Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Using the 'Power of the Data' within Indigenous Research Practice

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Using the 'Power of the Data' within Indigenous Research Practice

Article excerpt

Abstract: Quantitative methods, especially when used on large-scale data sets such as NATSIS and census collections, are powerful analytical research tools. Yet the use of such methods is relatively rare among Indigenous Australian researchers. Reasons for this limited engagement include the fraught relationship between Indigenous peoples and research, the lack of an established Indigenous presence within quantitative research practice, and the paucity of relevant Indigenous quantitative data. Three arguments for the greater use of quantitative methods and techniques within Indigenous research practice include the research power available through the use of such methods, the need for an Indigenous presence in this field of research, and the capacity of an Indigenous research framework to transform quantitative research practice.


Quantitative research methods and techniques are powerful analytical tools. Applied to large-scale nationally representative data sets such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Surveys (NATSIS) 1994 and 2002, such methods generate statistically valid insights into data patterns and the relationships between aspects of the phenomena under study. Yet the use of such methods or techniques is relatively uncommon among Indigenous Australian researchers. As an Indigenous social researcher with a developed set of quantitative analytical skills, my aim here is to present the case for a more active engagement by Indigenous researchers with quantitative research methods. The term 'quantitative research' is used here to indicate those research methods that employ quantitative theoretical principles, techniques and statistics (Sarantakos 1993). The term 'research' is used here mainly to refer to social research, encompassing fields such as sociology, epidemiology, anthropology, political science, economics and other related social disciplines.

Quantitative research practice and Indigenous researchers

Quantitative research clearly has an image problem within Indigenous research circles. A resistance to, or lack of interest in, quantitative research is not difficult to comprehend. Three major reasons for the limited engagement of Indigenous researchers with quantitative methods are readily identified. While discussed separately, aspects of these factors are intertwined.

Science, research and Indigenous peoples

Perhaps the most significant barrier is the perceived link between quantitative research and science-based positivist research models. The longstanding, widespread and, in many cases, justifiable suspicion of research among Indigenous communities extends to Indigenous researchers. Indigenous research 'suspicions' are heightened by research practices traditionally linked to scientific Western research paradigms such as quantitative methods. Indigenous persons are well aware that there is little to suggest that science-based research has previously operated in the interests of Indigenous peoples. We have had to endure having our culture and lives analysed and theorised within dominant Western paradigms. This was not, and is not, just an academic exercise. The 'findings' of such research have had very real and, for the most part, very negative consequences on the lived experience of being an Indigenous person in this country. Much of this research has been used to support, authorise, legitimise and institutionalise into the dominant discourse the Western perception of Indigenous peoples as 'Other'.

The fractured relationship between Indigenous peoples and research is beginning to be recognised by research bodies such as the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) via specific ethical and research guidelines. However, the hurt and anger felt towards research in Indigenous communities remains palpable. For example, respected Tasmanian Aboriginal elder the late Dr Molly Mallett (2002) wrote of the 1939 anthropological research undertaken by Norman Tindale on Cape Barren Island. …

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