Since the British colonised Australia in 1788 Australia’s Aboriginal peoples have suffered violence, systemic discrimination (including forced child removal), and been subject to assimilationist policies within the settler-colony. Aboriginal peoples’ overrepresentation in criminal justice systems must be understood against this background, and criminal justice research must accordingly be attuned to the effects of colonialism.  This blog highlights the ways in which I have sought to ‘decolonise’ my doctoral research methodology examining intimate partner violence against Aboriginal women, drawing upon aspects of Indigenous and postcolonial criminology, and the black feminist intersectional tradition.

Decolonising criminology: post-colonial and Indigenous approaches

According to Biko Agozino criminology as a social science has focused largely on the ‘petty crimes of hapless and helpless individuals’, while remaining blind to, and indeed acting in service of, the violence of the State (including imperialism, slavery and neo-colonialism). Despite mounting a scathing critique of administrative criminology and its attendants, rather than rejecting the study of ‘crime’ outright Agozino challenges criminologists to radically transform assumptions, approaches, methods and the focuses of their discipline. In recent years in particular Agozino’s work has been influential in the development of Indigenous approaches to criminology, not simply due to the impact of colonialism on Indigenous peoples as an historical fact, but also due to the ongoing effects of colonial epistemologies on the experiences of Indigenous peoples in respect of crime and criminal justice.

Drawing on the work of Agozino, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and others, the development of an ‘Indigenous critical criminology’ has been most clearly articulated by Chris Cunneen and Juan Tauri. According to Cunneen and Tauri, under a critical Indigenous criminology:

  • Researchers must approach their research with committed objectivity;

  • Researchers must speak truth to power and give back to communities from whom knowledge is received (and taken), and

  • Research must come from within Indigenous peoples and communities (that research be ‘real’).

As will be described below, I have centred these principles, as well as a broad concern with the effects of colonialism, within my doctoral research design.

Developing an approach to the study of intimate partner violence against Aboriginal women

The topic of my research is intimate partner violence against Aboriginal women in Australia, and how this relates to the collective right to self-determination as articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While this post does not go into depth about the nature of existing criminological research concerning violence against women, I would argue that many of the criticisms Agozino raises in respect of mainstream criminology can be levelled at prevailing approaches to examining gendered forms of violence; including in particular that such approaches do not adequately consider the relationship between State power and crime. Accordingly my research approaches the issue of violence against women from a post-colonial perspective by critically examining the interface between State and personal violence.  

Further, given that a great deal of existing research on violence against women in Australia is developed with the white settler population in mind, my research seeks to overcome the common assumptions in this work by exploring the multiplicative effects of gender discrimination, racism and colonialism on Aboriginal women’s experiences (without a white comparator). This approach not only draws on postcolonial theory, but also on intersectionality and black feminist theory (for instance, as it relates to criminology, the work of Hillary Potter).

As noted above, the principles of critical Indigenous criminology have also formed part of my study’s methodology from its early stages. As the first principle of Indigenous criminology suggests when working with Indigenous populations rather than detaching from the world of study, the researcher must stand with the subjects of research, from those subjects’ standpoints (Agozino’s notion of committed objectivity). In designing my research I initially undertook scoping work with Aboriginal Elders and service providers in communities surveying interest, discussing the research, developing a dissemination plan, and ensuring that the research was ‘real’. These discussions led me to develop a two stage iterative methodology involving case studies and interviews, and an analytical focus on the collective right to self-determination. Both the process of scoping and the research processes I have developed aim to centre Indigenous epistemologies and narratives. At the conclusion of the research process, I will give my research findings back to research participants and stakeholders for use in their advocacy. In this sense my research is clearly framed by my commitment to promoting Indigenous peoples’ rights.

Concluding remarks

Although this post has provided only a very brief snapshot of aspects of the research I am currently undertaking, with it I hope to offer some insights into the ways I have attempted to decolonise my approach to criminological work. I anticipate as this study evolves so too will my approach and I look forward to continuing my engagement with the Centre over the coming years and working within this exciting avenue of criminology. 

*Emma Buxton-Namisnyk is a Clarendon Scholar and part-time Dphil Candidate in the Department of Continuing Education. She lives in Australia where she works as a criminologist examining violence against women. She has recently completed a Community Justice Fellowship at the University of Sydney Law School examining the issue of help seeking and help giving in relation to intimate partner violence. Her doctoral research is supervised by Associate Professor Nazila Ghanea from the Department of Continuing Education and Associate Professor Rachel Condry from the Centre for Criminology.