Decolonising Sociology

Much like the challenges facing educators looking to transform education in a way that is more meaningful to Indigenous students, Australian sociology has many issues of colonialism to address. Indigenous sociologist Associate Professor Kathleen Butler belongs to the Bundjalung and Worimi peoples of coastal New South Wales. She finds that our discipline presents several problems in the way we teach, research and discuss Indigenous experiences

First, many of our key texts are written from a particular White Western perspective. For example, we continue to teach Durkheim who used Indigenous Australians as a case study of a “primitive” culture. Even when using the work of Marx and Foucault, Butler must “critically” and “cautiously” approach their work as an Indigenous woman. Second, most Australian sociology deals with Indigenous issues via written texts that speak on behalf of Indigenous people, rather drawing on face-to-face ethnographic dialogue.

Butler is acutely aware of her otherness, both in her approach to teaching and in the way in which her teaching is positioned within academia. She was reticent to introduce her own personal experience into the classroom because much of sociology focuses on the written texts of major White male figures (for further discussion, see Butler’s  PhD thesis). 

Much of Indigenous scholarship written by non-Indigenous researchers constructs Indigenous people as other, focusing on problems, especially on rural and remote Indigenous problems. Butler grew up in urban New South Wales, and so these rural experiences are as foreign to her as they are to her predominantly White students. Furthermore, Butler notes that she and her Indigenous academic colleagues are mostly teaching Indigenous subjects, which reinforces that academia primarily defines and values their knowledge and scholarship in a narrow way. She writes:

Many Indigenous academics remain peripheral to the academy, other than in the position of the ubiquitous guest lecturer – the reserve army of labour for White academics to selectively include in order to handle the contentious obligatory Indigenous inclusion.

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Indigenous perspectives

Every sociological event I’ve ever attended, such as a conference or public lecture, includes a Welcome to Country. This involves a formal acknowledgement of the traditional landowners of the place where we are, and a brief speech by a local Indigenous elder. Indigenous issues usually feature in Australian sociology textbooks, but Indigenous knowledge remains distinct. Australian sociology still relies heavily on European theorists and White Australian scholarship. In short, Indigenous knowledge is not central to the way in which we teach sociology.

This is where Australian history, academic practice and socio-economic dynamics need to change. Sociologists are acutely aware of power and discourse, and yet Indigenous colleagues are not only a minority, but a specialised labour force. Indigenous perspectives are reserved for discussions on Indigenous problems (reproducing Indigenous Australians as “Other”), but Indigenous perspectives are not integrated into the way in which we teach sociology.

A uniquely Australian sociology should be at the centre of educational transformation, by critically addressing our engagement with the texts we use and produce, and by making Indigenous perspectives an ongoing feature of our teaching and critical thinking. While we continue to draw on the voices of European and White theorists (mostly men), we silence the contribution of Indigenous perspectives. 

It’s time for evolution of the sociological teacher/ activist, and a revolution of the Australian sociological system. Let’s decolonise sociology!  

For background research on Indigenous education, see my blog, The Other Sociologist.

[Image: The Aboriginal flag in the background, with text: White Australia has a Black history. Via @SomersetBean]

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