22 Researching Indigenous Communities

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, the student must be able to:

  • Become familiar with the distribution of the Indigenous population across Australia
  • Be aware of the history between Indigenous communities in Australia and researchers
  • Be aware of the code of ethics which all researchers must adhere to while undertaking research with Indigenous communities
  • Be familiar with unique research methods used with Indigenous communities



In Australia, 812,000 people identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in the 2021 Census of Population and Housing. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represented 3.2% of the population. This was up from 2.8% in 2016, and 2.5% in 2011.

In 2021, the largest proportion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lived in New South Wales (34.2%) and Queensland (29.2%). While only 7.5% of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lived in the Northern Territory, they made up just over one-quarter (26.3%) of the Northern Territory’s population. This was much higher than the other states and territories[1].


Historical Context of Research with Indigenous Australians:

Undertaking ethical research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is an important topic. From the earliest periods of colonisation, views about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and social organisation (including their values and mores) were based on ill-informed perceptions and assumptions. These perceptions arose from inappropriate comparisons of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to European colonisers’ spiritual, social, political, and economic perspectives. Colonists viewed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and societies through their own cultural lenses and judged these attributes by the degree to which they perceived them as conforming to European customs and norms. Not surprisingly, the early colonisers knew nothing about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and their cultures. The substantial errors of judgment and the misconceptions that followed have significantly impacted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples ever since[2]


There are concerns that Indigenous Australians have been over-researched without corresponding improvements, especially with reference to health outcomes. Key reasons for the poor translation of research findings into indicators of social change or benefits have been because, in large measure, research has been controlled by non-Indigenous people, conducted ‘on’ Indigenous people; and has been strongly biased toward the incentives of the colonising society. Despite some reforms aligned with Indigenous political agitation and environments over time, an underlying mistrust of researchers and associated research activities still persists in Indigenous populations. Anecdotally, poorly undertaken government projects and consultations about public policy implementation have also led Indigenous Australian communities to categorise these activities as research; often adding to a perception that research has not benefited communities [3].

The actions of some researchers have also damaged Aboriginal communities’ trust in research activities. In 1948, Frank Setzler, the head curator of anthropology at the the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, was a member of a US-Australian scientific expedition. The researcher’s own field notes document the clandestine processes he adopted to ship hundreds of ‘bones’ of deceased individuals to the US. These bones became part of one of the world’s biggest collections of human anatomy. These collections remained at the Smithsonian for more than 60 years.  Finally, after intense lobbying, the bones were returned to Australia in 2011. [4].


Finally, marketing researchers may find it difficult to build a relationship with this segment of the Australian population. Undertaking research requires trust, which has partly been eroded due to the treatment of Indigenous consumers and communities by corporate Australia. The destruction of Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto was one of the most recent inexcusable acts. Woolworths was forced to abandon plans to build a liquor warehouse near three dry Aboriginal communities.  Then, in 2021. Telstra was fined $50m by the federal court which found it had exploited Indigenous customers by signing them up for phone contracts they could not understand or afford[5]. Finally, marketing scams also impact Indigenous Australians. In 2020, Scamwatch received 3,455 reports with over $2 million in losses from Indigenous Australians. While the losses were 4 percent lower than those in 2019, the reports increased by nearly 25 percent. The most financially damaging scams for Indigenous communities were dating and romance scams, followed by investment scams and online shopping scams.


Code of Ethics for Research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

In view of the above concerns, the AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) first published ethics guidelines in 1999[6]. This Code represented a new approach by positioning Indigenous people as research partners, rather than merely research subjects. The Code sets national standards for the ethical and responsible conduct of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research, across all disciplines and methodologies. It is for use by those undertaking research, reviewing research, or funding research, including individuals, universities, governments, industry, and community organisations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research includes all research that impacts on or is of particular significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including the planning, collection, analysis, and dissemination of information or knowledge, in any format or medium, which is about, or may affect, Indigenous peoples, either collectively or individually.

Details of the four principles informing the recommended ethical framework can be found here: https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-10/aiatsis-code-ethics.pdf


Principle 1: Indigenous self-determination

The recognition of, and respect for, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ right to self-determination is fundamental to all research conducted in Australia. This Code recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ unique connection to the land and waters of this continent from time immemorial. Australian research should embrace the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have existed continuously as distinct societies, with diverse and unique laws, cultures, knowledge and worldviews that can inform research across a wide range of disciplines including physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.


Principle 2: Indigenous leadership

To demonstrate merit, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research should be led by Indigenous people.54 Research is considered Indigenous-led in Australia when Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people have genuine decision-making responsibility and the research is informed by Indigenous priorities, values, perspectives, and voices. Indigenous leadership should be evident both in the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ of research, from conceptualisation to communication of research.


Principle 3: Impact and value

Research with Indigenous peoples must aim to benefit Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, for informed consent to be valid it requires mutual understanding of the benefits and risks.


Principle 4: Sustainability and accountability

Respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their worldviews in the conduct of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research requires researchers and institutions to have accountability, over the long term, for the impacts of their actions.

In addition to these principles, it is worth mentioning the role of Indigenous Elders in any research-related projects. Elders in the community are respected for their stories, art, song and language. While many of them are caring for their grandchildren, they are also consulted about programs and services. Elders are known to sit within the local court. The men and women facing charges sit with the Aunts and Uncles and yarn about their journeys and a way forward. Elders not only play an integral part in preserving traditional knowledge, they are also pivotal in helping tackle broader community issues. Any research work aimed at understanding these communities, need to recognise the importance of consulting Elders [7].


Indigenous Research Methods

In most cases, research methods have been developed by Western academics and practitioners. While such methods may have been useful in collecting data from within the researchers’ sphere of life, these methods may not work well with Indigenous communities. Thus, there is a need to ‘decolonise’ the research process to make it more relevant for research Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations.

Interviews and focus groups, the main tools for interacting with participants, can only provide rich quality data if the researcher-participant relationship is based on trust and authenticity. The interaction between the two parties will remain superficial if participants perceive the research aim to be purely based on the collection of data. To strengthen the relationship, there must be a sincere aim of helping participants improve their lives.

We discuss two approaches that have received attention from academics.


Yarning, derived from the word ‘yarn’ (a thread of wool, cotton etc.), may linguistically refer to the act of using the yarn for knitting or weaving. However, when used in conversational English it implies the narration of a ‘tale’ or an entertaining story.

‘Yarning’ in Research:

Yarning is a tradition practised for thousands of years by many First Nations people in Australia. It is an integral part of Indigenous ways of learning and sharing.

It is usually undertaken by Aboriginal people coming together informally to unwind or in more formal ways such as discussing community or cultural matters. Storytelling is an important part of yarning that allows for reflection on recent or past histories and lived experiences and sharing knowledge.

Researchers can take part in “yarning” by talking to First Nations people about where each of them is from, people they know in common, and their connection to the place on which they meet, just to give a few examples.

It’s essential for non-Aboriginal researchers to establish relationships with First Nations people when conducting research in their communities. This is where research practices such as “yarning” can offer an opportunity to establish relationships with these communities.

Once researchers establish a connection with people from the place they’re wishing to conduct their research, a mutual and inclusive relationship can be forged. This is essential to ensuring First Nations research participants are included in research, and not seen as research subjects.

Being able to build a relationship is vital to ensuring the lives of First Nations people are accurately portrayed and recorded, participants are not taken advantage of, and communities can benefit from the research.


Art-based methods

Art-based methods embrace multiple ways of knowing that are typically given little space in scientific discourse. Arts-based methods (ABMs) include an array of modalities such as theatre, visual arts, painting, photography, music, and dance. Aboriginal People convey their important cultural stories through the generations, via symbols/icons in their artwork.

One of the many art-based methods is Photovoice, whereby people identify, represent, and enhance their community through photography. In this research method, the researcher provides cameras to individuals, enabling them to act as recorders and potential catalysts for social action and change in their own communities. Participants take pictures that help tell their story regarding a particular concern. The individual’s story typically accompanies the pictures to promote an effective, participatory means of sharing expertise.



We have relied on our peers and indigenous leaders in the School of Business to review the material and provide us with feedback.


  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2022, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population summary, <https://www.abs.gov.au/articles/australia-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-population-summary>.
  2. National Health and Medical Research Council 2018, Ethical guidelines for research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, <https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/research-policy/ethics/ethical-guidelines-research-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples>.
  3. Bainbridge, T et al. 2015,'No one’s discussing the elephant in the room: contemplating questions of research impact and benefit in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian health research', BMC Public Health, vol. 15. no. 696, <https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-015-2052-3>
  4. Dickie, M 2018, The American anthro who stole our bones in broad daylight, NI Times, <https://www.nit.com.au/the-american-anthro-who-stole-our-bones-in-broad-daylight/>.
  5. Remeikis, A 2021, Australian corporations’ treatment of Indigenous customers to be investigated by inquiry, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/nov/09/australian-corporations-treatment-of-indigenous-customers-to-be-investigated-by-inquiry>.
  6. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies [AIATSIS] 2020, AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research, <https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-10/aiatsis-code-ethics.pdf>.
  7. Mroelli, L 2017, What role does an Elder have in Indigenous Communities?, NITV, <https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/what-role-does-an-elder-have-in-indigenous-communities/6k7u18el6>.
  8. Ober, R, Oliver, R & Dovchin, S 2022, '‘You can’t just show up and start asking questions’: why researchers need to understand the importance of yarning for First Nations', Australian Council of Graduate Research, <https://www.acgr.edu.au/impact-blog/you-cant-just-show-up-and-start-asking-questions-why-researchers-need-to-understand-the-importance-of-yarning-for-first-nations/>.


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