Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact

The history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice activism to destabilise and overcome colonial practices in Australia began with the British invasion in 1788 and has continued to the present-day. These acts of social and political organisation have strong sociological resonance that should centrally inform sociological inquiry in Australia. Yet Indigenous knowledges are peripheral to the discipline of sociology. This post is the first in a series exploring ways to decolonise sociology, through the leadership of Associate Professor Kathleen Butler, sociologist and Aboriginal woman belonging to the Bundjalung and Worimi peoples of coastal New South Wales.

To redress the problematic racial dynamics of sociological theory and practice, Associate Professor Butler convened the first Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact Workshop at the University of Newcastle, Ourimbah campus, on Darkinjung land. Held on 27-28 October 2016, Professor Butler invited Indigenous and non-Indigenous sociologists from different parts of Australia to consider gaps and opportunities in addressing the ongoing impact of colonialism in our theories, methods and practice.

Today’s post places the workshop in historic context and summarises the discussion. I also include reflections by Associate Professor Butler about the outcomes from the workshop. I end with a set of questions that emerged from the workshop that we should now face as a discipline in order to centre Indigenous knowledges and methods in sociology.

Indigenous Sociology in Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been engaged in work to address social and political inequality from the moment of invasion in 1788. From the Frontier Wars; to Walter George Arthur’s petition for justice to the Queen; to the work of William Cooper and the Aborigines Progressive Association who, amongst other things, fought against celebrations of colonialism on the Day of Mourning on 26 January 1938; to the Yirrkala Bark Petitions, beginning in 1963, where Yolngu elders raised ecological concerns against mining on sacred land; to the Aboriginal Tent Embassay in 1972 which protested land rights; to the Mabo court case win in 1992, which established land rights for Torres Strait Islanders on the Murray Islands of Queensland; and many other acts of resistance in between and since.

While sociology has a strong social justice focus, our discipline does not draw on the activism and knowledge of Aboriginal human rights campaigns and research methods in a significant and centralised manner.

Similarly, while Australian sociology has a strong focus on gender perspectives, our work is firmly concerned with Western gender relations, without adequately addressing racial justice.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics, community workers, service providers and justice advocates have a holistic approach to gender, race human rights, and all other sociological issues. Aboriginal women such as Joyce Clague, Dulcie Flower, Harriet Ellis and others led resistance against assimilation in the 1930s. The Grandmothers Against Removals continue to fight the state practice of placing Aboriginal children into White foster care at alarming rates. At the local, state and federal levels, Jenny Munro leads health and housing rights initiatives. Then there’s the scholarship of Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson who revolutionised mainstream feminism by examining the inequity between White and Aboriginal women. See also anthropologist and geographer Professor Marcia Langton AM, who has contributed to various government and not-for-profit organisations, including serving on the 1989 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Pat Anderson AO, chair of the Lowitja Institute and human rights campaigner, heads the Referendum Council that has published national consultation on Indigenous sovereignty and constitutional reform. Professor Megan Davis is a law professor and the University of New South Wales’ first Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous; she dedicates research and leadership to Indigenous scholarship and policy, as well as being a member of the Referendum Council, supporting the Uluru Statement,  which seeks political reform through an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament. These and many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have shaped community, social policies and national action, showing the intractable connection between racial justice, gender inequality and other forms of social oppression.

From this long-standing tradition, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers such as Associate Professor Butler have long worked to rectify the colonial gaze in sociology. Associate Professor Butler’s research has documented the groundwork for how the discipline of sociology might begin what she terms Indigenising sociology. While sociology largely ignores Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, Associate Professor Butler shows that the way in which we teach, research and discuss Indigenous experiences are framed through a White Western perspective that undervalues the complex cultures, spiritualities and social realities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Non-Aboriginal sociologists focus on written texts that exclude Indigenous people, ignoring oral traditions and seeking to mediate Indigenous experiences through White authority.

Indigenising sociology

Using the Aboriginal method of a “talking circle” (or yarning circle), where any person can contribute to unstructured dialogue, Professor Butler began two-day discussions considering how Indigenous-led practices, knowledges and lived experiences can enhance Australian sociology. Participants included senior academics, casual teaching staff, applied researchers, refugee advocates and academics who have shaped social policy (see the list of attendees at the end).

Trauma-informed sociology

The first day of the workshop, began with a thoughtful presentation by former social worker and researcher Karen Menzies on how intergenerational trauma of forced removal of Aboriginal children continues to impact the health and life outcomes of Indigenous people. She drew on her work as a practitioner, including her research for the historic Bringing Them Home report published in 1997, as well as her ongoing studies.  She showed how this cultural trauma goes beyond anxiety and post-traumatic stress, as it also affects immunity, bodily practices and emotional wellbeing. She argued the damage of forced removal and assimilation should be central to all research, service delivery and health practices. The group then discussed how sociological approaches have historically and to the present-day centred on socio-economics, specifically class analyses, but ignore race dynamics and Indigenous perspectives.

Western colonialism in sociology

2008 cover of Emile Durkheim’s, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, which uses Aboriginal artwork

The second day of the workshop began with Associate Professor Butler reflecting on her evolving research on sociological teaching and resources. She has analysed the topics covered in higher education sociology courses around Australia, and finds that there is almost no focus on Indigenous scholarship, and that there is little attention to race in central sociology teaching. She argued this is one of the ways in which we see how sociology actively participates in an exclusively Western framing of social issues.

We discussed that sociology as a discipline actively perpetuates colonialism in the citing conventions, theories and methods we continue to pass on to students. For example, Associate Professor Butler talked about Durkheim’s racist conceptualisation of Aboriginal culture and spirituality in a foundational sociological text, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. (A 2008 Oxford edition above even uses what appears to be an uncredited Aboriginal artwork on the cover.) We continue to teach and use Durkheim as an example of the sociological imagination, but we fail to engage with a critical race reading of his colonial understanding of Aboriginal kinship and religiosity.

Workshop participants discussed other instances they have experienced or participated in as students, educators and practitioners where Indigenous knowledges are silenced in sociology. Western colonial practices are embedded into the way in which we learn, research and reflect on what it means to do sociology. We discussed how scholars who are Aboriginal will acknowledge their Aboriginal culture in their theses, research papers and other works. We noted this is also common amongst race scholars who are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Race is central to the way in which Indigenous and other people of colour reflect on our standpoint as sociologists. Reflexivity is a central tenet of postmodern sociology, popularised by White French male sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Yet White sociologists never think to critically reflect on, and directly acknowledge, how Whiteness informs the knowledge they produce. How might sociology be transformed through this exercise in reflexivity?

Investing in future change

Another question we discussed at length was: how do we account for the fact that the majority of people who are trained as sociologists are not Indigenous? We discussed how Aboriginal sociologists are on the fringes of our discipline, either underemployed or precariously employed as casual staff. We noted a major investment in the training, mentorship, sponsorship, promotion and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sociologists needs to be prioritised in sociology.

In the scant instances where Indigenous issues are given any central limelight, Aboriginal scholars are not invited as keynote speakers. It is White sociologists’ textbooks and research that gain attention for decades of work undertaken primarily by Aboriginal scholars. These White scholars do not address their White privilege in a meaningful manner, but scholars who are Aboriginal must always contend with and challenge whiteness in their work.

In effect, sociology continues to colonise Aboriginal experiences, by focusing on a deficit lens: “Aboriginal issues” are only discussed as examples of disadvantage and anomie. (Anomie is the sense of normlessness or despair that arises when social norms shift as a result of industrialisation, colonialism or other rapid social change.) Sociologists do not actively reflect on the role of colonialisation in the present-day, such as racial discrimination that benefits non-indigenous people, including sociologists. Positive stories of Indigenous resilience are not part of our central sociological toolbox.

The workshop participants agreed that Australian sociology remains a colonial enterprise that privileges White Western academics.

Decolonising sociology

We discussed what a decolonised sociological imagination would look like, with critiques of foundational Western sociological texts at the centre. Australian sociology has rebuilt itself before – using a White feminist framework in the 1970s and 1980s – we can do this again using Indigenous knowledges and intersectionality.  Associate Professor Butler argued that the work of Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson (a Geonpul woman) is our starting point for decolonising sociology, especially in Australia.

Sociology is also influenced by Western understandings of individualism, rather than by collectivist concepts of self, place and time, as they exist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. How do we bring these collectivist ways of knowing into mainstream sociology?

We heard examples of how Indigenous scholars have been devalued and demoralised by academia, and how attempts by Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers to bring Indigenous theories and methods into the classroom have been met with disengagement. One example is The Kinship Online Module, presented to the Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact workshop by non-Aboriginal sociologist Dr Deirdre Howard-Wagner. The resource was developed by a group of Sydney University researchers to promote a free, easily accessible learning resource. Dr Howard-Wagner personally encouraged sociologists in her networks to use the resource in their sociology courses, but all sociologists declined. They said they could not think about how to weave in the material into their existing courses. We discussed how this is a tacit assumption of most non-Indigenous sociologists: that Aboriginal knowledge is only applicable to “Aboriginal issues.” This results in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only being invited to guest lecture, or to be cited in, special one-off talks, such as for Mabo Day. It is important to have Indigenous people leading such discussions, however, we must go beyond tokenism.

Aboriginal perspectives should be placed as a running thread informing all sociological endeavours. We talk about gender and class as central organising concepts in sociology; why not do the same with Indigenous sociology?


Participants shared various problems with existing ethics committee processes, including the meaning of informed consent, and the documentation, process and questions asked of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people in their research about Indigenous communities. University ethics committees are led by non-Indigenous people, predominantly White Anglo-Australians. They perpetuate Whiteness in the way they conceive of ethical policies and oversight. They do not understand Indigenous research methods and practices, therefore acting as gatekeepers of Whiteness in academia.

We discussed logistical and material resources in supporting Indigenous-led research in remote communities. A revision of existing ethics protocols by Indigenous-controlled ethics committees would best oversee research about Indigenous communities.

We returned to the theme of trauma-informed research practices. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do not ever have space to “switch off” from intergenerational trauma in their personal and professional lives. How does sociology take this into ethical consideration in the way in which we teach and approach research?


The workshop delved into issues of intersectionality and diversity amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We discussed the pressure to present Aboriginal voices as a unified perspective, when in fact, there is as much dialogue and disagreement within and across Indigenous groups. Non-Indigenous sociologists accept that critical thinking involves critiques and disagreement but we do not afford Aboriginal scholars and practitioners the same intellectual respect. Instead, disagreement in thought and diversity of perspectives amongst Aboriginal people is ignored.

For example, we discussed how Aboriginal sistergirls and brotherboys work to educate White-led LGBTQIA organisations as well Aboriginal community leaders to support transgender Aboriginal people. How do we transform gender and sexuality studies through an Indigenous transgender standpoint, to better address the nexus of race, class, connection to land and place, spirituality, gender and sexuality?

For further detail about the Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact workshop discussion, you can read an archive of my live-tweets in the “Learn More” section. For now, let’s explore the outcomes of the workshop, six months down the track, and the questions that we face collectively in sociology.


In June 2017, Associate Professor Butler chatted with me on the aims and outcomes of the workshop. Her insights are captured in the video below. She discusses her idea for the workshop emerged from observing how non-Indigenous educators and students engage with Aboriginal knowledge. She shows why a trauma-informed perspective is important to sociology.  She also discusses why the talking circle methodology was integral to the workshop, given the need for safe, open-ended dialogue amongst a diverse group of attendees.

“It’s one thing to go in with a set of questions, but you’re already setting the parameters of the answers. When you go in a talking circle, you’re actually discovering what it is that people find interesting… You never know where the discussion is going to go.”

Associate Professor Butler says that the biggest lesson of the workshop was the impact of casualisation on how Indigenous sociology develops. The majority of people who lead discussions on Indigenous issues are predominantly casual staff, who work as tutors (that is, teaching assistants who run classrooms on behalf of lecturers). She says most of these people are teaching about social justice as a personal passion, without adequate remuneration and institutional recognition. She says that she was excited by workshop participants’ desire to collaborate in order to grow Indigenous sociology. Associate Professor Butler commended how the workshop participants valued social theory as a “scaffolding” to build a better world.

Indigenous sociology questions

Here are some questions that emerged from the workshop discussions, which I hope my readers and our sociological community in general can begin to unpack. These are the challenges that the sociological community needs to face moving forward if we are to begin to decolonise sociology:

  • Whom do we cite in sociology and why? Whose voices and perspectives are elevated and whose expertise is ignored, unexplored and otherwise silenced?
  • What does a trauma-informed sociological practice look like, which centrally recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander intergenerational perspectives across all areas of sociology?
  • Why do White sociologists take up all the keynote spaces at every sociological conference?
  • Why do White women sociologists speak for all feminist issues, whether this be gender equity, the family, violence, and even race and ethnicity, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sociologists are only invited to events to speak on “Indigenous issues”?
  • Why do we teach research methods as being race-neutral, even when we talk about feminist research methods?
  • How do we enhance ethics processes and informed consent through Aboriginal-led ethics committees?
  • How do we bring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research practices into our classrooms and community organisations in a way that is led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practitioners and in an ethical, non-exploitative manner?
  • How are we individually and collectively working to increase the low numbers, retention and promotion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and senior leaders in sociology?
  • How do we embrace the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and perspectives through an Australian-specific intersectionality lens?
  • How can Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges be used to transform and amplify Australian sociology on the national and international stage?

Learn More

Live tweet of the workshop

Associate Professor Butler encouraged me to live tweet of the workshop to promote the event and diffuse ideas emerging from the discussion. As agreed by all workshop participants, I did not tweet when speakers asked certain topics to be kept out of social media. Below is a live stream of our discussion as it happened.

Day 1: Trauma-informed sociology

Day 2: Ethical practice

Invited guests

Below is a brief bio for the Indigenous Sociology for Social Impact workshop participants, reflecting their positions at the time, in November 2016.

  • Associate Professor Kathleen (Kathy) Butler, sociologist specialising in Indigenous sociology in Australia and Indigenisation in teaching and learning. She has held various Board memberships for Aboriginal organisations, and received multiple awards and grants for her work on pedagogy and diversity. She is also the co-convenor for the Sociology of Indigenous Issues portfolio for The Australian Sociological Association.
  • Ms Karen Menzies, former social worker in the child protection sector and now-academic researcher, she formerly worked on the Bringing Them Home report, which documented the Stolen Generation (children taken from their families and raised in missions and foster homes, and forced to forget their culture). She belongs to the Stolen Generation and researches efficacy of training on intergenerational trauma of colonialism through the Wollotuka Institute
  • Dr Deirdre Howard-Wagner, sociologist and socio-legal scholar at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy, at the Australian National University;
  • Dr Debbi Long, medical anthropologist who teaches sociology courses with a broad experience in working with Indigenous research;
  • Dr Ryan Al-Natour, who works with Indigenous people and forges links with community groups based on his background as a Palestinian-Australian man and experiences of displacement;
  • Professor Carol Miles, Director at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Newcastle
  • Mr Keith Foggett, Associate Director at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Newcastle
  • Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, applied sociologist working to end gender violence in the not-for-profit sector.


My live tweets of the workshop were first published on Storify in November 2016.

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