Sunday, September 6, 2009

European Cultural Hegemony and Australian Aboriginals

The relationship between the indigenous people of Australia and their native lands are essential to their traditional culture. The colonization of their nations by Europeans has lead to a destruction of this relationship and therefore of indigenous cultural practices and norms. This process was predicated upon European cultural norms and established a cultural hegemony of European culture over indigenous culture. The effects of this cultural hegemony by mainstream Australia can be observed through a series of social indicators. Therefore these social indicators can be used to demonstrate the nature of cultural hegemony on the indigenous peoples of Australia.

Cultural hegemony is a concept designed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (Ganguly-Scrase, 2003:55). Gramsci argued that a dominate group, could not retain power by threat of physical coercion alone, but also needed to retain control of the superstructure, i.e. of Ideology and belief systems (Gramsci, 1988: 193-4). The European invasion and subsequent colonization of the Aboriginal nations maintains itself not only through the ‘legitimate’ violence of the state apparatus but in addition through cultural hegemony.

The notion of Terra Nullius which the European colonists used to justify their invasion of the aboriginal nations was based on a western philosophical idea’s of property and ownership. John Locke’s argument that property arose out of mixing labour with nature, coupled with the biblical impulse to “go forth and till the land” justified the colonization of Australia (Yarwood, Knowling, 1982: 15). The Aboriginal’s semi-nomadic lifestyle, which left nature unscarred with symbols of ‘civilisation’ in a western sense did not satisfy the European notion of ownership, leaving the land open for occupation by whoever claimed it.

For the Aboriginals their relationship with the land was not one of ownership as it was for the Europeans. More then just a means of subsistence land held a spiritual and cultural significance (Warwood, Knowling, 1982:15). The struggle over land, because of its economic and cultural significance for both Europeans and aboriginals is the main axis of the conflict. Social indicators, in the form of statistical data provide empirical evidence of this conflict and cultural hegemony of mainstream Australia over the Aboriginals.

It should be noted that the mere fact of statistical information relating to ‘Aboriginals’ as a monolithic entity exist, infers that there is European cultural hegemony. As aboriginals pre-invasion did not identity as a single ethnic category, rather the indigenous population constituted many different groups and tribes (keen, 1993: 220). Bureaucracy is also a European import, a tool used to label and categorise the aboriginals in accordance with European terms.

The European notions of ownership having replaced aboriginal notions of belonging to the land, and therefore aboriginals have been displaced from traditional areas and culture. The devastating effects of this process of colonisation of the indigenous peoples can be seen in the aggregate population levels pre-contact at 314. 500, compared with the lowest levels of 73. 828 (Saggers, 2003: 217). As of 1996 the indigenous population comprises 2.1% of the total population of Australia (Saggers, 2003: 217). The indigenous minority’s land ownership is much lower relative to the non-indigenous land ownership. Housing statistics bear this out when 32.5% of indigenous people own or are purchasing their own home compared to 72.7% of non-indigenous people (Saggers, 2003: 220). The issue of Land ownership and Housing also have consequences for indigenous people in areas such as health because of such things as over-crowding. Indicated when indigenous male life expectancy is 57 compared to the non-indigenous life expectancy 75 years (Saggers, 2003: 220).

Since the Whitlam government there has been a change in policy towards the indigenous peoples of Australia and the notion of Whiteness which had previously defined an ‘Australian’ (Anderson, 2002: 244). The policy shift was from assimilation into mainstream European culture to one of self-determination and self-management of aboriginal affairs (Saggers, 203: 218-9). This change in policy started a shift in thinking which lead towards the development of Native title.

Native Title give the indigenous people of Australia a right to make claim on land once there own. This is an attempt to preserve their cultural heritage, resisting total submission to European cultural hegemony through establishing aboriginal connection with their land. The “Mabo Judgment” which was the landmark case in the development of Native title, overturned the legal fiction of Terra nullius (Saggers, 203: 215). But there has been continued conflict over forms of ownership. To illustrate the problem western Australia is area of 2, 527, 620 square kilometres, only 35% is vacant crown land, 38% of that is pastoral lease along with many other uses of the land (Manson, 1997: 823). As a result only a fraction of possible land is available for claim because of the European cultural hegemony which places the mainstream economic values and notions of ownership over aboriginal cultural norms and values.

The appearance of multiculturalism within Australian society has been criticised as essentially a monoculture because the fundamental British nature of society is unchallenged (Jamrozik, Boland, Urquhart, 1995: 110-1). This includes the mainstream’s relation to the indigenous peoples of Australia which is an expression of cultural hegemony. These Hegemonic cultural norms of mainstream Australia have suppressed aboriginal cultural norms and imposed themselves on the indigenous population, centrally around the issue of Land and ownership. This can be observed through the social indicators, in particular housing and land ownership which has flow on effect as highlighted with Health statistics. The introduction of Native title has done little to change this situation as European norms are still held by Mainstream Australia to be more worthy then aboriginal norms and cultural practices.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Anderson, W. (2002),The Cultivation of Whiteness, Melbourne university press, Australia.

Ganguly-Scrase, R (2003), “The search for Change: Karl Marx”, edited Jureidini, R and Poole, M. Sociology Australian connections, (3rd ed), Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.

Gramsci, A. (1988), “Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc”, edited by Forgacs, D. A Gramsci Reader, Lawrence and Wishart Limited, Great Britain.

Jamrozik, A. Boland, C. Urquhart, R. (1995), Social Change and Transformation in Australia, Cambridge university press, Hong Kong.

Keen, I. (1993), “Aborigines and Islanders in Australian society”, edited Najman, M. J. and Western, S. J. Sociology of Australian Society, (2nd ed), Macmillan Education Australia , Hong Kong

Manson, A. (1997), “The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples In Lands Once Part Of The Old Dominion Of The Crown”, International & Comparative Law Quarterly, October, Vol 46, pp. 812 - 830.

Saggers, S. (2003), “Indigenous Australians”, edited Jureidini, R and Poole, M. Sociology Australian connections, (3rd ed), Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.

Yarwood, A. T. Knowling, M. J. (1982), Race Relations in Australia: A history, Methuen Australia, Singapore.

(written late 2006)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting and well-written.