Historical State Crime and Public Criminology as a Catalyst in the Campaign for Indigenous Recognition and Representation in Australia.

AuthorBleakley, Paul


It is a common maxim in historical criminology that engaging with the past can be utilized to cultivate greater understanding of current issues and, ultimately, to bring about social or cultural change. Drawing on the ongoing struggle for social and cultural recognition undertaken by Indigenous Australians, this paper argues for a public historical criminology that develops (and communicates) narratives of past injustice to shape contemporary human rights campaigns. Such a public facing historical criminology can offer context to the social justice challenges facing underserved populations, as many can trace their contemporary experience to lengthy (yet often hidden) histories of sociocultural disenfranchisement.


Tracing the forces that drive social and cultural change is an area of research that is common to criminologists and historians. For criminologists whose work is grounded in the present, this is necessary in order to identify the ongoing factors influencing engagement with the criminal justice system (Deflem 2015, Gottfredson & Hirschi 1990). Conversely, establishing continuities is a central feature in historical research, allowing for a greater appreciation of shifting sociocultural patterns and trends (Shore 2007, Yeomans 2019). Considering this overlap in research foci, it stands to reason that the study of sociocultural change is a natural venue for historical criminology research. Historical research is often focused on providing a narrative to contextualize social and cultural change over a period of time, no matter whether these shifts are criminologically oriented (Aminzade 1992, Lawrence 2012, Shore 2007). Drawing contextual throughlines that connect criminological issues of the past with those of the present is a core methodological element of historical criminology. The past can offer important lessons to criminologists concerned with sociocultural issues--not only does it provide an explanation of how and why such change happens, but it also gives insight into the historical factors that continue to command the attention of present-day social movements.

Using historical research in such a way is particularly important when examining the patterns of change affecting minority, or otherwise vulnerable, subpopulations. Often these groups have been excluded from the traditionally accepted narrative of mainstream society to the point that much of the historical context that informs current social campaigns goes misunderstood or entirely unacknowledged by policymakers and the general public alike. A public-facing historical criminology has the potential not only to correct prevailing sociocultural narratives but more importantly to explain the reasons that underpin the behaviors and motivations of historically disadvantaged populations. This article explores the diverse ways that historical criminology can deepen our understanding of how contemporary sociocultural movements have developed over time. It will also show how better engagement with historical context can provide the foundations for a framework of engagement that is built on a recognition of the historical factors that have prevented change in the past and continue to perpetuate sociocultural disadvantage in the present. The past is central to the fight for greater recognition of Indigenous Australians that has been waged in recent years, albeit with more mixed success on a legislative level. This paper advocates for a more robust public historical criminology, where research into historical injustices is communicated to the general public in a way that services contemporary social movements and contributes to their campaigns for social change. In doing so, a form of historical criminology can emerge that is more than an academic pursuit and instead has a major role in defining the public narratives that underpin ongoing campaigns for social justice.

While unsuccessful thus far in their efforts to secure official recognition in the Australian Constitution or to obtain a formal voice in the federal parliament, (1) Indigenous activist groups have been far more effective when it comes to educating the public of the historical disadvantages that continue to have a tangible impact on health, education, and economic outcomes in the Indigenous population (Bodkin-Andrews & Carlson 2016, Griffiths et al. 2016). The result of focusing on this historical perspective has been the increasing acceptance of Australia's role as a facilitator of state crime against Indigenous people in a pattern that can be traced in various iterations from the frontier wars of the eighteenth century to the culture wars of the twenty-first century (Attwood 2017, Butler 2017). The campaign for Indigenous recognition shows the direct role that historical criminology can play in not only explaining sociocultural change, but also in facilitating it on a practitioner level. The utility of a public historical criminology is not limited to the academic insight that it provides--it has a real, tangible role when it comes to increasing awareness and, in turn, priming public and policymakers alike to accept social and cultural change in society.

Explaining Sociocultural Change Using Historical Criminology

Until recently, historical criminology has been a rather nebulous field of scholarly research in which interdisciplinary tensions have developed over what constitutes historical studies and traditional, sociological criminology. These divisions have resulted in the creation of a false binary in which historians classify the historical criminology methodology as a natural extension of their own field of research, while many criminologists assert that it is, in fact, a subfield of criminology that has always existed (Churchill 2018, Deflem 2015, Lawrence 2012). For the most part, leading historical criminologists acknowledge the natural plurality of the field, which encompasses a broad spectrum of research approaches. Despite this conceptual diversity, there is general agreement among historical criminologists that their research is best served by a hybrid methodology of some type or another. Henry Yeomans (2019, 456) notes that a major critique of traditional criminology is the way it often "sees the past neglected, ignored or misunderstood" and thereby often fails to acknowledge the often considerable historical background that explains the nuances of contemporary criminological problems. Similarly, on the other end of the spectrum, Paul Lawrence (2012, 314) claims that historians are inherently focused on the past and usually "stop short of making any explicit intervention in contemporary debates." By its very nature, historical criminology is grounded in neither history nor sociological criminology. Extending across both disciplines, it is in a unique position to chart social and cultural patterns of change and to apply the lessons of the past to a modern environment to explain the context that underlies and informs contemporary social movements (Churchill 2018, Knepper 2014).

While naturally concerned with conveying historical narratives, storytelling is not the sole or even primary purpose of historical criminology. More than being simply informative, narratives in historical criminology should be instructive in a way that can be readily applied to contemporary criminological issues. This is not to say that there is not power in narratives. Indeed, for voiceless populations like First Nations peoples, there is great benefit to be achieved by communicating the hidden histories of their historical oppression (Maynes et al. 2012, Sonn et al. 2013). For Indigenous Australians, merely raising public awareness of the state crimes perpetrated during the frontier wars or the Stolen Generation has gone a long way toward explaining the root causes of their ongoing disadvantage in modern Australia; it has also played a significant role in bolstering support for Indigenous recognition and was centrally responsible for the issuance of the federal government's apology to the Stolen Generation in 2008 (Lawn 2008, Moses 2011). If, as is more frequently the case, the Stolen Generation is treated as an example of historical state crime, then engagement with the subject as part of the campaign for Indigenous recognition and reconciliation can be seen as a successful case of public criminology in action. Rather than a discrete subfield of criminological study, public criminology focuses on the end-users of academic research. A term popularized by Eamonn Carrabine et al. (2000), public criminology (similar to its more established analogue, public sociology) focuses on the dissemination of criminological research in a way that informs the broader community and, in turn, shapes debates and policies. While at first glance, public engagement may appear to be part-and-parcel of the social sciences, Ian Loader and Richard Sparks (2011) argue that there has been a general deficit of robust public criminology in recent times. In their view, the growth of criminology as an academic discipline has resulted in a converse and paradoxical "successful failure," where criminologists have become more insular and concerned with myopic, intradisciplinary conversations rather than outward, public-facing communication (2011, 8). In essence, Loader and Sparks (2001) argue for the type of engagement that has contributed to the success of Indigenous rights campaigns, where public education has been crucial to recognition of historic state crimes and resulting support for reconciliation and reparation.

The construction (and communication) of a strong narrative is critical to build support for a cause such as Indigenous recognition and reparation and to showcase the historical need for sociocultural change to potential supporters in a cohesive fashion. The role of narrative techniques in helping...

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