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Relational Indigenous systems: Aboriginal Australian political ordering and reconfiguring IR

Morgan Brigg, Mary Graham, Martin Weber


Ontological parochialism persists in International Relations (IR) scholarship among gestures towards relational ontological reinvention. Meanwhile, the inter-polity relations of many Indigenous peoples pre-date contemporary IR and tend to be substantively relational. This situation invites rethinking of IR’s understandings of political order and inter-polity relations. We take up this task by laying out necessary methodological innovations to engage with Aboriginal Australia and then showing how conventional and much recent heterodox IR seek to create forms of ‘escape’ from lived political relations by asserting the powerful yet problematic social science mechanism of observer’s distance. This demonstrates a need to take Aboriginal Australia as a system on its own terms to speak back to IR. We next explain how Aboriginal Australian people produce political order on the Australian continent through a ‘relational-ecological’ disposition that contrasts with IR’s predominant ‘survivalist’ disposition. The accompanying capacity to manage survivalism through relationalism provides an avenue for engaging with and recasting some of mainstream IR’s survivalist assumptions, including by considering an Aboriginal approach to multipolarity, without attempting ‘pure escape’ through alternative ontologies. We thus argue that while it is necessary to critique and recast dominant IR, doing so requires putting dominant IR and Indigenous understandings into relational exchange.

Indigenous Political Theory; Systems; Aboriginal Australia; Relationalism