Can Theory Disempower? Making Space for Agency in Theories of Indigenous Issues

26 November 2012

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are often presented by the media and academics as marginalised, dispossessed, and downtrodden. Historical narratives and statistics are used to strengthen this position. While this historical and ongoing reality must be acknowledged in order for meaningful reconciliation to occur, it must not come at the expense of Indigenous agency. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people exercise considerable control over their own circumstances. Activists and other advocates for Aboriginal rights exercise agency “as resistance”, demanding changes to current structures. Other people engage in agency “as project”, adopting different tactics to achieve their goals. These tactics are often productive – creating Aboriginal services, for example – but agency is sometimes expressed in more 'repugnant' ways, such as crime or riots, such as the event following the Palm Island death in custody in 2004. This paper argues that a sociology of Indigenous issues must incorporate agency to ensure that our theories do not deny Aboriginal people a voice. Aboriginal people have the ability to make changes and resist norms, and this should not be ignored in favour of structural causes of dysfunction. Drawing on the work of social movement theory, supplemented by Giddens, Ortner, Cowlishaw, and Scott, I explore the “two faces” of agency and suggest that research which privileges agency should be a key feature in a sociology of Indigenous issues.