Cultivating indifference: an anthropological analysis of Australia's policy of mandatory detention, its rhetoric, practices and bureaucratic enactment

Claire Malavaux

Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis

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This thesis is based on a particular domain of anthropological inquiry, the anthropology of policy, which proposes that policy be contemplated as an ethnographic object itself. The policy I consider is Australia's refugee policy, which advocates the mandatory detention of "unauthorised" asylum seekers. Throughout this research, I have aimed firstly to explore and understand Australia's political responses to asylum seekers, and secondly to examine how the policy of mandatory detention is produced and enacted by bureaucracy. In light of Foucault's analysis of the concept of power, Herzfeld's argument that bureaucracy produces indifference, and Giddens' concept of structuration, I investigate the ways in which policies work 'as a form of power which [operates] upon the individual's sense of self' (Shore and Wright 1997: 29), and, to borrow Foucault's words, how policies are used as 'political technology'. For such purposes, I intend to explore the rhetoric and practices of the policy of mandatory detention. More specifically I reflect on the disparities existing between the Federal government's rhetoric on the policy of mandatory detention and asylum seekers, and the ways in which detention is lived and experienced by detainees. I also acknowledge and explore the role of the media in this "policy drama", and contemplate the extent to which the media are "knowledge producers". Lastly, I examine the way in which this policy is enacted by bureaucracy, more specifically by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). This research, located in Perth, Western Australia, is a 'study up', which has been conducted following a 'methodologically ecclectic approach' (Serber 1971). The traditional anthropological methods of interview, and participant observation, have been used. However, given the challenges and difficulties I encountered accessing my site of study, these techniques needed to be augmented by other techniques, such as discourse and textual analysis (Shore and Wright 1997: 15), more appropriate to the study of policy. This thesis emphasises the need to move away from conventional ethnographic methods when studying policy, so as to adopt more diverse methods which acknowledge the particular nature of an anthropological analysis of policy. This thesis illustrates the ways in which the government's rhetoric on mandatory detention and asylum seekers, the misinformation in the media, and a hostile and indifferent bureaucracy towards "unauthorised" asylum seekers, have led to a harsh and controversial treatment of asylum seekers reaching Australia's shores. It also shows how policy works as an instrument of power subjectifying individuals. Indeed, through my fieldwork experience with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), though admittedly limited, I noted that individuals whom, I believe, do have the power to exert their agency no matter how constraining the structures in which they operate are, seemed to be guided and manoeuvred in their everyday conducts. They chose to comply with DIAC's structures and culture, thus reproducing the forces that constrain them.
Original languageEnglish
  • Forsey, Martin, Supervisor
  • Baldassar, Loretta, Supervisor
Publication statusUnpublished - 2007


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