Research Stream


Karen O'Brien

Karen O'Brien is interested in how people across the world transcend life’s hardships by appealing to the law for justice. Her research explores socio-legal concerns in a variety of historical, geographical and temporal contexts, particularly during the early modern period. She works on legal sources that are rich in personal narrative and draws on a range of theoretical and methodological approaches to uncover original voices. Her archival research examines manuscripts and legal records from church courts, quarter sessions and assizes, and takes into account such legal sources as testimony and petitions in people’s attempts to achieve justice. It additionally draws on a range of novel theoretical and methodological approaches that aim to create space for an Indigenous voice within the socio-legal area. One of her research strengths lies in the field of Indigenous research that involves primary sources. Her work has made a strong impact in the field of Indigenous politics and rights, creating an environment for further archival research to flourish. Additionally, she researches and regularly publishes about women in early modern history, particularly their emotional investment in relationships. She is currently writing a book for publication with Bloomsbury publishers on First Australian petitioning.


+61 2 9036 5199 
The University of Sydney profile



First Australian Petitioning

Selected Publications

O'Brien, K. Petitioning, Conflict, and Governance in Pre-Modern Communities: Gender Relations in Times of Crisis. Amsterdam University Press, forthcoming.

O'Brien, K. Petitioning for Land: The Petitions of First Peoples of Modern British Colonies. Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

O'Brien, K. 'Social Cohesion and Resilience in First Australian Family and Kinship Networks'. Journal of Family History 42.4 (2017): 440–51.

O’Brien, K. ‘Intimate Worlds, Kinship Relations and Emotional Investment Among Women’. Journal of Family History 41.2 (2016): 131–43.

O’Brien, K. ‘Sexual Impropriety, Petitions, and the Dynamics of Ill Will’. Urban History 43.2 (2016): 177–99.

O’Brien, K. ‘Boots, Blankets and Bomb Tests: Indigenous Australian Petitioning and Resistance to Colonisation’ Griffith Journal of Law and Human Dignity 2.2 (2014): 357–76.

O'Brien, K. ‘Companions of Heart and Hearth: Hardship and the Changing Structure of the Family in Early Modern Townships’. Journal of Family History 39.3 (2014): 183–203.

O’Brien, K. ‘With my eyes, my heart and with my brain I am thinking: Testimony, Treaty and Decolonising Indigenous History from Images’. Australia and New Zealand Law and History E-Journal (2011): 1–27.

O’Brien, K. ‘Academic Language, Power and the Impact of Western Knowledge Production on Indigenous Student Learning’. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 37.1 (2008): 56–60. DOI:

Book and Exhibition Reviews

O'Brien, K. 'Indigenous activism', Visual Studies, Commissioned book review forthcoming 2019: Collective Situations: Readings in Contemporary Latin American Art 1995-2010, edited by B Kelly Jr. and G. H. KesterDuke University Press, 2017; and G. Z. Villarreal, Indigenous Media and Political Imaginaries in Contemporary Bolivia. Nebraska University Press, 2017'.

[Exhibition Review] Hereby Make Protest’. History Australia 11.3 (2014): 217-20.

O’Brien, K. ‘[Book Review].The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery, by James Walvin, Yale University Press, 2011’.. Revue française de civilisation britannique – Cercles (2014). Online.