Self-determination (a few more thoughts)

I used the term ‘self-determination’ in a rather off hand way in my last post, and I think it is something that I better do a bit more thinking around before I get into some bad habits. A quick scrounge around the internet seems to confirm my assumption that ‘self-determination’ is used in regards to the rights of groups, especially indigenous minority groups. In Peter Sutton’s The Politics of Suffering (2009) self-determination appears in the index, along with ‘self-management’ in brackets.

For Sutton, self-determination is not a valuable source of autonomy, but rather a way that the imposition of bureaucracy prevents Australian Aboriginal people from ‘the pursuit of individual needs and aspirations’ (Sutton 2009:47). Furthermore, it lead to a situation where mainstream Australian politics could not determine which values were enforced (Sutton 2009:51). Clearly neither the collective self or the possibility of radically different objectives are not ideas in which Sutton finds merit. Yet there is no consensus that the ‘abstract individual’ as a basis for universal liberal rights actually exists (Connors 2004:211). Abstract notions may be useful for debating rights, but I think they can only be a liability when it comes to research in the social world.

My initial attraction to the use of ‘self-determination’ in my proposal resulted from it being argued for in some cases when it comes to Indigenous rights, but not in the context of the poor white people. I want to know why it is such a different matter*, but I feel uneasy ascribing a collective self to any group. Reflecting back on it now, the form of self-determination I was noticing an absence of in the ‘poor white communities’ (described that way for maximum contrast) was not at all collective, but rather radically individual.

It is not that groups and individuals are not mentioned in programs targeting poverty, after all community consultation is important in the design of any community development program. I guess I was wondering why it is that community consultation appears to be more of a tool for finding the best way to achieving the predetermined objectives rather than an opportunity for each person to determine their own objectives.

I need to work out what community the individual programs seek to serve. My impression is that state spending on such programs are not justified so much by the human cost associated with living in poverty but the benefit to the state as a whole of reducing problem spots. Yet community development does not seek to work only with individuals, but with communities so the government does create bounded communities, even if these communities are not replicated in the actual social world.

In my field work I hope to be able to unpack the notions of ‘self’ that exist in my community because I have a strong feeling I am going to need some understanding of (and data on) this before I can start writing anything else.

(* Of course I understand that it is a different matter as Indigenous people are not defined solely on the basis of their identification with the disadvantaged.)

List of references

Connors, M. K. 2004. “Culture and politics in the Asia-Pacific: Asian values and human rights,” in The new global politics of the Asia-Pacific. Edited by M. K. Connors, J. Dosch, and R. Davison, pp. 199-214. New York: Routledge.

Sutton, P. 2009. The politics of suffering : Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.


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