Is a particular type of knowledge privileged within Australian society?

The construction of knowledge is linked intrinsically with culture-based ontologies, which are formed through the lived experiences (Wilson 2007, p. 677). Whilst knowledge is based upon varying perspectives, certain types of knowledge maintain inherent privilege in Australian society due to a number of factors including cultural hegemony and ethnocentrism, especially with regards to ‘othered’ Indigenous cultures (Semali & Kincheloe 1999, p. 317). Moreover, with significance placed upon rationality as a means of efficiently constructing knowledge, the digital divide simultaneously hones and hinders varying categories of knowledge (Lotriet, Matthee & Mazanderani 2009) which emerge from diverse cultural ontologies.

In modern Australian society, the prevailing ontology is that of a Western perspective, shaping dominant knowledge and its surrounding substructure. That being said, Clammer, Poirier and Schwimmer infer that this assumed ascendancy of Western perspectives leaves knowledge detached from living consciousness, including that of the land (2004, p. 61). The fundamental nature of Australian Indigenous cultures involve a holistic connection to the earth, underpinned by relational networks (Clammer et al. 2004, p. 19). Certainly, the Australian Indigenous ontology is far more experiential than that of a more detached, rigid Western ontology, with Indigenous communities allowing for multiple streams of knowledge through shared oral memory (Mckemmish 2010 p. 28). With hundreds of generations of accumulated ecological knowledge (Ens, Finlayson & Preuss et al. 2012), Australian Indigenous people do not regard knowledge as a linear process, rather a dual interaction “between people and country” (Ens et al. 2012). This holistic approach to the amassment of knowledge and systems of knowledge (Nakata 2002, p. 281) has been largely subdued within colonialized Australia, deeming Indigenous knowledge as primitive in contrast with rationalist Western knowledge. However, with regards to anthropological and ecological disciplines, Indigenous Australian knowledge has gained some recognition in scientific and academic domains (Horstman & Whightman 2001) following centuries of dismissal. However, whilst these physical practices gain some validation in modern Australian society, the more holistic, ontology-based knowledge systems aren’t recognised in broader knowledge systems due to the inability to record and transfer such information (Nakata, 2002 p. 284). Moreover, with modern information systems moving online, a lived, holistic approach to knowledge is difficult to convey, creating a digital divide between Indigenous systems of knowledge and the accumulation of validated knowledge (Dyson 2006, p. 273).

Whilst Indigenous ontology in Australia places country as central to the foundation of knowledge, dominant Western perspectives have developed in accordance to modernist and rationalist perspectives (Zimmerman 2008). Whilst Western ideology is based, at least initially on concepts of enlightenment (Fitzpatrick 2004, p. 553), modernity maintains a prominent drive for contemporary Australian societal knowledge. According to Delanty (2000, p. 52), Western modernity emerged as a shift from enlightenment as a dominant discipline of conjecture (Gascoigne 2002). The theoretical framework of modernity allowed for a shift in knowledge and theoretical thinking, resulting in accelerated progress (Gerth, Weber & Wright-Mills 2007). Characteristics of this progress emerged with significance placed on rationality as a means of furthering knowledge with a greater amount of efficiency. Furthermore, this accelerated need to understand places knowledge as objective (Koch 1993, p. 125), rather than subjective, a characteristic which is linked to ontological knowledge. Whilst Kant believed that rational culture could resist the restraints of human progress (Koch 1993, p. 129), Weber disagreed, theorising that knowledge should not be made permanent due to objectivity. According to Apffel-Marglin and Marglin (1996), rationality, within itself, is exclusively “progress-oriented” and thus, has no objective to revisit past or alternative schools of thought. Furthermore, this privileged position stratifies rationalism further with knowledge easily recorded through written discourse and technological records (Hildyard & Olson 2009). Thus, the exclusive nature of rational thought which underpins modern Australian society is limiting through the maintenance of a single, ultimately privileged stream of knowledge, bound in its inability to draw from diverse cultural ontologies.

Australian society’s prevailing dominant knowledge system is limiting in its endeavours towards efficiency. A more troubling aspect of rationality as the dominant discipline of knowledge, however, is its tendency to ‘other’ cultures through ethnocentrism. According to LeVine (2015), ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s ethnic culture, customs or, in this case, knowledge is superior to others. This concept can be justly applied to Australian society and the state of its knowledge system, with bias emerging through wider English discourse and the progression of a dominant discipline of thought. More specifically, the targeted judgement of Australian Indigenous knowledge as primitive beginning with English settlement formed a culture of ethnocentric dismissal of variations to rational thought (Sumner 1906, p. 12). This attitudinal practice ultimately ‘others’ diverse ontological cultures such as Indigenous people through the dismissal and rejection of varied knowledge systems, de-validating their experiences and beliefs. The experience of ‘otherness’, encountered within the lives of Australian Indigenous people, brings with it a sense of alienation through the inhabitation of land which has been invaded (Cowlishaw & Morris 1994, p. 229). Whilst the dominant knowledge system in Australian has, for the most part, functioned as a way of producing knowledge (Kincheloe & Semali 1999, p. 317), the dismissal of Indigenous perspectives and ontologies furthers this sense of ‘otherness’ at the root of the creation of diverse disciplines of thinking. Furthermore, the ignorance of varied perspectives through rationality and modern practices further limits the stratifications of perspectives, as well as representation of ‘othered’ individuals within knowledge institutions such as universities and government (Kincheloe & Semali 1999, 321).

In Australian society, the under-representation of diverse people and their ontologies has the potential to severely limit the construction of a broader knowledge. The broad spectrum of Indigenous cultural knowledge (Hill 1995, p. 90) has potential to work towards globalised knowledge, with structural capacity to sustain thousands of years of Indigenous life, stratified through oral culture (Malcolm & Sharifian 2002). Whilst Australian Indigenous cultural ontologies are based around knowledge and experience of country, a more global approach to understanding is certainly applicable to this perspective (Hill 1995, p. 93). Moreover, with the arrival of aforementioned technologies which seek to record knowledge, a globalised perspective seems within reach. That being said, the engrossing nature of this ontological culture and the ownership of this knowledge from Indigenous people links the experience of country with such knowledge intrinsically. Moreover, the transmission of this information is carefully protected by the Indigenous people of Australian society (Janke 2005, p. 101) in the interests of preserving their intellectual and cultural property within their traditional heritage. Access to this information is available to Indigenous Australians who seek to claim their cultural rights through learning or contribution (Janke 2005, p. 102). The information itself is based within Australia, intended for people of the country, not to be accessed without country in mind. Thus, digitisation of these artefacts would be problematic, adding to the burden of the digital divide of this cultural knowledge.

However, Indigenous voices within Australian society are fundamental to the provision of a diverse knowledge system, especially with regards to ontological and ecologically-based applications. The practice of cross-cultural methods in order to enhance western ideology and sciences can be mutually beneficial to both parties (Ens et al. 2012) with cultural awareness and respect at the forefront of intentions and a breadth of knowledge to diversify perspectives. With Western understandings dominating with perceived superiority, the allocation of funding is often biased (Ens et al. 2012), resulting in subjective subject matter and results. The “management” (Ens et al. 2012) of Australian country requires a shift in approach beginning with the thorough integration of Indigenous perspectives, lessening the divide between dominant knowledge and Indigenous ontology.

Whilst the integration of Indigenous ontology into dominant knowledge establishments are fundamental to diversifying perspectives in Australian society, cultural hegemony is elemental in purveying norms through dominant beliefs and knowledge (Durham & Kellner 2004, p. 3). Thus, the instrumental endorsement of dominant Western ideological knowledge through presiding belief and hegemonic states, ontological holistic cultures such as Indigenous perspectives are overlooked or viewed as invalid. Hegemonic dominance allows for a privileged hierarchical structure granting permission for access and progression within the building and validation of knowledge systems (Baker & Murgai 2011, p. 440). That being said, whilst “gatekeepers” (Baker & Murgai 2011, p. 444) and bias are prevalent within Australia’s hegemonic structures, successes can be met through academic philanthropy and strides to diversify perspectives. Furthermore, open access with opportunity for Indigenous people to contribute to knowledge institutions should be of upmost importance in diversifying the state of Australian society’s knowledge systems, thus lessening this hegemonic state.

Although the dominance of rationalist Western knowledge far surpasses Indigenous ontological knowledge in terms of privilege and validity, Indigenous cultural knowledge must not be overlooked. Whilst current cultural substructure favours rationality as the most efficient means of building knowledge, the accompanying mind-set of ethnocentrism can have an ‘othering’ effect on Indigenous cultures and individuals. Furthermore, with Australian society functioning as a hegemonic state, the integration of a dual knowledge system should be implemented to ensure that country is maintained through the care of all of its inhabitants. Thus, as Australia’s inhabitants may observe differing ontologies and cultures, there is no possible way to convey a dominant knowledge without observing and conveying diverse perspectives.


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Published by Ella Pace

Ella is a film critic currently working and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

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