropical Geography, 38, 7-18.

Connell, J (1978a) The End of Tradition: Country Life in Central Surrey, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London

Connell, J (1978b) The Death of Taro: Local response to a change of subsistence crops in the Northern Solomon Islands, Mankind, 11(4), 445-452

Connell, J (1980) Remittances and Rural Development: Migration, Dependency and Inequality in the South Pacific, ANU Development Studies Centre Occasional Paper No.22, Canberra, 1980

Connell, J (1985a) Islands on the Poverty Line, Pacific Viewpoint, 26(2), 463-473

Connell, J (1985b) Football and Regional Decline: some reflections, Geography, 70(3), 240-242

Connell, J (1987) New Caledonia or Kanaky? The political history of a French colony, National Centre for Development Studies, Pacific Research Monograph No. 16, Canberra

Connell, J (1987) Migration, Rural Development and Policy Formation in the South Pacific, Journal of Rural Studies, 3(2), 105-121

Connell, J (1993) Bali Revisited: Death, Rejuvenation and the Tourist Cycle, Environment and Planning D. Society and Space, 11(6), 641-661.

Connell, J (1997) Papua New Guinea: The Struggle for Development, Routledge London

Connell, J (1999) Beyond Manila: Walls, Malls and Private Spaces, Environment and Planning A, 31(3), 417-439

Connell, J (2005) Hillsong: A Megachurch in the Sydney Suburbs, Australian Geographer, 36 (3), 315-332.

Connell, J (2006) “The Taste of Paradise”. Selling Fiji and FIJI Water, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 47 (3), 342-350.

Connell, J and Aldrich, R (1991) The last colonies: failures of decolonisation?, in C. Dixon and M. Heffernan, eds, Colonialism and Development in the Contemporary World, Mansell, London, 1991, 183-203

Connell, J and Aldrich, R (1992) France’s Overseas Frontier, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Connell, J and Gibson, C (2003) Sound Tracks: Popular Music, Identity and Place, Routledge, London and New York

Connell, J, King, R and White, P (1995) Writing Across Worlds. Literature and Migration, Routledge, London

Connell, J and Lea, J (1993) Coping with Urbanisation in Melanesia, Development Bulletin, 27, 11-15

Connell, J, Lipton, M, Laishley, R and Dasgupta, B (1976) Migration from Rural Areas: the evidence from village studies, Oxford University Press

Connell, J and Roy, P (1991) Climatic change and the future of atoll states, Journal of Coastal Research, 7(4), 1057-1075.