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Using sociological and psychological theories in the study of the past

No historical record is ever complete and this necessitates that historians make assumptions to fill in the gaps. Sociological and psychological theories are extremely useful for this because they make predictions on patterns of human behaviour that should ring true across time and place.

Unfortunately, when historians have applied the theories to Australia, their lack of education in sociology and psychology has resulted in theories being applied in a naïve way - leading to poor conclusions. For example, Benjamin Madley from Yale University seemed to naively applied some of the predictions of Realistic Group Conflict Theory (which proposes prejudice will occur when two groups compete for resources that only one can attain) when making assumptions about conflict on Australia's frontiers.  In Madley’s words:

"Conflict between indigenous people and settlers often revolves around two interlocking economic issues: access to natural resources and control of territory. Both groups need natural resources and land to achieve their definition of economic success. The loss of their food supply and land threatened both Aboriginal society and their physical survival." (1)

The Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, also naively applied Realistic Group Conflict Theory when it proposed:

"conflict was the result of competition for land which settlers required for crops and the grazing of sheep and cattle; Aboriginal people relied upon the same land for food and water (Kidd 1997:14). The initial response by the Administration was to dispatch troops to police the frontier, but the expanding area of land to be covered made this an increasingly difficult task. A lawless frontier environment soon existed where it was impossible to control the conflict between settlers and Aboriginal people. In response to this challenge the Administration ordered settlers to defend themselves and ordered Aboriginal people to stay away from European habitation. There is no evidence that Aboriginal people understood and agreed with these orders to stay away from European settlement as the conflict on the frontier continued." (2)

While Realistic Group Conflict theory predicts conflict when resources are in dispute, the colonisation of Australia was quite different from other countries in that most of Australia did not experience competition for resources that only one group could attain. Specifically, over 90% of Australia is dry, flat and arid and almost three-quarters of the land cannot support agriculture in any form. In these areas, it was only possible to live off the land as a hunter gatherer. In short, 3/4s of Australia has never had farmers wanting the land.

In areas where agriculture did develop, colonists and Aborigines ate different things so there was little competition for food. Among other things, the Aborigines ate kangaroos, ants, roots, moths, grubs and lizards. The early colonists were starving and would have eaten the Aboriginal food if they knew how to find it and were prepared to live a hunter gatherer lifestyle. Because most were not prepared, or able, to live a nomadic life, they farmed imported crops and animals such as cows, chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs. (Many went feral where they perhaps became an extra food source for Aborigines.)

As well as being unsuitable for high-density farming communities, the Australian environment also contained a host of native animals that increased as a result of farming. The kangaroo was one such animal. The farmers' dams gave kangaroos permanent water supplies that helped them survive drought. Even though farmers wanted to kill the kangaroos as pests, or build fences to keep them out, the kangaroos simply jumped the fences, drank the water, ate the grass, and then hopped back into the bush where they remained a valuable food source for Aborigines. Finally, the grasslands prized by graziers were not prized by Aborigines (who preferred woodlands where there was greater diversity of food as well as products to make fires and shelter.) Perhaps reflecting that fact, in 1788 a bull, four cows and a bull calf were unloaded from the ships of the First Fleet and wandered off. They were presumed to have been killed by Aborigines or native dogs but in 1795 they were found to have expanded to a herd of 61 on lush pasture 60km south of Sydney. In short, for 7 years a herd of cows multiplied on highly productive grasslands near Sydney but Aborigines made no effort to spear them.

As well Madely's predictions being incorrect because they didn’t consider the unique characteristics of the Australian environment, they were flawed because they were a naïve application of theory. Specifically, researchers of Realistic Group Conflict Theory, such as Muzafer Sherif, have found that friction between groups can be reduced in the presence of superordinate goals that encourage cooperative action. On agricultural land, this came when the end of Convict transportation deprived land owners of the labour sources they needed to work the land. Because very few free settlers wanted to live in the harsh outback to do low status work associated with Convicts, land owners turned to Aborigines for their labour. To attract them, they provided items like blankets, axes, boots, hats, axes, bedding and food. Reflecting the cooperation, the cultural fingerprints of the colonial outback identity thus took on significant Aboriginal markers.

Joy Hester - Man in a Cork Hat

The cork hat was invented by Aborigines working on farms. Just like the use of Aboriginal words jumbuck, coolibah and billabong in Waltzing Matilda, it helped define an Australian identity that was infused by shared experiences in the bush.

Although Realistic Group Conflict theory would predict that the environmental conditions in which colonisation occurred should not have resulted in significant prejudice between Aborigines and colonists, massacres were known to have occurred. Applying the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) may provide an explanation for why they did. In the experiment, 24 undergraduates were randomly divided into the categories of guards and prisoners and proceeded to act out their roles. Although it had been planned to last for 14 days, the experiment had to be cancelled after 6 days because one third of the "guards" exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies that had caused extreme emotional distress in the "prisoners." In short, sadistic behaviour was expressed as a result of a place that individuals held in a social dynamic. This prejudice had little to do with their usual personalities and nothing to do with competition for resources.

In the first few decades of settlement in Australia, similar patterns of behaviour were a feature of the social dynamic that allowed guards and free settlers to exhibit sadistic behaviour towards Convicts. When Convicts were assigned to free landowners on the frontiers, a different kind of social dynamic was potentially created. In any population, around 5% of people have psychopathic tendencies (regardless of social dynamics) but their psychopathy is held somewhat in check by the rule of law. When the 5% of psychopathic landowners were given Convicts as their workforce, these psychopaths had people who they could instruct to help them kill, maim and rape Aborigines to sate their psychopathic desires (if inflicting psychopathetic desires on Convicts risked an official sanction). The Convicts may have been receptive to the instructions because they offered a chance to brutalise instead of being brutalised. This seemed to happen in 1838 at Myall Creek when a free settler, John Flemming, took 11 assigned Convicts on a mission to kill friendly Aborigines who had been camping and working on properties in the district. The 11 Convicts were eventually arrested and 7 of them were hung. (A warrant was issued for Fleming but it was never acted upon. The failure to act perhaps reflected a desire for the authorities to break any shared identity between settlers and Convicts.)

Historians often state that the Myall Creek trial was rare event because it was one of the few times colonists were prosecuted for killing Aborigines; however, it was also rare because the trial was one of the few times that Convicts were extended equality by some sections of the free population.

The usual conflicts between the criminal class and the pure class are worthy of consideration because they were the ones that truly shaped colonial values. Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979) is a very useful model because it helps explain the creation of cultural traits such as the egalitarian ethic, support for the underdog, sayings like “fair go”, the tall-poppy syndrome, aversion to patriotism, a bias towards individualism, celebration of the larrikin as well as the various discourses associated with perceived attitudes towards Aborigines that became associated with Australia.

Among other things, Social Identity Theory proposes that an individual will adopt a social identity when the social identity has status. If it is devoid of status, the individual will revert to an individualistic mental state. In addition to explaining why identities are embraced or rejected, Social Identity Theory explains how values are created via social competition in a way that gives a group status. In short, groups value those attributes where they have a comparative advantage and reject those values where they have a comparative weakness. For example, an 1810 account of the class conflict would seem to indicate the criminal class became advocates for human rights in response to a rival class seeing itself as superior because it lacked the criminal stigma. According to the source,

"Deep divisions exist within New South Wales, greatly adding to the burden of being a people isolated at the bottom of the world, and therefore needing more than ever to live together in harmony.
Historically, the greatest rift has been between the "exclusives" and the "emancipists". The first group believe that anyone who has come to the colony in penal servitude is never capable of complete redemption. These people, who tend to be among the wealthy landowners, thus see themselves as a superior class. For their part, the emancipists, who are all ex-convicts, are concerned with equality of human rights." (3)

At cricket matches involving Australia and England, it is common to hear English fans cite Australia’s Convict history to insult Australians. Australians may respond by pointing to a scoreboard that indicates another dismal performance by the English. Social Identity Theory would explain the different values and insults as flowing from a need to value those areas where the respective groups have a comparative advantage. Just as a Convict taint explains some of the banter at a cricket ground, it may also explain why Australian patriotism has typically been expressed via sport, where there is relatively less Convict stigma, but is rare in traditions or holidays that involve psychological connections to history.

How Aborigines fitted into the conflict between emancipists and settlers is open to debate. Historian and art critic Robert Hughes proposed that Convicts were racist towards Aborigines because they needed to feel superior. In his own words,

‘galled by exile and humiliated by poor status and, therefore, hated and ill-treated Aboriginal people because they desperately needed to believe in a class inferior to themselves’ (4)

If Hughes’ assumptions of human psychology were true, then it would be expected that black American slaves would have been prejudiced towards Indigenous Americans as they too would have needed to believe in a class inferior to themselves. In fact, it would be expected that any prejudiced minority group would become the most prejudiced groups in society towards other minorities. In reality, it seems this does not occur. This is because the victim-becomes-a-bully psychology occurs when people are individualistic in their thinking and are trying to find a place in a hierarchy. Adopting a social identity actually counters much of the individualistic thinking so that instead of prejudice being displaced onto a weaker group, it is reflected back at its origin.

The little evidence of Convict social identity that still exists suggests that this was indeed occurring. For example, the words of one literate Convict, JF Mortlock, suggested that at least one Convict personally felt an affinity with Aborigines in a kind of shared victimhood. This shared victimhood gave the Convict class some status relative to the authorities. In his own words,

"I sympathized with a few unfortunate aborigines, transported hither from New South Wales, for resenting the intrusion and aggression of the English, by some of whom they have been known to be shot as food for the dogs. Nothing but a mixture of prudence and quiet energy could enable me to steer a course offensive neither to the authorities nor to a class of persons among whom fate had cast me on terms of equality - or rather inferiority- for these desperadoes looked with much contempt upon new-comers, who did indeed live far more wretchedly (unless mechanics or officers,) than men accustomed to existence in the bush." (5)

Admittedly, if Aborigines were being prejudiced towards Convicts (in addition to the authorities), as Mortlock suggested, then Social Identity Theory would propose that there would be some kind of redefinition of values to make the Convicts superior to the Aborigines. On the whole; however, cultural fingerprints (such as the song Waltzing Matilda) reveal Aboriginal culture being fused with the Convict tradition to create a shared bushmen identity. This would suggest that Aborigines and Convicts didn't really experience identity competition. As for overt prejudice, a cartoon published in the Bullentin in 1888(see below) that drew on Convict pride illustrated that it was the British who were the targets of prejudice as the bush identity positioned itself as superior by comparison.

Eureka Nationalism

In 1888, the Bulletin ran the above cartoon along with the words, ' Australia began her political history as a crouching serf kept in subjection by the whip of a ruffian gaoler, and her progress, so far, consists merely in a change of masters. Instead of a foreign slave-driver, she has a foreign admiral; the loud-mouthed tyrant has given place to the suave hireling in uniform; but when the day comes to claim their independence the new ruler will probably prove more dangerous and more formidable that the old.' Rather than 'the day we were lagged', Australia's national day should be December 3, the anniversary of the Eureka rebellion, 'the day that Australia set her teeth in the face of the British Lion'.

As for the Myall Creek massacre, although it did seem to indicate that Convicts wanted to brutalise rather than be brutalised – as Robert Hughes assumed – it was a unique event in that some free British settlers were accepting of Convicts on equal terms when they killed Aborigines. In other words, the killing of Aborigines created a shared identity between Convicts and settlers. After the public executions; however, a wedge between the groups was driven once more and old class conflicts remerged. Ironically, many of the accusations of racism against Aborigines (but few confessions of it) can be attributed to a class conflict in which both sides were trying to gain status via an association with Aborigines either as a British protector or shared identity as 'native Australians.'

On one hand, using social theories to explain the past is far from factual because it is very speculative. On the other hand, relying on written sources is also speculative because it requires judgements to be made about the objectivity and honesty of the author not to mention filling in gaps about what was not said. These kind of judgements are generally made using beliefs about human behaviour. In other words, the judgements are made using a form of naïve psychological understanding. Incorporating tested psychological and sociological models brings in an extra layer of refinement in the analysis so that the assumptions are more aligned with the patterns of human behaviour.

(1) Australian Heritage Database http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/ahdb/search.pl?mode=place_detail;place_id=105869
(2) BENJAMIN MADLEY Journal of Genocide Research (2004), 6(2), June, 167–192 - Patterns of frontier genocide 1803–1910: the Aboriginal Tasmanians, the Yuki of California, and the Herero of Namibia
(3) Chronicle Of Australia 2000
(4) Hughes, R. The Fatal Shore, Collins Harvill, London, 1987

(5)J.F Mortlock, Experiences of a Convict. Sydney University Press 1965. (First published 1864-5.)
Penguin Aus.

 

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