Research Proposal Discussion Paper
Due: Friday 26th May 2017
Relationships with and Between: Indigenous Australian’s Response to Government Aims in Family Violence Reduction Plans in New South Wales
Healing is a long term process which requires meaningful partnerships and equal commitment from all involved. It must address the transmission of intergenerational trauma and pain resulting from colonisation to provide the foundation for cultural renewal (Cox, Young and Bairnfather-Scott 2009, p. 154).
The social research project I propose aims to investigate the relationship between Indigenous Australians in New South Wales (NSW) and the Australian government. The research focus responds to a couple of developments.1 Firstly, the Australian government has made Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children a national priority area in their third action plan for reducing family violence (Commonwealth of Australia (Department of Social Service) 2016). This is coupled with the increase in postcolonial research within academia, which interrogates the imbalanced power relations between settler and First Nation individuals within Australia. As the Australian government is specially attempting to foster an engaged relationship with Indigenous communities, it will be important to gain an understanding of how Indigenous Australian’s view this partnership so that imbalanced power relations stemming from Australia’s colonial history are not reproduced or exacerbated through Australia’s social policy plans.
Therefore, the central research question asks; how do Indigenous Australians in NSW view their community’s relationship with the federal government in the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children? Further sub-questions ask whether Indigenous Australian’s narratives of their relationship with the government aligns with the aspirations of the national plan. This research aims to give a voice to Aboriginal Australians in discussions of family violence and intervention by positioning their communities in a relationship with the government, like the national plan aspires to. At the same time, the research aims to contribute to redressing the systematic disadvantages rooted in Australia’s colonial history. There is an emerging yet substantial area in scholarship that investigates the colonial underpinnings of the academy. Scholars such as Clarke (2005) identify the ways in which the academy misreads and misunderstands Aboriginality in Australia by researching subjects through Westernised concepts and paradigms, rather on their own terms (Henslin, Possami and Possami-Inesedy 2014). Thus, by investigating how Indigenous Australians understand themselves and their relationships, the research aims to represent lived experience with greater accuracy and contribute to the growing literature which challenges the colonial underpinning of Australia’s academy.
While the research proposal aims to redress a gap in academia, there are research design and ethical considerations that need to be navigated. This discussion paper will specifically cover two areas of ethical considerations that I have identified; working with Aboriginal Australians and working with the topic of family violence. In the discussion, I will locate these within academic debates on researching as an outsider with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This is important as working with vulnerable groups impacts the assessment of risks and benefits for the research.
Review of literature
While the research proposal responds to the Australian government’s national plan to address family violence, the topic is equally responsive to current scholarship. It builds off scholarship at the intersection of studies on Aboriginality and family violence, but does so through a postcolonial framework. Viewing the selected topic through postcolonialism is not a new idea, but it is not the dominant discourse within academia either. Mow (1992) argued that family violence in Aboriginal communities must be considered in the context of the social, political, historical, and cultural environments in which it occurs. This aligns with works within intersectionality that stresses that oppression is often compounded through numerous locations of disadvantage (McCall 2005; Nash 2008).
My proposed research considers how the lived experiences of Aboriginal Australians of family violence is complex and unique. Like Oberin (2001), Braybrook (2015) attributes this complexity to colonisation, discrimination, and intergenerational trauma. The complexity of Aboriginal Australian’s experiences of family violence pervades writing in the academy and subsequent government reports. Some academics such as Anderson (2002), consider it a multi-dimensional problem, others explore the complexities by using data analysis to map the extent of family violence in Aboriginal communities (Al-Yaen, van Doeland and Wallis 2006), while Hughes and Snell (2008) consider how grassroots services are negatively manipulated by the Westernised knowledges and service models.
A significant portion of scholarship focusses on the issues on the ground and the lived experience in and of itself. However, my research proposal aims to view this lived experience as informed by Australia’s colonial history. Scholars studying the Indigenous population in Canada traces the relationship between Indigenous knowledges and the academy. Dei (2000) does this through an aspirational analysis of what decolonising the academy would look like, through advocating for a co-creation and re-creation of academic knowledges in partnership with First Nation knowledges. This critical consideration of the ways that colonialism and Westernisation affects knowledge production is becoming more common in areas such as queer theory. Clark (2015) is an excellent example of an academic whose work identifies the ways in which the academy misreads and misunderstands Aboriginality in Australia by researching subjects through Westernised concepts and paradigms, rather on their own terms.
Research design considerations
This research proposal responds to the Commonwealth of Australia (Department of Social Service) (2010) National plan to reduce violence against women and their children, specifically the third action plan (2016). As an identified national priority area, the national plan focusses on co-designing and developing services alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. My proposed research aims to investigate how Indigenous Australians in NSW view their community’s relationship with the Australian government in this national plan. This research approaches social phenomena in a specific way to fulfil the aims of the project. Scholars such as Mason and Dale (2011) highlight how ontological, epistemological, and methodological considerations are perpetually at the centre of the research process and affect the knowledges produced. Therefore, it is integral to this research proposal, that facets of the research process are carefully considered.
As the research aims to gain insight into how communities understand themselves in their relationships, interpretivism is selected as the overall perspective. The research sits between constructionist and subjectivist epistemologies; while it aims to understand how meaning is constructed through interactions with the world, it also narrows in on a single perspective with the goal of empowerment seeking understanding to create progress.
Postcolonialism has been selected as the theoretical framework for the research for a couple of reasons. Firstly, postcolonialism reconsiders the relationship between First Nation and settler communities by recognising unbalanced power through colonisation that resulted in oppression and discrimination against Indigenous peoples. I had considered choosing intersectionality as my theoretical frame because of the emphasis on how different areas of lived experience can result in compounded oppression. However, I chose postcolonialism considering current scholarship on Aboriginal Australians and the aims of the research. Within the proposed research, postcolonialism aims for relationships to be more equal and reciprocal; contradictory to historical interactions.
As Walter (2013) highlights, our standpoint, theoretical conceptual framework, and method are integral and entwined parts of methodology. With the aims of the research, I have chosen semi-structured focus groups as my method of collection. I want to find out how Indigenous Australians in NSW view their relationship with the government for family violence plans. That requires eliciting stories, dialogue, and narratives. Time constraints for this research mean that I will undertake five different focus groups, with five participants in each. Each group will be given an initial topic and question to start discussion. Conversation will be voice recorded then transcribed afterwards. Focus groups have been selected over open-ended interviews as I seek to understand community views. To analyse the collected data, I made decisions based on the interrelatedness of aspects of methodology. Discourse analysis as the methodology will assist me in analysing language. It is constructionist in the way that it emphasises the reality conveyed by social groups (Bryman 2016). The methodology is aligned with the aims of the research as discourse analysis assumes the legitimacy of the reality of different social groups; allowing the perspective of Aboriginal Australia’s to be considered seriously and beyond merely statistics.
Ethics in social research
The nature of my research means that ethical considerations are at the forefront of research design. Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants brings up specific research guidelines, beyond those that apply to the general population. Additionally, ethical issues are very much entwined within the political dimensions of the research. Therefore, it is important to consider the research process holistically, beyond purely the methods of data collection. The National Health and Medical Research Council (2007) National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research that governs human research in Australia highlights that research merit is guided by ethical procedures through the aims, process, and results of the research. This is very important for Jones (2002) and Brannan (2005) who stress the importance of researcher reflexivity within the research process. For them, political and ethical dimensions come to attention when looking at the relationship between the researcher, research design, and the participant in research. As the researcher, I need to be reflexively addressing the power dynamic between researcher and research participant (Jones 2002).
The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research considers the value of respect to be at the centre of ethical conduct to help ensure that the researcher/research participant relationship is one of ‘trust, mutual responsibility and ethical equality’ (National Health and Medical Research Council 2007). Working with Aboriginal communities, this respect involves families and community elders being involved in decisions to participate in research. For my research, it will be important to consult with community leaders to ensure full consent is gained for the focus groups. An emphasis of working collaboratively will also be at the heart of my research; to ensure that my already powerful position as a researcher is not misused.
Considering Australia’s colonial past and consequent oppression of Aboriginal Australians, it will be especially important to follow national ethical codes. This is also integral as I am approaching the research as an outsider rather than an insider. There are debates within academia on how insider/outsider positions should be negotiated in research (Ergun and Erdemir 2009; Merriam et al. 2001). Being an outsider researcher has affected how I have constructed my research design. Using focus groups and discourse analysis aims to give the research participants more authority within the research process. This aligns with the ethical code’s focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples where reciprocity, equality, responsibility, initegrity lie at the core of ethical research (National Health and Medical Research Council 2007).
Similarly, research involving the topic of family violence requires a complex assessment of risk. Risk assessment is at the forefront of human research ethical code in Australia (National Health and Medical Research Council 2007). In constructing the research design, I have identified that participants may be at risk of psychological harm by participating in the focus groups. There is the potential for participants to feel distress, anger, fear or guilt because of the severity and upsetting nature of family violence. However, the benefits of participating in the research can predicted as; increased representation in academia, representation in family violence discussions which may form the basis for social services and reduced feelings of powerlessness (Cox, Young and Bairnsfather-Scott 2009). As mentioned earlier, consultation with a community elder or leader will be necessary before the focus groups commence. I aim to have this consultation before approaching the ethics committee for approval. This is where I will work with the leader to make the research design most ethical and beneficial for the Aboriginal Australians who will be research participants.
This paper outlined my proposed social research, the research questions, aims and objectives. It reviewed literature to demonstrate the background and significant of the research question; showing how the research question responds to current literature. Here it was demonstrated that the social research aims to investigate how the relationship between Indigenous Australians in NSW and the Australian government is perceived in light of aims of engagement and collaboration in the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. The research is not only a response to governmental aims, but the increase in postcolonial research within academia which aims to redress the unbalanced power relationships between colonial and First Nation communities. Postcolonial scholarship highlights that the academy misreads and misunderstands Aboriginality in Australia by researching subjects through Westernised concepts and paradigms. Using focus groups and discourse analysis, this research aims to give the research participants the ability to convey their own realities though the language they use. Finally, the discussion paper turns to ethics in social research by focussing on respect and potentialities of harm for working with Aboriginal participants and discussing family violence. As the Australian government is specifically aiming to foster an engaged relationship with Indigenous communities, this social research aims to understand how Indigenous Australians view this partnership. Doing so attempts to give a voice to a social group that has historically been oppressed through an imbalanced relationship with the Australian government.
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1 The terms Aboriginal and Indigenous will be used interchangeably in reference First Nation Australians.