Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

It All Comes Down to Ticking a Box: Collecting Aboriginal Identification in a 30-Year Longitudinal Health Study

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

It All Comes Down to Ticking a Box: Collecting Aboriginal Identification in a 30-Year Longitudinal Health Study

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper explores the collection of Aboriginal identification within a longitudinal health study that has continued though decades of socio-political change. The Mater--University of Queensland Study of Pregnancy is a birth cohort study that commenced in Brisbane in the early 1980s. Until 2014 it relied on mother-reported race-based categories at baseline to determine Indigenous status. Thirty study-children (now adults) who were originally identified as having a parent who was an Australian Aborigine' were followed up 30 years later. Only 15 of this group self-identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. Considering recent studies have shown Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are increasingly more likely to self-identify as such, an archival investigation of the original questionnaires was undertaken to check for systematic miscodes. Handwritten markings on the original questionnaires showed that group affiliation cannot always be easily classified into imprecise race-based categories. To do so ignores the reality and complexities of a lived cultural identity, including multiple ethnicities or ancestries. This paper takes a sociological approach to explore some of the difficulties in attempting to capture ethnic identification in administrative datasets.

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In recent decades there has been considerable investment in improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identification within health datasets. In 2009, the best practice guidelines for asking the standardised self-identification question were finalised and their implementation has been strongly recommended nationally (AIHW 2009; AIHW and ABS 2012). Prior to this, the official administrative classification of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people changed many times over the lengthy period of colonisation (Rowse 2006). Nonetheless, public health researchers have rarely reflected on the fact that the documentation of the large health disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia relies on reifying fluid and complex lived identities into fixed statistical variables. Epidemiologists--those who study patterns and cause-effect relations on health and disease--have a tendency to position themselves as objective, value-neutral observers of social life (DiGiacomo 1999; Walter 2010). As a methods-driven field of study, epidemiology focuses on minimising respondent bias within surveys, yet the ways in which researcher subjectivities influence the construction and implementation of survey instruments are rarely explored (DiGiacomo 1999; Walter 2010). Concepts of culture and race are routinely borrowed from the social sciences, reducing them to a set of measureable factors, frequently divorcing them from their social context and meanings in the process (DiGiacomo 1999:443). To produce large quantitative population-based studies, complex and diverse racial and ethnic identities become transformed into fixed, pseudo-biological epidemiological variables. Yet public health researchers rarely identify this transformative process as problematic, and these types of studies remain the favoured form of evidence used to inform major policy decisions such as the Closing the Gap scheme (1) (Altman 2009).

This paper applies a sociological gaze to public health's construction of Aboriginality in survey instruments. The crux of this paper is about categorising identity into discrete groups, not Aboriginal identity itself, and is an attempt to learn through Aboriginality how racial and ethnic identification becomes operationalised within health datasets. It highlights some of the challenges in categorising identities when all social identities are complex and fluid across time and space and do not fit neatly into one specific category. Australia has a history of (reclassifying Aboriginal people, including iterations of the working definition used in health research. Hence, I explore what happens when a longitudinal study continues through decades of sociopolitical change--when the original definitions or categories used at baseline are no longer relevant or have taken on new meanings. …

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