Actions, reactions, interactions: the Townsville Aboriginal movement and the Australian state

Petray, Theresa Lynn (2010) Actions, reactions, interactions: the Townsville Aboriginal movement and the Australian state. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Abstract

This thesis is an ethnographic exploration of the relationship between the Aboriginal movement of Townsville and the Australian state. This relationship is the sum of a number of actions, reactions and interactions between the state and the movement. The thesis rests on the conceptualisation of both the state and social movements as simultaneously structure and agent; that is, both states and movements are made up of individual actors but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Rather than just being a collection of actors, states and movements are actors themselves. Because the key target of the Townsville Aboriginal movement is the Australian state, the two are inextricably and dialectically linked to one another on a number of levels. This thesis focuses on this relationship from the perspective of the social movement because I acted as a 'critically engaged activist researcher' while conducting field work in Townsville.

I begin my ethnographic analysis at the level of the individuals who make up the social movement. Through conversations with 'activists', I discuss what the term means and how they have come to that identity. In many cases, the activist identity is nurtured through state institutions, suggesting that the Australian liberal democracy is reliant upon public dissent for legitimacy. Next, I examine the ways in which these individuals form groups and networks. The shape activist organisational structures take is heavily influenced by the level of state engagement sought by activists, and unlike some international movements this state engagement is far more important than inter- and intra-movement links. Similarly, the tactical repertoires adopted by the Aboriginal movement are restricted to actions which are recognised as legitimate in liberal democracies, such as petitions and peaceful street marches. This thesis examines these actions, which become ritualised performances directed at a specific audience: the Australian state. Unlike many other movements, however, the Townsville Aboriginal movement does not operate from a clearly discernible ideological framework. It is sometimes liberal, sometimes radical, more often both, and punctuated by autonomous spaces. I argue that this 'strategic nomadism', in which the movement changes its strategy depending on political and social factors, is a strength because it allows the movement flexibility.

Throughout this thesis, I argue that the Townsville Aboriginal movement and the Australian state are linked in a dialectical relationship. Activists are opposed to the state, but they seek their changes through the state. Moreover, states themselves need social movements to maintain their legitimacy as liberal democracies. This thesis provides an understanding of this dynamic relationship, expanding the conception of both states and movements by social scientists, and offering the Townsville Aboriginal movement an in-depth look at the way it operates.

Item ID: 19028
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Aboriginal social movements, activism, relational theory, engaged research, state-individual relations, Australian democracy, public dissent, political activism, Indigenous activism, Townsville
Date Deposited: 04 Apr 2012 04:02
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1601 Anthropology > 160104 Social and Cultural Anthropology @ 40%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1608 Sociology > 160899 Sociology not elsewhere classified @ 40%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1608 Sociology > 160805 Social Change @ 20%
SEO Codes: 97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society @ 20%
94 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 9499 Other Law, Politics and Community Services > 949999 Law, Politics and Community Services not elsewhere classified @ 80%
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