The Cultural Imperialism of Australasian Criminology

In a thought-provoking piece on the support her discipline gave to colonialism, Wendy James (1998) refers to anthropologists as ‘reluctant imperialists’, meaning that their support for the colonising enterprise was unplanned or unintentional.  James contends that any support was the result of anthropologists wanting to ‘do good’ by the colonised, and by doing so they inadvertently provided empirical support and intellectual sustenance for the colonial enterprise. Personally, I think that is a load of self-serving rubbish.  However, I am even more reluctant to accept similar arguments on behalf of criminologists, especially those who choose to support the neo-colonial state, who avoid direct engagement with Indigenous peoples, and yet deem to speak with authority on ‘the Aboriginal/Indigenous problem’.

Some Australasian criminologists might consider this position a little harsh. They might even attempt to argue that we should consider the contemporary situation facing the academy, the pressure of increasing class sizes, the continued retrenchment of teaching resources, and the impact of the managerialist movement and the commercialisation of the academy over the past twenty years; all of which has resulted in significant expectation that academics will chase grant and contract funding. Undoubtedly, the recent hegemony attained by academic managerialism has had a demonstrable impact on the academy in New Zealand and Australia, especially as the primary source of external research grants for the social sciences is central government (Tauri, 2009). And so perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on our hard-done-by criminologists if all they are doing is chasing the easy money which is, in the Australasian context, research that criminalises Indigenous peoples.

However, what are we to make of the continued control-freak tendencies of Australasian criminology, especially its more authoritarian adaptations (Tauri, 2012)? It is far too easy to simply dismiss the recurring focus on the individual native, someone divorced from their social, historical and structural context, as is often the case in the work of adherents like Marie (2010) and Weatherburn (2010; 2014), who then compound Indigenous subjugation by dismissing outright the validity of Indigenous forms of knowledge, and do so without demonstrating any meaningful engagement with it.  These actions, so common in Australasian criminology, cannot be easily dismissed as ‘accidental’, unintentional incidents of cultural imperialism. These actions should be considered neo-colonial formulations of cultural imperialism, actions that have their antecedents in the technologies of social control utilised by colonial powers to subjugate Indigenous peoples (Tauri, 2014).

The tendency of some Australasian criminologists to ignore or misrepresent the Indigenous experience of crime control, or ignore the validity of Indigenous knowledge, whilst being blind to the racism and imperialistic tendencies of their own endeavours, has a long history in the discipline. It is a discipline that spends so much time with its nose stuck up the backside of the policy sector, and gazing with erotic fascination at the ‘Indigenous Other’ that it appears to have little time for self-contemplation; or as Biko Agozino (2010: i) puts it:

“… criminologists have routinely buried their heads in the snow of Europe and North America with hardly any serious attempt to understand the hieroglyphics of African (or any First Nation) reality except when they perceive threats to European comforts in the form of human trafficking, terrorism, piracy, dictatorships or the drugs trade”.

The key to understanding Australasian criminology’s tendency towards extractive scholarship – let’s call them the ‘FIFO’s of the academic world’, as in ‘fly in to Indigenous communities, extract data, then fly out and further their careers’ – is that it is still very much an imperialist enterprise. Agozino describes imperialism as the exemplar form of all criminality since “every criminal act implies the violation of the spaces of others and attempts to colonise the spaces of the other and yet imperialism has the tendency to pose as the moral policeman of the world” (Agozino, 2010: ii-iii). In a similar vein we might present much of the Australasian criminological musings on Indigenous peoples as imperialistic, due to the continued violation of the geographical and intellectual space of Indigenes, often without our permission, guidance or willing participation (Tauri, 2012).

Perhaps Edward Said’s (2000: xxi-ii) critique of postmodern theory and “anti-foundationalist” positions can also be ascribed to Australasian criminology, in as much as the lack of attention to institutional classism, racism, structural, socio-economic impediments to a ‘a better life’ and the individualistic focus of crime causation could only come from “minds so untroubled by and free of the immediate experience of the turbulence of war, ethnic cleansing, forced migration, and unhappy dislocation”. In the Australasian context we might add to the mix the lack of attention from so-called ‘liberal’ criminologists of the intergenerational impacts of colonial and neo-colonial policies such as the forced removal of children, stolen wages and the ghettoising of Indigenous peoples on reserves and in residential schools, the purposeful destruction of cultural practices and institutions and so forth.

With all this in mind, perhaps it is time to divorce ourselves from the abusive relationship wrought upon us by the discipline of criminology.

Juan Marcellus Tauri lectures in Criminology at the University of Wollongong, Australia. A previous version of this commentary was published on the blog ‘The Indigenous Criminologist‘, 24 May 2016.


Agozino, B (2003) Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason.  London: Pluto Press.

Agozino, B (2010) What is Criminology?  A Control Freak Discipline?  African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, 4(1): i-xx.

James, W (1998) The Anthropologist as Reluctant Imperialist, in T. Asad (ed), Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Amherst (NY): Humanity, pp 41-69.

Marie, D (2010) Maori and Criminal Offending: A Critical Appraisal, Australian New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(2): 283-300.

Said, E (2000) Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.  Cambridge (MASS): Harvard University Press.

Tauri, J (2009) The Maori Social Science Academy and Evidence-Based Policy, MAI Review, online.

Tauri, J (2012) Indigenous Critique of Authoritarian Criminology, in K. Carrington; M. Ball; E. O’Brien and J. Tauri (eds), Crime, Justice and Social Democracy: International Perspectives. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 217-233.

Tauri, J (2014) Settler Colonialism, Criminal Justice and Indigenous Peoples, African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, 8(1): 20-37.

Weatherburn, D (2010) Guest Editorial: Indigenous Violence, Australian New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(2): 197-198.

Weatherburn, D (2014) Arresting Incarceration: Pathways Out of Indigenous Imprisonment. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

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