Dr Karen O'Brien - Senior Lecturer

BA (Hons) UNSW MA UNSW PhD UWS Grad. Cert. H. Ed. UNSW

Karen has several broad areas of interest; these include Indigenous Studies, colonising and decolonising histories. Her teaching interests are extensive and include Indigenous Studies, colonizing and decolonizing histories, Dr Karen O’Brien is interested in research that explores fresh approaches to researching and writing Indigenous histories and experiences.

She is currently involved in research of Indigenous knowledges, drawing on Indigenous critical theory and exploring concepts of gender and identity formation in Indigenous contexts. Karen’s research explores colonising and decolonising histories, researching and writing Indigenous histories and experiences, Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous critical theory, concepts of gender and identity formation in Indigenous contexts. Her research takes an approach that advocates a critical awareness of the ways in which Indigenous history has been written and one which might positively influence its research in the future. It examines the debates about representation and synthesising Indigenous histories within a broader historical context and explores some ways in which Indigenous knowledge may be incorporated into the academy. Karen’s research explores historical sources that are rich in personal narrative and life stories such as biography, testimonial studies and oral histories and it draws on a range of theoretical and methodological approaches that aim to secure an authentic historical voice.

Her previous research and publication examines manuscripts of legal records from a variety of courts, quarter sessions and assizes. In addition to research in colonising and decolonising histories, she is interested in researching oral culture, social, economic and gender contexts and in examining criminal complaints and exploring how gendered ideas were disseminated in society from primary source materials such as diaries, casebooks and papers of those involved in crime, with the aim of reconstituting past communities across varying geographical, cultural and temporal domains.

Karen’s research explores the lived realities of women and the influence of Ideologies on gender constructs. She is currently supervising research that explores methodologies of biography, oral history and testimonial studies that that aim to secure an authentic historical voice. Her current research examines the politics of Indigenous identity, gender and knowledge production.

Research Areas

  • Histories of colonisation and decolonisation
  • Indigenous studies
  • Early modern and modern British and European social, economic and gender history
  • Gender and cultural studies
  • Language and power constructs and cultural dissemination and transmission processes in history

Current Projects

  • History from Images

This project initiates innovative ways of examining the past. It shows that histories are possible through images as well as words. By recognizing Indigenous paintings as history it ensures that Indigenous knowledge is appropriately recorded and passed on to future generations. It aims to decolonise western research ways and proposes new models of Indigeneity based on Indigenous self-determination. This portrayal of Indigenous Australia holds potential to influence future Indigenous policy-making. By including painted images of conflict history, eco-history and Indigenous native title land claims, it incorporates an absent but essential Indigenous perspective and generates an inclusive single Australian national history.

  • Popular medicine in early modern England
  • Researching micro-histories, popular mentalities and communities

Selected Publications


  • Ideology, Gender and Power: the Lived Realities of Female Experience, (Saarbrücken, 2010)
    ISBN 978-3-8383-9037-6
  • Images of Transgression in the European Social Novel, (Saarbrücken, 2010)
    ISBN 978-3-8383-9111-3
  • Female Verbal Crime in Early Modern England, (Saarbrücken, 2009)
    ISBN 978-3-8383-2896-6
  • White Magic and the Cunning Folk: Charms and Blessings in Northwest England, (Liverpool, 2002)
    ISBN 978187256867

Articles and Book Chapters:

Chapters in Books

  • Karen O'Brien, (Forthcoming 2012) Teaching Balanda? From ‘Walkabout’ to ‘Ten Canoes’ the Art of David Gulpilil, Theorizing World Cinema, London and New York, IB Tauris, 2012.

Book Reviews

Karen O’Brien, (forthcoming, 2012) published review of James Walvin The Zong: A Massacre, The Law and the End of Slavery, Yale University Press, New Haven and London (2011) in Cercles, Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde Anglophone

Areas of Teaching and Research Supervision


  • KOCR2600 Introduction to Indigenous Australia
  • KOCR2604 Colours of Identity: Indigenous Bodies
  • KOCR2602 Issues in Indigenous Rights
  • KOCR3606 Colonising and Decolonising Histories
  • KCDE2205 Early Modern History
  • KCSE4203 Colonising and Decolonising the Pacific
  • KCSE4103 Twentieth Century Europe: Age of Catastrophe?
  • KCSE3104 Australia From World War One to Whitlam


  • Indigenous history
  • Indigenous critical studies
  • Social, economic and gender history
  • History of popular medicine
  • Gender history
  • Crime and the courts in early modern Britain
  • Early modern history

Higher Degree Research Supervisions

1. Indigenous Australian Women’s Stories: The trans-generational effects of Assimilation policies on modern Indigenous women within the Minjungbal Indigenous community

2. Exploring the Role of Indigenous Spirituality in the Lives of Contemporary Indigenous Australians

3. Indigenous Ways of Knowing in the Museum Context (Associate Supervisor)

Conference Activity

  • From the Inside Looking within: Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous Knowledges, Indigenous Studies Research Network, Directions and Intersections Conference, December 7-9 Surfers Paradise (joint presentation) (2011)
  • ‘Indigenous Rights and the Politics of Indigenous Identity, Gender and Knowledge’ 29th Annual Australian and New Zealand Law and History Conference ‘Owning the Past: Whose Past? Whose Present? (2010)
  • Regulating Women: the Mass Media of the Early Modern World, Reporting Futures, 2007 Annual Public Right to Know conference, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, 2007
    Australia and New Zealand Legal History Society Conference,
  • ‘Fencepost in Legal History’, Violent Crime and Law and Order in Early Modern England, University of New England, New England, Australia, 2007
  • Macer’s Herbal and Popular Medicine in Late Medieval England, Network of Early European Research Forum, University of Melbourne, 2007
  • Academic Language, Power and Indigenous Education, Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Knowledge 2007 Conference, University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, Australia, 2007
  • Universities and the New Research Environment, FEU Conference Centre, NTEU, Melbourne, 2006
  • Female Verbal Crime in Early Modern England, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK, 2004
  • Warawara Indigenous Centre, Macquarie University, Research Paper: ‘Language, Power and Social Justice: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Higher Education’, Sydney, Australia, July 2004
  • Female Verbal Crime in Early Modern England, School of History, University of NSW Research Seminar Programme, Sydney, Australia, May 2004
  • Female Verbal Crime in Seventeenth-Century Cheshire, Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Liverpool Central Libraries, Liverpool, UK, March, 2004


  • The Murray Macgregor Memorial Fellowship, St Deiniol's Library, Hawarden, North Wales

Other professional contributions

  • Review Editor, international refereed journal HERDSA Higher Education Research and Development Association of Australasia
  • Member, Board of Studies in Indigenous Studies
  • Member, Indigenous Studies Research Network

Contact Details:

Phone: (02) 9036 5199
Toll Free: 1800 622 742
Fax: (02) 9351 6924
Location: Room 214A Old Teachers College
Email: karen.obrien@sydney.edu.au