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Murray Charles Groves (1926–2011)

by Jack Golson

Murray Charles Groves, anthropologist, was born in Melbourne, the eldest child and only son of William Charles and Doris Kathleen Frances (née Smith). His parents had met in Rabaul, New Britain, where both were teachers, and his father went on to a career as educationalist and educational administrator in the Pacific field. This culminated in a long stint as Director of Education in the Territory of Papua New Guinea from 1946 to 1968, which covered the years of Murray’s undergraduate and postgraduate education and profoundly influenced its direction.

Murray entered Melbourne University in 1944 to read history and law, which he did brilliantly for the next three years, except for an inability to pass in ancient history, then a compulsory part of a history honours degree. He withdrew for two years to Port Moresby, where his parents were living, during which time he completed four law subjects by correspondence and the University removed ancient history as a compulsory unit. In 1949 he returned to Melbourne to complete a combined honours degree in history and English literature, graduating with first-class honours in both and winning the Enid Denham Prize for the study of poetry. From 1950 to 1952 he taught history at the University, aiming when it was possible to go on to do a DPhil in history at Oxford.

He had been greatly influenced by his two years in Port Moresby, where he had worked as Judge’s Assistant on the staff of the Supreme Court of Papua and New Guinea and taught English classes in Hanuabada, the collective name for a cluster of Western Motu villages on Port Moresby harbour hard by the developing town. When he was ready to move to Oxford in 1952, he elected to do a Diploma in Anthropology ahead of his History DPhil, but by the time the diploma was finished in 1953, he had decided to switch to social anthropology for his doctoral research. For this he made a comparative study of three Motu villages near Port Moresby where traditional life had been affected to different degrees by their varying distances from the town. He finished this work, for which he received his doctorate, in 1956.

Now on the point of entering on a professional career, he was strongly supported by his teachers as a scholar of well-disciplined, forceful and original mind, an imaginative teacher and an able administrator who combined efficiency and far-sightedness. Murray was to display these qualities in the contributions he made to the various institutions in which he served.

The first of these was The Australian National University, where he was a Research Fellow in the Department of Pacific History from 1956 to 1959, continuing his study of the Port Moresby region and its inhabitants. To this he brought, besides his recent experience of fieldwork there, a background of archival research in the history of Western Motu contact with Europeans from the 1870s. He engaged with a situation where after the end of World War II Port Moresby, now the capital of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, was the centre of increasingly rapid social change with population increase, the growth of wage labour and the appearance of new forms of association including labour unions.

These concerns remained with him when in 1959 he was appointed Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology (Associate Professor, 1964) at the University of Auckland, where one of his graduate students wrote an MA thesis on the Port Moresby Workers’ Association. At the same time he extended his knowledge of the Pacific with visits to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, places about which he was now teaching. In 1960 he took over the editorship of the then 70-year-old Journal of the Polynesian Society, with two aims: bringing it into the mainstream of contemporary professional discourse to make it the leading anthropological journal for the Pacific; and developing a new section called Pacific Commentary to provide relevant and informed notes and comment on current affairs in a region moving towards independence. Before he left Auckland for the University of Singapore in 1965, membership of the Polynesian Society had risen to above 1,000, with overseas membership accounting for half.

Murray spent the rest of his career building and directing departments of sociology in Singapore and Hong Kong. He took up the Foundation Chair of Sociology at the University of Singapore late in 1965 and moved to take charge of a two-year-old Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong in mid-1969. He was attracted by the opportunities presented by so professionally and culturally exciting a region. He became interested in promoting comparative research into problems of urbanisation, urban poverty and urban lifestyles in Southeast Asia and made reconnaissance trips to Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines to this end.

He bent his energies to the promotion and protection of his discipline in the competitive world of academic politics. He played a part in the broader educational life and work of the universities of which he was a member. He recruited his staff through serious negotiations with colleagues and prospective candidates in UK and USA. He saw his responsibilities as including service on the committees of the relevant university staff associations, at times in an official capacity—for example, his chairmanship of the University of Hong Kong committee from 1979 until his retirement in 1988.

Murray stayed on in Hong Kong for a few years after retirement. He had become re-engaged with his Motu fieldwork, which he regretted not having published immediately after the DPhil that was based on it, as he had never found the time for it since. This re-engagement concerned the most traditional of the three villages where he had worked, Manumanu, 50 kilometres up the coast from Port Moresby, and took place in the context of what he saw as the pernicious influence of post-modernism on contemporary social anthropology. He wrote two articles on fishing and fishermen in Manumanu, whose subtitles indicated the direction of his thinking: ‘Some reflections on the nature of ethnographic enquiry’ and ‘In defence of empiricist ethnography’. He now proposed to follow up with a book on the ethnography of Manumanu and another on the aims, methods, achievements and epistemological foundations of social and cultural anthropology in the 20th century, based on a lecture course that he had given at the University of Hong Kong. In mid-1992 he spent four months working on his project as a Visiting Fellow at ANU, where there were many friends and colleagues from his past. Here he took a decision to move permanently to Canberra as an ideal location for what he wished to do.

Murray took up residence in Canberra in 1994, having been accepted as a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Anthropology in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. For the first few years he was able to make the occasional visit to Papua New Guinea and Southeast Asia in connection with his projects, but there were continuing problems with his health from around 1998 that interfered with their progress. These, plus the deterioration of an ankle broken some years before, increasingly impeded his attendance at lectures and seminars. The same was true of his presence at the regular and long-established lunchtime meetings of a fluctuating group of friends and colleagues, of which he had been a member since his return to Canberra, the venue then the former Staff Club at Old Canberra House and later Chats at the School of Art.

Of recent years he came to make longer and more frequent visits to Calvary Hospital and in mid-2008 moved into full-time care in the Calvary Retirement Community at Bruce, where he died peacefully.

Murray Groves was an eminent scholar whose contribution to our knowledge of Southeast Asia and the Pacific region is unique.

Citation details

Jack Golson, 'Groves, Murray Charles (1926–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 April 2024.

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