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Using the 'power of the data' within indigenous research practice.

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. Even after 60 years, this memory engenders strong feelings of resentment at how the researcher disrespectfully treated community members as scientific specimens, stripping away their human dignity in the research process. Similar sentiments tend to be expressed whenever the topic of research is raised with Indigenous communities (see VicHealth 2000 for examples of what Aborigines say about research). As Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) stated, research, especially research aligned with a science-based empiricist model and linked to a rationalist framework, is inextricably linked by Indigenous peoples to European imperialism and colonialism.

The automatic juxtaposition of quantitative methods with tainted Western rationalist research paradigms is outdated. The origins of the connection are buried in the times when positivism (that is, the idea that scientific method can be used to discover an objective social reality) was the dominant social science paradigm (Bryman 2005). This methodological frame, however, has long been rejected as invalid and unworkable within the social sciences. The essential subjectivity of all research practice and all research practitioners is now recognised by the vast majority of those social science researchers who favour quantitative methods. Within this new framework, the strength of statistical analysis and techniques is retained. Regardless of this now long-established paradigm shift, the routine linking of quantitative methods with rationalist traditions of Western colonial research lingers. Discussions with my Indigenous social research colleagues suggest that, for many, quantitative research still embodies all that is wrong with research per se from an Indigenous perspective. This seemingly unshakeable reputation, however, is, I contend, largely built around a misplaced understanding of current quantitative research practices.

The limited Indigenous presence in quantitative research

Second, the general mistrust of quantitative research is exacerbated by the fact that the collection, analysis and dissemination of large-scale Indigenous data remain a largely Indigenous-free zone. Although Indigenous peoples are the subject of census and administrative collections around the health, welfare and justice systems, the research using these data is largely undertaken by non-Indigenous researchers. As an example, while the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) maintains a National Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics (NCATSIS), as at late 2003, the Centre had no Indigenous staff (NCATSIS, pers. comm., 27 November 2003). Therefore, the questions being posed, the decisions about how Indigenous data collection is carried out, what data are collected, and how data are analysed, interpreted and disseminated are still largely designed and controlled by non-Indigenous researchers and agencies.

This is not to suggest a deliberate exclusion of Indigenous people or researchers. The ABS has, in recent years at least, developed Indigenous community engagement strategies and actively sought Indigenous input into the collecting of Indigenous data and also made efforts to recruit Indigenous staff (ABS 2000). Rather, the lack of an established Indigenous presence, the specific and technical language used and the statistical basis of quantitative analysis operate to create an atmosphere that is alien to many Indigenous researchers.

The paucity of relevant Indigenous data

Third, the paucity of representative Indigenous data sets made, until recently at least, quantitative methods and techniques largely irrelevant to Indigenous researchers. The main source of data on Indigenous Australia, even now, is the five-yearly national census. However, as Altman and Taylor (1996:193) noted, the census is essentially a vehicle for the collection of information on all Australians, and the Indigenous data amassed are merely the 'byproduct of including an Indigenous identifier'. Thus, the Indigenous data are collected along the same limited general population criteria. This restricted purpose provides only a restricted capacity to identify the cultural, social or economic differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians or to address the specific data needs of Indigenous populations. The resultant limited availability of policy-relevant Indigenous data was identified as a significant problem by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC 1991). As part of the response to the RCIADIC, the federal government commissioned the first National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey in 1994. This survey was the first national Australian specifically Indigenous data-collection exercise.

More recently, however, the range and purpose of Indigenous data being collected have increased. The growing number and relevance of Indigenous data sets urgently require more Indigenous researcher involvement in the analysis and, more importantly, the interpretation of these data. For example, in 2002 the second NATSIS was undertaken and data are now available to researchers for analysis as a Confidentialised Unit Record File (CURF). Data from the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey, conducted in 2000, which focused on the early childhood antecedents of many of the physical and mental health problems of Aboriginal children, are also now available to researchers. The Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services is also designing, and beginning the implementation of, a Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children, exploring how Indigenous children grow up (see LSIC 2005; NATSIS 2002; WAACHS 2005). Additionally, administrative collection of Indigenous data from places such as hospitals, housing and welfare agencies and criminal justice systems, traditionally prone to inaccuracy due to the often haphazard nature of recording clients' Indigenous status, are gradually becoming more reliable. For example, the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages has now adopted the ABS standard Indigenous identifier in their birth and death collections in all Australian states and territories.

Indigenous research framework and quantitative method

The Indigenous response to dominant Western research paradigms has been to develop an Indigenous research methodology. While still in the emergent phase, the epistemology of Indigenous research practice contests the Eurocentric constructs and ways of knowing embodied in Western research practice. Instead, Indigenous researchers and theorists approach their work through Indigenous perspectives, positing alternative ways of knowing and living on their research practice and process. The research view through an Indigenous, rather than a Western, lens is a very different one and one that privileges the Aboriginal voice. Critically, an Indigenous research frame allows for the development of methodologies that reconstruct and reconceptualise research paradigms to reflect Indigenous cultural positions.

As Indigenous researchers, an Indigenous epistemological tradition frames the way we see the world, the way we organise ourselves in it, the questions we ask and the solutions that we seek (Rigney 1997; Tuhiwai Smith 1999; West 1998). For the social sciences this means pushing the boundaries 'in order to make intellectual space for Indigenous cultural knowledge systems that were denied in the past' (Rigney 2001:9). The underlying principles of these research responses form the basis of theoretical development of an 'Indigenist research practice' (Rigney 1997:2001). The main features of Indigenist research were summarised by Martin (2001) as:

* recognition of our worldviews, our knowledges and our realities as distinctive and vital to our existence and survival and serve as a research framework;

* honouring Aboriginal social mores as essential processes through which we live, learn and situate ourselves as Aboriginal people in our own lands and when in the lands of other Aboriginal peoples;

* emphasising the social, historical and political contexts which shape our experience, lives, positions and futures;

* privileging the voices, experiences and lives of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal lands; and

* identifying and redressing issues of importance to US.

From this framework of Indigenous research practice, the research techniques used by Indigenous researchers have generally been those that can more easily admit Indigenous agendas and Indigenous community interests to their purpose and practice. For example, participatory action research methods with their problem-solving focus and underpinning principles of community ownership, control and problem definition are commonly used by Indigenous researchers. Consequently, there has been little place within Indigenous research practice for quantitative research methods. This position, of course, is not to say that there are no Indigenous researchers currently using quantitative methods. There are, of course, especially in the field of Indigenous health (e.g. Bowers et al. 2004; Paradies & Cunningham 2002). Rather, the argument put here is that, to date, there is no coherent body of Indigenous quantitatively based scholarship or a specific stream of Indigenous quantitative research practice. Instead, the use of quantitative method in Indigenous research practice has been constrained, with this constraint due, in most part, to the very valid reasons outlined earlier.

Encouraging Indigenous engagement with quantitative methods

There is, however, a serious downside to the limited role of quantitative method within Indigenous research. In this paper I propose three major reasons why quantitative research methods and analytical tools might play a more important role in Indigenous research practice. These arguments are not exhaustive, but they do form the core of the issue.

The power of the data

First is the pressing need for good quality research across issues of critical importance to Indigenous Australia. As we are well aware, too many Indigenous people and communities continue to live within political and social conditions that perpetuate poverty, chronic ill-health, poor educational opportunities and family distress. Indigenous-directed, designed and framed epidemiological, sociological and social policy research is desperately needed in these areas. An important aspect of such research is the use of large-scale representative quantitative data. Statistical analyses of such data produce research results that can establish the direction and size of the relationship between different factors and that are generalisable in their application. In short, within these research settings, quantitative research methods can tap into the power of the data.

The 'power of the data' should not be underestimated. The wider social and political acceptance of the validity of statistical analysis makes these techniques powerful purveyors of an Indigenous research agenda. From a political perspective, the results of such analyses are effective in influencing the influential. Such quantitative 'proof' is fundamental if Indigenous researchers and communities want to advance the case for much-needed social and political change. As an example, I point to the acceptance of statistics on the socioeconomic and health circumstance of Aboriginal Australia derived from analysis of census, survey and administrative collections data by the ABS and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. These data clearly demonstrate the inequitable position of Aboriginal people across all standard social and economic indicators. Non-Indigenous researchers such as those from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) at the Australian National University have used data from these and other sources to demonstrate statistically the case for arguments such as the fundamental difference of Aboriginal poverty (Hunter 1999), or that 'practical reconciliation' has not delivered practical results (Altman & Hunter 2003). While the findings of these research projects have proven politically unpalatable to the federal and some state governments, the essential validity of the findings they demonstrate has not been queried.

My point, here, is not that the CAEPR results were startling in themselves. Any Indigenous person can tell you the same without recourse to multivariate analyses. Rather, the fact that these results can be 'proved' in statistical terms means that they are taken seriously and this influence is largely due to their quantitative, generalisable nature. In a research version of the Trojan horse approach, the use of such analytical techniques can equally be brought to bear to facilitate and drive an Indigenous-focused, Indigenous-prioritised, research agenda. If, as Indigenous researchers, we want our research to be effective in achieving positive change and to have direct benefit for our communities, we need to be able to use confidently those research tools and methods that are both valued and deemed valid within the political and policy spheres where such changes can be made.

Researching and presenting statistically valid research results, as the researchers from CAEPR can attest, however, does not automatically result in policy action. Nor does it guarantee the direction of any policy change influenced by quantitative evidence. But building a body of evidence, in a social policy climate that demands an 'evidence base', is a fundamental prerequisite for building political pressure across a range of social issues relevant to Indigenous Australia. The rising number of national, representative data sets of critical relevance to Indigenous Australia, such as the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children, makes this task even more essential.

Reframing the discourse

Second, leading on from this concept, if we, as Indigenous researchers, do not undertake the quantitative research in the areas of pressing concern for Indigenous Australians, we can be very sure that others will. And it will be their questions that will be posed, their interpretation of the analysis that will have the influence, and their prioritisation of what is important that will drive the research and policy agenda.

The refraining of all Indigenous-related research from an Indigenous perspective is especially important in this era of neo-liberalist-influenced policy development. The term 'neo-liberalism' is used here to represent the political and economic ideologies that include a commitment to minimising the role of the nation-state and to maximising that of the market. This policy frame now underpins an unrelenting and rising intensity of application of market-solutions-based policy to Indigenous social, economic and political arenas. Within this framework, it is the individual that is the focus of inquiry. From this base, a community becomes a 'group of individuals', the all-pervasive poverty of Indigenous peoples is recast as the problems of a group of 'low-income' Australians, and reconciliation is downsized to a series of 'practical' measures aimed at the individual.

More damagingly, the source of Indigenous social crises, such as high rates of mental illness, poor physical health, poverty, suicide or alcohol and drug abuse is also individualised. These become defined in terms of individual deficits, such as lack of a work ethic, lifestyle choices, poor interpersonal and social skills and/or personal failure. Mainstreaming of initiatives that previously sought to address the specific needs of Indigenous Australians is now the key policy strategy, despite the manifestly different positioning of Indigenous communities and peoples in Australian society.

Despite being dressed up in new terms, this approach appears to be a resurgence of the old culture-of-poverty thesis. As previously argued by Langton (1981) and others, this thesis points to the culture of the poor as directly implicated in the disadvantage being experienced. Research practice within this discourse operates to entrench the 'Other' as the problem.

The current direction of Indigenous social policy makes it vital for Indigenous researchers to be fully participative in the research processes and practices relevant to Indigenous communities. It is only by Indigenous researchers taking hold of research that is fundamentally about Indigenous peoples will we be able to reframe the analyses of these issues to reflect an Indigenous perspective, purpose and reality. The current limited Indigenous research presence in statistical research greatly reduces the Indigenous influence in framing the types of questions being asked and the way Indigenous data are being collected, analysed and interpreted. While the following example does not represent a deliberate manipulation, it does demonstrate how sensitive the results of Indigenous data analysis can be to question-framing decisions. In data collected in the 2001 Australian census related to homelessness, an initial analysis suggests that Indigenous homelessness, while still proportionally high, has decreased since 1996. A closer analysis, however, reveals that almost all the change is in the area of improvised housing and can be attributed, almost completely, to a change in the way an improvised dwelling was categorised in 2001 compared with 1996 (McKenzie 2003).

Transforming the practices of research

Third, the frontline involvement of Indigenous researchers in designing, implementing and analysing quantitative research projects is likely to result in other positive outcomes. One such spin-off is that quantitative research, framed and developed from an Indigenous perspective, might operate to transform the process and practice of this type of research itself. The primary location of Indigenous persons as research directors, rather than as subjects or with minor research-assistant roles as is usually the case, must have some impact on the very definition of what such research is. As researchers we need to reposition ourselves, becoming the observers, rather than the observed or the 'other'. As Brady (1999:30) noted, we must endeavour to 'take away the exclusive right of the observer, as European, and turn it around to say that we are all engaged in observing each other'. By researching back, by posing the questions that Indigenous researchers want answered and by setting the criteria by which such observations are undertaken, Indigenous research practice can reform conventional research practices, even in the relatively tradition-bound area of quantitative research.

Crucially, a broader usage and acceptance of quantitative methods greatly increases the range of research questions that Indigenous researchers can both ask and answer. As Indigenous researchers we need a strong presence in all areas and types of research. As Martin (2001:1) noted, 'it would be illogical to presume one research paradigm could be applicable to all research paradigms'. Additionally, if, as Indigenous researchers, we tend to operate within a restricted range of research practice, the end result might be that we are effectively enclaved within an Indigenous-only research island: marginalised from, and perhaps patronised by, the broader world of social research.

Re-evaluating the question

The essential question emanating from these arguments is: how can quantitative research methods be used within Indigenous research practice?

Is it possible for Indigenous researchers to harness the 'power of the data' into a research framework that adheres to Indigenous cultural values, beliefs and ways of knowing? It is possible--although the benefits come with some cautions.

First, it is necessary to note the distinction pointed out by Sandra Harding (1987 cited by Tuhiwai Smith 1999) between 'methodology' and 'method'. A research methodology is a theory or a paradigm that informs how the research is approached and undertaken. Method, on the other hand, is the means and procedures: the techniques used. Within quantitative social science, the empirical method and quantitative analytical techniques have now been largely divorced from their old positivist methodological framework. Indigenous researchers can take this process one step further, effectively de-colonising the method; that is, divorcing the quantitative methods and techniques that we deem as useful for Indigenous research from their traditional or even current research paradigms. Or, as Winch and Hayward (1999 cited by Humphery 2001:199) put it, treating the 'Western research traditions as a "toolbox" from which to take methods deemed appropriate to Aboriginal knowledge production, and insisting on the development of new paradigms of research governed by "Aboriginal Terms of Reference"'. This concept of disassociating quantitative method from its Western methodologies can render the method and techniques both accessible and controllable by Indigenous researchers.

Such de-colonising of quantitative method is, of course, not as easy as it sounds. Quantitative methods and practice need to be placed within a framework that is compatible with Indigenous research aims and agendas. A good example of how this might be achieved can be found in descriptions of the operation and the theoretical base of Kaupapa Maori research. While this is a New Zealand model, and therefore not directly translatable to the Australian Indigenous context, the practical 'how to' emphasis of this model provides a guide to possible ways forward. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999:185) summarised Kaupapa Maori Research as:

* being related to being Maori;

* connected to Maori philosophy and principles;

* taking for granted the validity and legitimacy of Maori, the importance of Maori language and culture;

* and concerned with 'the struggle for autonomy over Maori's own cultural well being'.

That is, Kaupapa Maori research is research that is culturally relevant, rigorous and empowering to Maori people. In a practical example, Tuhiwai Smith explained how this research approach provides an interface between the more positivistic medical research model and an Indigenous perspective in health-related studies. Large-scale epidemiological survey work is set alongside ethnographic, social policy and qualitative sociological work. The key to the success of this approach, she argues, is that the questions the research asks, the problems it seeks to probe, and the data it seeks to gather, have been established as priorities and developed by Indigenous people within an Indigenous framework.

The notion of using quantitative research methods, but in ways that are consistent with Indigenous research priorities, as indicated in the Kaupapa Maori example, is compatible with the concept of Indigenist research outlined earlier. Rigney (2001:7), discussing Indigenous scholarship, asked: 'can we participate in Western science without reinventing the hegemonic colonial imagination about ourselves?' Based on the discussion above, the answer in relation to quantitative social science research is, with some reservations, 'Yes'.

In highlighting the value of quantitative methods, I do not propose that Indigenous research projects move to an exclusively, or even a dominantly, quantitative approach. Or that more traditional Indigenous research practice frameworks be scaled back or displaced. Indigenous research practice, by its nature, aims, purpose and cultural connectedness, requires a fundamental direction informed by Indigenous perspectives, values and ways of knowing. Rather, I want to stress that the type of research method, and indeed the mix of methods, should be essentially dictated by the conditions and purpose of the inquiry.

The particular values of quantitative methods lie in their capacity to provide 'data power' and illuminate the shape and nature of the influences on the research questions important to Indigenous research. Other methods more traditionally associated with Indigenous research practice, such as participatory action research, are needed to gain insight into Indigenous-aligned subjective meanings and the Indigenous-lived experience of what is being examined, or developed. Quantitative analysis can be used in conjunction with, or as an addition to, other approaches to bring its own unique strengths to Indigenous research. Quantitative method can coexist within a vibrant Indigenous research practice as an additive, to be used in such measures or strength as required, not as a replacement.


The case for greater inclusion of quantitative method into everyday Indigenous research practice appears a valid one. Indeed, for the reasons outlined above, an increased engagement by Indigenous researchers with quantitative research practice is critically important. To ignore such powerful research tools also risks research marginalisation. Yet we also need to be careful in the application of such method, always ensuring that the interests such research serves, the benefits of the research, the design and frame of the research scope and the ownership of that research remain firmly with Indigenous persons and Indigenous communities.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Yarning About Research Conference: Fourth Indigenous Researchers Forum, 27-29 November 2002, Curtin University of Technology, Perth.


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Maggie Walter

University of Tasmania

Maggie Walter (PhD) is a Tasmanian Aborigine and a lecturer in sociology within the Department of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Tasmania. Her teaching and research include social research methods, Indigenous health, Indigenous social policy, and the welfare state and Indigenous peoples. She has also recently completed a funded research project developing a biography of her Aboriginal matriarch, Woretemoeteryenner.

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Author:Walter, Maggie
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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