Reading Gracelyn Smallwood

10 July 2016  by Heather Burton, DrPH student @ Flinders University

Today I’m reading Indigenist Critical Realism: Human Rights and First Australians’ well-being. It is relevant in a thousand ways to my thesis, which is an exploration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education as a social determinant of health .

Just one of those ways is that this book is about critical realism, which is, I suppose, a parent of realist synthesis, the methodology I’m using in my research. Gracelyn Smallwood’s chapter on methodology explains in detail the important concepts of critical realism, which are bringing Bhaskar’s work to life for me like no-one else has.

Finally I am reading an explanation of ontology that is meaningful rather than abstract: something I can grasp and apply.

Smallwood uses Bhaskar’s critical realism to explain that racialised experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, such as deaths in custody are real (can’t be justified in terms of  the behaviour of particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the cause), arise from an expression of hate toward Aboriginal people based on their race and have a cause that is rooted in the colonisation of Australia by the British: that these are infringements of the rights of Indigenous people and that we, as a nation, are morally obliged to address this and other manifestations of racism.   While some commentators (Bolt for example) attempt to represent the situation of Indigenous Australians (or First Australians, using Smallwood’s preferred name) on a surface level as one group of Australians with no more or less rights than any other, Smallwood skillfully demonstrates that this is inaccurate and unacceptable. She explains that while at one universal level, we are all members of the human race, that reality is multilayered and the reality in which non-Indigenous Australians have very different experiences with for example, the police and justice system from First Australians is another and equally important layer of reality.

I had not previously been able to take hold of the need for a multilayered understanding of reality as a moral pre-requisite. I thought that realist synthesis was a useful tool because it allows refinement of our understanding of an intervention or reform but felt myself to be endlessly wrestling with the nature of a mechanism and the idea that mechanisms operate at one level of reality while outcomes are visible at another. This book has helped me to see that the ontological stance of realist approaches, that reality is multilayered, is much more than a device to explain why one set of circumstances enables a desired outcome to be generated by a particular set of actions, while another does not.  It allows for a moral understanding of reality, that things are not simply ‘the way they are’ that by understanding how to change the deep structure of reality we can generate alternative ‘actualities’ in other words the desirable reality that has not yet been realised (where race hate is not systemically embedded in Australian society for example) is still real, though not actualised at present we can (and morally we must) still act to bring it about.

Smallwood’s book answers another vexing question for me. How to reconcile avoidance of non-Indigenous people’s othering of Indigenous people with showing respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultural distinctiveness and right to resist assimilation to European culture and at the same time the diversity of their cultures, experiences and rights-bearing individuality.  She argues that while it may be tempting for oppressed people to “try to join the category of the ‘Same’” that the way forward is for society to recognise that ‘it is the difference or the Otherness of the Other that constitutes their worth’. In other words it is not regarding Indigenous people as ‘other’ per se which is problematic but the creation of negative categories of ‘other’ that position First Australians and other oppressed Indigenous peoples as victims, criminals, economic resources and exotic beings and thus perpetuates their oppression.



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