Ethical and interpersonal challenges of researching with Aboriginal communities

Last week I attended a lecture by Dr. Brett Baker which was part of the University of Melbourne Office of Research Ethics and Integrity’s seminar series. The title of the lecture was ‘Ethical guidelines for researchers working with Aboriginal communities’ and it reflected upon interpersonal challenges in addition to ethical guidelines related to research within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Being a reflective researcher is particularly crucial when conducting cross-cultural research. This seminar was very illuminating and the presenter acknowledged that conducting research with Indigenous communities takes more care and forethought. It takes conscious effort to build trust and relationships with community, thus this research in considered to be more involved.

Applications for indigenous research projects are subjected to an intense level of scrutiny. All indigenous research projects are considered high risk because Indigenous Australians are arguably the most researched group of people in the world. Some individuals within community deem research to be a continuation of the scrutiny which the government subjected them to for generations.

The Melbourne University ethics committee which considers Aboriginal research proposals is composed of 13-15 people and includes everyone from lawyers to psychologists. The committee also has at least four representatives from community.

Gratuitous concurrence is a well-established issue which, in this context, means that Indigenous people are likely to agree to being involved in a research project without necessarily first considering whether they actually want to take part.  The Ethics committee takes this very seriously and all research projects are assessed according to how beneficial they would be to the Indigenous communities before being approved.

In particular the ethics committee looks for:

  • Established ties with the community (researchers being invited back into communities for subsequent research projects are looked upon favourably),
  • They also look for evidence that the researcher is tying themselves in with existing Indigenous organisations, projects or researchers, as researchers who turn up in a community and introduce themselves are not trusted as readily as someone who is introduced by a trusted organisation or individual,
  • The committee also looks for evidence that the project is collaborative; ideally indigenous people are involved in conducting the research and being compensated if at all possible.

Once your project has ethics approval:

  • Do not just walk into community and start talking to people. Researchers need to contact the relevant Aboriginal Land Council and ask for permission to access the land with a ‘research permit’ as opposed to just a ‘visitor permit’. This basically involves being given verbal consent by someone who has the right to grant you access, but it is very important.
  • Do not just jump straight into questions. Building rapport over a cup of coffee is crucial. Without trust you will not be invited back.
  • Informed consent – if English or literacy is a barrier it is acceptable to record the exchange between you and the participant as evidence of explaining the project and receiving informed consent.
  • Understanding kinship is crucial as it impacts on every aspect of the society.
  • Interpreters are often required in order to manage the risk of misunderstanding participants. Even when the individual speaks English fluently, they are likely to have different nuances.
  • Hearsay can be misconstrued as truth. Don’t use it.
  • Interaction is limited between the sexes, and expect to be directed to speak to the elderly.
  • Learn about the indigenous ‘ways of behaving’. Being polite is very important, and involves things like not singling anyone out for special attention.
  • Often your point of contact is what anthropologists refer to as ‘brokers’ – intermediaries between the two cultures.
  • The indigenous community want to see that the researchers and outside community are interested and respect the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
  • Do not take trust for granted. Consciously continue to cultivate it and always inform the community about the outcomes of the research.
  • Nothing about their culture is impersonal.
  • Respect the community, their kinship ties and culture.

Remember: You have no intrinsic right to research their community and they have an intrinsic right to be left alone. Be appreciative of the opportunity that you are given and reciprocate accordingly.

Within the next year, please keep an eye on this blog if you are interested in Monash University’s ethical guidelines related to research with the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

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