Patrick Wolfe is an Australian anthropologist and ethnographer whose work sparked a surge in studies of settler colonial societies. Wolfe used theories of colonialism and indigenous resistance to generate new and different ways of viewing Australia’s history that challenged the standard triumphal narrative of civilizing the frontier through pioneering individualism. Unlike most of his anthropologist contemporaries, however, Wolfe did not examine Australian Aboriginal communities, but rather Australian settler society. By making Australian settlement the object of his ethnographic research, Wolfe exposed the taken-for-granted logics of colonization and settlement and turned them on their head. Instead of a natural progression from empty wilderness, to pastoral homesteads, to modern civilized nationhood, Wolfe’s work showed Australian society as the product of a protracted “invasion” in the form of settler colonization.
Wolfe’s 1999 work Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology launched a major academic reconsideration of the role of settlement in colonization. Wolfe demonstrated that Australian settlers operated according to the perception of terra nullius – empty land – despite the obvious occupation of the land by indigenous peoples with complex socio-cultural practices and political economies. In order to reconcile the colonial imaginary of empty land with the embodied experience of settlement that brought colonials into direct and sustained contact with indigenous peoples, settler cultures develop complex narratives that erase indigenous people’s humanity. In Australia, these have included denigrating indigenous networks of kinship and community belonging, positioning indigenous peoples as rootless nomads, with no claim to belong anywhere or to any community – an extreme form of primitivism. These narratives were and are untrue, of course, but they also exert great influence on settler people. This includes anthropologists who have historically conducted studies of indigenous peoples that began with the assumption of primitive absence and, unsurprisingly, continued to find that settlement was an inevitable act of civilizational diffusion to empty lands. Thus the settler colonial perception of empty land became a social ‘structure’: a conceptual framework that supported the invasive settler colonial society by obscuring, submerging or erasing indigenous presence on the land. This is one of many examples that correspond to Wolfe’s now-famous maxim that “invasion is a structure, not an event”.
Wolfe followed up this work by delving further into the impacts of these invasive structures. Most notably, Wolfe has continued to expand on his argument that settler colonialism operates through a “logic of elimination” – that is to say, that settler colonial power both requires and is generated by the destruction of indigenous peoples and polities. Wolfe has shown that the elimination of indigenous peoples is a continuous feature of settler societies, including the United States of America, both before the consolidation of the state and also after. This logic of elimination often converges with but is not equivalent to genocide, Wolfe argues, because settler colonizers are only concerned with the destruction of indigenous societies to the extent that is required for the settler possession of the land. This is a key point because it helps to explain why societies founded on the elimination of indigeneity also can and do define and protect limited rights for indigenous people through the politics of recognition: cultural protections and individual rights are not equivalent to indigenous sovereignty, and indigenous subjects who are reliant on the state for survival are unlikely to challenge it for control of the land. This argument has recently been taken up by a number of Indigenous scholars, including most notably Glen Coulthard’s recent work Red Skin, White Masks (2014). The implications of the logic of elimination continue to be explored and challenged.
Wolfe continues to research and write on a wide range of settler colonial contexts. He draws links between Australia, the United States, and Israel, demonstrating how the different ways that racial categories and racialised subjects are constructed in these places all link to similar settler colonial logics and structures.
Wolfe, P. (2006). ‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native’, Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4).
Wolfe, P. (1999). Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The politics and poetics of an ethnographic event. London: Cassel.
Wolfe, P. (2016). Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. London: Verso.
Wolfe, P. (2011). ‘After the Frontier: Separation and absorption in US Indian policy’, Settler Colonial Studies, 1(1).
How is ‘elimination’ pursued through both state violence and also legal and political mechanisms?
What are the common stories and cultural narratives that justify settler colonial invasion and dispossession of indigenous peoples?
Wolfe has argued that settler colonial societies are exceptionally ‘resistant to regime change’. Why is this?
Describe the differences between racialisation for elimination, as in settler colonisation, and racialisation for exploitation, as in imperial enslavement.
What is the end goal of settler colonialism? Has it ever been achieved?
Submitted by Emma Battell Lowman and Adam Barker