Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Theories of Indigenous Violence: A Preliminary Empirical Assessment

Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Theories of Indigenous Violence: A Preliminary Empirical Assessment

Article excerpt

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the high level of violence among Australia's Indigenous population. Up until 2002, lack of suitable data on the risk factors associated with Indigenous violent victimisation made it very difficult to assess the adequacy of these theories. In 2002, the Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted a national survey (the NATSISS) of Aboriginal and Tortes Strait Islander peoples. That survey made it possible to examine a range of correlates of Indigenous violent victimisation. Analysis of the NATSISS victimisation data, however, has so far been limited to a few bivariate comparisons. This article presents the results of the first multivariate analysis of risk factors for violent victimisation among Indigenous Australians using the NATSISS. The results provide strong support for lifestyle/routine activity theories, moderate support for social disorganisation and social deprivation theories, but little support for cultural theories of Indigenous violence.

Keywords: Indigenous, violence, NATSISS, alcohol, disadvantage


Violence is a chronic problem among the Indigenous peoples of Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia (Bachman, 1992; Brownridge, 2003; Brzozowski, Taylor-Butts, & Johnson, 2006; Morris, Reilly, Berry, & Ransom, 2003). The 2002 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) found that one quarter of Australia's Indigenous population (aged 15 years and over) had been victims of physical or threatened violence in the 12 months preceding the survey. This is double the corresponding victimisation rate for non-Indigenous Australians and double the rate reported for Indigenous Australians back in 1994 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004, p. 13). The majority of this violence is intra- rather than inter-communal (Harding et al., 1995, p. 29; Fitzgerald & Weatherburn, 2001).

A number of explanations for the high level of violence among Australia's Indigenous population have been put forward. Most treat colonisation and dispossession and their sequelae as the underlying cause or causes of Indigenous violence. The precise mechanisms or processes linking the historical trauma of colonisation and dispossession to present-day problems of Indigenous violence, however, are far from agreed. Some maintain that the destruction of Aboriginal culture undermined Aboriginal social norms (Reser, 1990, as cited in Memmot et al., 2001). Others see Indigenous violence as a (predominantly male) response to loss of power and self-esteem (Hunter, 1993). Some contend that Indigenous violence is a response to socioeconomic disadvantage (e.g., Devery, 1991; Gale, Bailey-Harris, & Wundersitz, 1990). Others dispute the relevance of colonisation, dispossession and disadvantage, arguing that the high levels of Indigenous violence are a comparatively recent phenomenon, generated by passive welfare dependence, on the one hand, and alcohol abuse on the other (Hughes & Warin, 2005; Pearson, 2001).

None of these theories have been subjected to any systematic empirical test. Up until recently, the only observation the theories could be tested against was the one they were all constructed to explain--the high prevalence of violence in Indigenous communities compared with non-Indigenous communities. In 2002, the Australian Bureau of Statistics carried out a nationally representative sample survey of over 9000 Indigenous Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004). The National Aboriginal and Tortes Strait Islander (NATSISS) survey is of critical importance for two reasons. Firstly, it includes a wide range of potential risk factors for violent victimisation. Secondly, unlike its predecessor survey, the 1994 NATSIS (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1995), the 2002 NATSISS includes a question asking respondents whether they have been victims of actual or threatened violence over the preceding 12 months. …

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