‘Constitutional recognition’ has emerged as a dominant language through which Australians now debate what is owed to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by the settler state. But what is it? There are different ways of answering that question, depending on the goal. If one’s goal is to support a particular political project – be it legal reform, nation-building, Indigenous empowerment, conservative resistance or some combination – then one will simply adopt or develop an account of constitutional recognition to suit that project. But a different methodology is needed where the goal is to understand constitutional recognition as a social, political and legal phenomenon. Here my goal is to understand rather than to advocate. I begin by exploring two different approaches to understanding constitutional recognition: the first a brief survey of how, and to what ends, it has been used in Australian policy and debate; the second a theoretical study of the concept of constitutional recognition. I then try to bring these two together, showing how the theory provides a clarifying framework for thinking about the politics of Indigenous constitutional recognition in Australia.