MHDCD Project

3.2 Complexity

The experiences of Indigenous Australians with MHDCD in contact with the criminal justice system are characterised by complex trauma related to disadvantage, racism, marginalisation and harm. Such experiences include multiple elements and processes which are interconnected and interdependent and are difficult to disentangle from one another since they intersect and dynamically interact. These make up a complex system (Bar-Yam 1997; Byrne, 1998). In order to conceptualise this complex system, emerging approaches in the social sciences that engage with complexity theory have informed the study approach. Encompassing a range of diverse disciplinary bases and intellectual traditions, complexity approaches are at the cutting edge of new work in a number of fields and although beginning to emerge in criminological scholarship (see Pycroft & Barollas, 2014), as yet, there has been little direct and systematic engagement with complexity analyses in disability. The lives of Indigenous Australians with mental and cognitive disability in contact with the criminal justice system are replete with experiences that tie the presence of disability to complex experiences of disadvantage, marginalization and harm. A complexity analysis allows us to grasp the interconnections between multiple identities and levels of social disadvantage which overcome the limitations of traditional cause and effect and/or deficit thinking that has dominated the field.

A complexity approach allows the consideration of the impact of multiple systems including institutional and social relations on individuals, families and communities and promotes a focus on power relations in systemic mechanisms that force people and groups into pathways by controlling opportunity and knowledge (Baldry & Dowse 2013: 224). This approach overcomes the tendency to individualise experience and moves the analysis beyond the effects of criminogenic or impairment related individual characteristics.  A complexity analysis offers several key insights which have informed our approach. These broadly include recognition that:

  • Causation is complex and outcomes are not the product of any single cause but rather the effects of interaction of multiple factors.
  • Systems are characterised by many elements and processes that are interconnected and interdependent and these elements can feedback into each other.
  • Complex issues cannot be understood as linear problems broken down into pieces, with each piece analysed separately to give the answer to the problem (Ramalingam et al., 2008). Small causes can have large effects and vice-versa (Cilliers, 1998) and can have effects that are dynamic, non-linear and unpredictable.
  • The results are something that cannot be predicted from what is known of the component parts or by separately analysing various causes and effects i.e. the whole is more than the sum of its parts (Baldry & Dowse 2013: 222-4).

Adopting a complexity approach allows an understanding of the ‘chaotic synergy at play across multiple contextual, situational and identity factors, which often amounts to system-based oppression’ (McPherson & McGibbon 2014,160)

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