Issues in Educational Research, 9(1), 1999, 15-22.

Cultural authorisation of research in Aboriginal education: A case study

Mort Harslett, Bernard Harrison, John Godfrey, Gary Partington & Kaye Richer
Edith Cowan University

When undertaking research in indigenous education it is critical that research objectives, methodology, field work and interpretation of data be planned and defined in collaboration with indigenous people. This paper presents a brief overview of some of the issues in cross cultural research in education and then, in the context of a case study describes the considerations and processes in acquiring cultural authorisation and authentication of the Quality Schools for Aboriginal Students Project.


The purpose of this paper is to explore the concept of cultural authorisation for research in Aboriginal education and show how it was secured for the Quality Schools for Aboriginal Students Project. This is a joint Edith Cowan University and Education Department of Western Australia two year project involving a full time post doctoral research fellow, research assistant, and other team members who contribute time from within their other research and teaching duties. Of the five team members one is indigenous. Such a major project with a direct indigenous focus being undertaken by a predominantly non-indigenous research team must, from ethical, reliability, validity, and utilitarian points of view, have cultural authorisation.

The research involved the administration of an extensive questionnaire to nearly 500 Aboriginal students in years 6 to 12 in selected primary and secondary schools in regional and metropolitan Western Australian. The research also involved interviewing Aboriginal parents and Aboriginal and Islander Education Workers (AIEWs). In addition a group of selected teachers, including indigenous and non-indigenous teachers, were also interviewed. The purpose of the research is to identify good practice that can assist schools to better provide for Aboriginal students in order to increase their attendance and retention, and to engage them more in schooling with improved learning outcomes. In addition the research sought information on student attitudes to school, their experiences at school, and student and parent views on what schools do well and how schools could do better in the education of Aboriginal students (Harslett et al, 1998a, 1998b; Godfrey et al, 1998; Richer et al, 1998; Partington et al, 1998).

Cultural authorisation

"The colonial era is dead, if not buried", asserts Smith (1997, p. 25), when research is "conducted, interpreted, recorded, and credentialed from a non-indigenous perspective". "Indigenous people", continues Smith, "now want their voice in research, and they want it to be heard and understood". It is now accepted that ethically and in the interests of research integrity, people have the right to control the terms and conditions of research that involves their culture. Brady (1997, p. 15), just as forcibly, reiterates this development when she says that "in Australia Aboriginal and Torres Islander people are reconstructing research frameworks" and central to that framework is that, "as indigenous people we want to set boundaries on our engagement in research with non-indigenous researchers".

Issues of international concern include the relationship between indigenous communities and outside researchers, what is to be researched, how research is to be conducted, and ownership and control of dissemination. For example, a Canadian Government sponsored workshop involving Canadian Aboriginal community members, academic researchers, and others identified a communication gap between indigenous communities and researchers and a lack of community involvement in developing research projects. Consequences included mistrust among Aboriginal people towards researchers, concerns regarding the need and practicality of research, ineffective understanding by researchers of Aboriginal social, and cultural complexities, and absence of Aboriginal ownership and commitment to results. The Working Party recommended that Government, working with Aboriginal people, set out research guidelines on the determination of what needs to be researched, the role of researchers, and ownership of research. The consensus was that research must be participatory and fully involve Aboriginal people (Ministry of the Solicitor General, 1996).

In the Australian context Roberts (1994, p. 37) examined similar issues within the social sciences and noted that "by the late 1970s Aborigines were clearly enunciating to academics that they wanted full decision making in research". Roberts further noted that in 1982 in an endeavour to control research, research guidelines were developed and presented to academics at the Australian Anthropologist Organisation's Conference in August of that year by the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. These guidelines stated that research should be identified by Aboriginal people, be non-invasive and within culturally intelligible and acceptable frames of reference, be approved and carried out by relevant Aboriginal bodies, be beneficial to Aboriginal people, and that publication and dissemination of results be censored and authorised by Aboriginal people (Roberts, 1994).

Osborne (1995) explored the same issue from a more personal perspective when, as part of a long career in Australian indigenous research, he posed the question whether there is a place for non-indigenous researchers in indigenous research. In his quest to answer this question Osborne noted that, at a National policy level, the National Aboriginal Education Committee (1985) had stated a research policy that was almost identical to the earlier Central Australian Aboriginal Congress Guidelines. According to the National Aboriginal Education Committee, research should be substantially conducted for and by Aboriginal people, and not on them. Osborne (1995) noted too, that the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy (Department of Education, Employment, and Training, 1990) made reference to a long term goal to increase the number of indigenous people employed, among others, as researchers in technical and further education colleges. Osborne concluded that at the written policy level there is a direction for training and employing indigenous researchers to research indigenous education, and that there is a need for researchers in the field of education and at operation levels to work side by side, to share relevant skills and knowledge, and to scrutinise each others' work.

Thus, fundamental requirements for cultural authorisation of research in indigenous education are for indigenous people to be consulted and to agree on what is to be researched, the importance of that research, how the research will be undertaken, what data will be collected, and how the data will be interpreted and used.


An important statement of authorisation for indigenous research is contained in the recommendations of reports, policies, and strategic plans determined through processes of indigenous representation on committees of inquiry that have consulted with indigenous people and communities. The importance of increasing the attendance, retention, and engagement of Aboriginal students in learning as an area of indigenous research is authorised from a number of such sources. For instance, in a Western Australian context, the Task Force on Aboriginal Social Justice Report (1994) and the Western Australian Strategic Plan for Aboriginal Education and Training 1977-1999 (Aboriginal Education Training Council, 1997) both identify these as priority areas for attention in indigenous education.

The representation of indigenous members on the above Task Force and consultation at grass root level with indigenous communities by Task Force members, is a good example of processes that ensure culturally authentic outcomes. The term of reference for the Task Force (1994, p. ii) was to "review the activities of the Western Australian Government in relation to the social conditions and development of Aboriginal people and to recommend a strategy for the implementation of the Government's program". The seven member Task Force included four indigenous members, one of whom was the chairperson. This structure ensured a greater proportion of indigenous representation on the critical body that steered the inquiry and interpreted findings. The level of grass roots consultation was highlighted in a letter to the Premier of Western Australia by these Task Force members when they referred to submissions (p. 62) "based upon hours and hours of community workshops and consultation that we under-took with Aboriginal people in many parts of Western Australia". Following this thorough consultation with indigenous people under the leadership of indigenous investigators this report identified, along with others, attendance, retention and engagement in learning as education issues to be addressed.

The other source of authorisation for the area of research undertaken by the Quality Schools for Aboriginal Students Project was the Western Australian Aboriginal Education and Training Council (AETC). Of the twelve members of the AETC, seven, including the chair of the Council, are indigenous. In preparing the Western Australian Strategic Plan for Aboriginal and Islander Education as "the principal tool for all agencies providing such services to Aboriginal people in Western Australia", the Council stated that "extensive consultation was conducted with Aboriginal people across Western Australia" (Aboriginal Education and Training Council, 1997, p. 11). The identification and dissemination of "best practice in education and training for Aboriginal students", the central tenet of the Quality Schools for Aboriginal Students Project, was stipulated as a research and information priority by the AETC (p. 11).

While powerful cultural authorisation is stated at this level, decisions are also made at system levels when, in the case of this Project, the objectives and processes of the study were jointly planned by the University and the Aboriginal Education Directorate of the Education Department of Western Australia. Within this layer of authorisation the details of research rationale and objectives were developed with indigenous educators to ensure consistency with system and indigenous policies, priorities, and strategic plans. As a joint submission for research funds, documentation was clearly endorsed by the Aboriginal Education Directorate and so authorised by senior representatives of the Aboriginal community.

Crucial to the cultural authority of this project is the membership on the research team of an indigenous researcher. This enables indigenous and non-indigenous researchers to work together in coalition and ensure that research instruments and processes are culturally sensitive and sympathetic with cultural perspectives. The coalition is further strengthened with the formation of a steering committee with substantial indigenous representation. This committee acts as an accountability forum in which the research team reports on progress, findings, and seeks advice on further planning and cultural authenticity. The presence of an indigenous member from the Aboriginal Education Directorate at all team meetings provides a further opportunity for cultural scrutiny and continuous dialogue regarding the nature and practice of indigenous research. The concept of coalition is a critical factor that enables the ethical participation of non-indigenous researchers in indigenous research (Osborne, 1995; Roberts, 1994).

The indigenous member of the Research Team plays a critical role in the formation, wording, and syntax of survey and interview questions and administrative procedures. Under her guidance research instruments and administrative processes were determined and continually fine tuned to ensure cultural relevance, and appropriate use of words. They are adjusted as required to incorporate Aboriginal English so that questions are best understood and more likely to be readily and accurately answered. In addition, through her networks, awareness of the research program within the Aboriginal community is discussed and acceptance promoted. As a senior indigenous woman in the field of education said to me in conversation, "She is doing a good job. She is letting the Aboriginal community know and the word is getting around about the research and the good things it will do for our kids".

The indigenous team researcher plays a critical role in liaising, modelling, and authorising on school sites. Through direct interaction with Aboriginal students, Aboriginal parents, and AIEWs, the purpose of the research is explained, its value reinforced, indigenous community support gained, and authorisation further underwritten.

Important to the integrity of the Project is that non-indigenous team members are ethically and culturally sensitive, know the importance of, and practice working in consultation with indigenous stake-holders, and understand that these stake-holders control the research agenda. The non-indigenous researchers in this project work with indigenous people for goals defined by indigenous people.

Integrity of research

Indigenous authorisation of research implies not only verification of areas culturally identified as important to research, but also validity of research undertaken. Validity is a major issue in cross cultural research that requires important understandings and measures on the part of researchers.

In structuring the questionnaire to be administered to Aboriginal students, the strict rule was followed that each question should deal with a single concept and be worded as clearly as possible so the intent of the question is understood by the respondent (Gay, 1990). This was adopted with the added imperative of cultural relevance, which was achieved by working closely with the indigenous researcher in the construction of the questionnaire and then pre-testing with Aboriginal students. In this way both the wording and reliability of items were culturally validated. To maximise student participation the questionnaire was administered by the indigenous team member with the assistance of school AIEWs.

Interview questions to be administered to Aboriginal students, Aboriginal parents, and AIEWs were similarly developed in collaboration with the indigenous researcher. In adopting this process the research team was aware of sources of interview bias; in particular those associated with the attitude, opinion, and world view of the interviewer, and the tendency for the interviewer to interpret responses in ways that support his or her pre-conceived notions and misconceptions (Cohen & Manion, 1989). Such possible sources of bias were minimised, and authentic participation maximised, by having these interviews conducted by an indigenous researcher.

As the research program moves from the field work stage to interpretation and analysis of data and writing of presentations, reports, and papers; so does the continued partnership with the indigenous network that supports and authenticates the Project. For instance, indigenous ownership is playing a key role in the selection of schools and planning the action research programs in those schools to implement research findings. indigenous authorisation is also active in the distribution of research information generated by the Project. For instance, at a recent Aboriginal pedagogy conference initiated by the Education Department of Western Australia and Aboriginal Education and Training Council, and organised by the Aboriginal Education Directorate with the assistance of an indigenous Education Consultancy, the organisers negotiated the presentation of papers by the Quality Schools for Aboriginal Education Research Team. The Research Team, in partnership with the Aboriginal Education Directorate, is developing a web site located in an indigenous agency as a means to disseminate indigenous research findings and provide access to information such as research instruments, team and committee membership, and Project reports. This strategy not only disseminates information to assist schools in improving the quality of education for Aboriginal students, but also contributes to transparency of cultural authorisation of the research project. Furthermore, Research Team members have commenced presenting their findings at teacher professional development work-shops and to indigenous education committees and groups.


It is right, as National policies suggest and indigenous research ethics substantiate, that indigenous people control their cultural research and define what is important to be researched, how it will be researched, the interpretation of that research, and how results will be used. While it is no longer acceptable that non-indigenous researchers presume to do these things, it is desirable that indigenous and non-indigenous researchers work together, since independently, "for a variety of reasons [they] may fail to do justice to the complexities that is indigenous education" (Osborne 1995, p. 21). Experience has found, asserts Roberts, (1994, p. 42), when citing others, that "working in close consultation with Aborigines and accepting their authority to make decisions has not compromised the research endeavour. Rather the research has been enriched". Thus intimating that collaboration by indigenous and non-indigenous researchers can enrich research in all field of education.

This paper, in the context of a major research project in indigenous education, endorses the view that education for all will benefit from a coalition of indigenous and non-indigenous researchers working in consultation with each other. The critical element of cultural authorisation of indigenous research is the fundamental platform of this partnership.


Aboriginal Education and Training Council Training. (1997). Western Australian Strategic Plan for Aboriginal Education and Training. Perth: Department of Educational Services.

Brady. W. (1997, June 25-July 1). Australian indigenous rights in education. Indigenous Education. Campus Review Special Report, p. 15-16.

Cohen, L. & Manion, L. (1989). Research methods in education (2nd ed). London: Routledge.

Department of Education, Employment, and Training. (1990). National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education policy. Canberra: Australian Government Printing Service.

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Harslett, M., Harrison, B., Godfrey, J., Partington, G., & Richer, K. (1998a). Quality schools for Aboriginal students project. Unpublished report. Perth: Edith Cowan University.

Harslett, M., Harrison, B., Godfrey, J., Partington, G., & Richer, K. (1998b). Teacher perceptions of the characteristics of effective teachers of Aboriginal students. Paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Adelaide, 29 Nov. to 3 Dec.

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Osborne, B. (1995). Indigenous education: Is there a place for non-indigenous researchers? Conference paper, Australian Association for Research in Education, Nov. 1995.

Partington, G., Harrison, B., Harslett, M., Godfrey, J., & Richer, K. (1998). Aboriginal and Islander Education Workers perceptions of schooling. Paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Adelaide, 29 Nov. to 3 Dec.

Richer, K., Harslett, M., Harrison, B., Godfrey, J., & Partington, G. (1998). Attitudes of Aboriginal students to higher education. Paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Adelaide, 29 Nov. to 3 Dec.

Roberts, D. (1994). Changing the hierarchy on power in Aboriginal research: Towards a more collaborative Approach. Kaurna Higher Education Journal. 5, 36-43.

Smith, A. (1997). Indigenous research ethics: Policy, protocol and practice. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education. 25(1), 23-29.

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Authors: Mort Harslett (principal author) is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow; Bernard Harrison, Professor of Education; John Godfrey, Senior Lecturer; and Kaye Richer, Research Assistant, in the School of Education, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. Gary Partington is Associate Professor in the School of Australian Indigenous Studies at the same university.

Please cite as: Harslett, M., Harrison, B., Godfrey, J., Partington, G. & Richer, K. (1999). Cultural authorisation of research in Aboriginal education: A case study. Issues in Educational Research, 9(1), 15-22.

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