Indigenous research ethics is a collective and diverse set of responses to the way in which research has historically been, and continues to be, something that has been done to, rather than with, Indigenous peoples and communities. More specifically, the wide range of writings on Indigenous research methods is a call for a critical rethinking of the way that research has and continues to contribute to ‘ongoing experiences of colonisation, theft of lands and resources, disruption to societies and families, and the suppression of culture and identity’ (the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2020: 11).
Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou, Māori) has commented that ‘The word itself, “research”, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary’ (2012: xi). And there are strong grounds for this claim as there have been too many occasions where non-Indigenous researchers have deployed unethical and Individualistic practices, and been rewarded for ‘telling half-truths and down-right lies’ (Tuhiwai Smith, 2012: xi). Since colonial invasion and conquest, Indigenous peoples have endured a long history of having their bodies, cultures, traditions and beliefs objectified, essentialised, and pathologized by colonial institutions and Eurocentric knowledge systems. Treated as passive objects of study, Indigenous peoples have become accustomed to being disregarded as being ‘agents themselves, as capable of or interested in research, or as having expert knowledge on themselves and their conditions’ (Tuhiwai Smith, 2012: xi).
In recent times, Indigenous scholars have reported fraught encounters with academic research governance structures which continue to demonstrate little, if indeed any, knowledge of Indigenous cultural traditions and protocols. Not only this, when interacting with university research boards and ethics committees, Indigenous scholars report being compelled to comply with values and practices that are alien to Indigenous peoples and communities. For example, in 2009 a university research committee rejected Juan Marcellus Tauri’s (Ngati Porou iwi) application for ethical approval on that grounds that Tauri had proposed using an Indigenous group-based protocol for securing informed consent (George, Macdonald and Tauri, 2020). Not only was it claimed that such an approach was ‘unsafe’, it was alleged that it violated the institution’s orthodox practice of securing consent from each individual participant in a legalistic, written contract-like manner.
While legacies of colonial logics and racial-deficit thinking continue to prevail both inside and outside the academy, especially in white colonial settler contexts, there is an equally long history of Indigenous resistance which rejects colonial research practices in favour of ethical protocols rooted in respect for Indigenous cultural traditions. Central to this is a call that researchers, especially non-Indigenous researchers, are mindful that there is not one, singular Indigenous approach to questions of research ethics. Indeed, to suggest so would further contribute to the homogenisation and erasure of Indigenous identities, cultures, and traditions. Bringing a collective of Indigenous Scholars together, Lily George, Juan Tauri and Lindsey Te Ata o Tu MacDonald (2020: 3) stress the importance of meeting Indigenous peoples ‘where they are’ and sincerely engaging with local Indigenous traditions and cultural protocols. However, while underscoring the importance of locality, there are several shared themes cutting across different approaches to Indigenous research ethics. This is perhaps most evident in terms of what George et al. refer to as ‘Indigenous sovereignty’ whereby ‘Indigenous peoples reclaim their past, present and future’ (2020: 3). By establishing Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous scholars, and the communities which they work with, are seeking to establish a new set of terms and conditions for how research is done based on respect, trust and genuine reciprocity. This involves creating spaces of co-production that are both safe and centred on healing.
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) have recently published a code of ethics which provides a detailed, local insight into the ethical protocols underpinning Indigenous research. In doing so, the AIATSIS advance four interlocking principles, which are noted as being ‘consistent with and supports the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research and the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research’ (2020: 2).
First, the right to self-determination is at the very heart of the AIATSIS code of ethics. Second, the AIATSIS code of ethics foregrounds the principle of ‘Indigenous leadership’, thus insisting that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be hold ‘genuine decision-making responsibility’ so that Indigenous leadership is evident ‘both in the “why” as well as the “how” of research, from conceptualisation to communication’ (2020: 17). Third, AIATSIS argue that emphasis must be placed on ensuring that both the potential impact and value of research is of benefit to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Finally, AISTSIS’ fourth principle for ethical research centres on accountability and sustainability. In terms of the former, the AIATSIS propose that researchers and institutions should be accountable to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research participants and communities. This includes being accountable for the delivery of planned actions over the long-durée through co-created compliance strategies and reporting mechanisms (AIATSIS 2020: 21). In terms of the latter, the AIATSIS contend that research should be orientated to meeting the ongoing and future environmental, economic, cultural and political needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Not only this, when it comes to sustainability, the AIATSIS call for Indigenous knowledge and data to be archived and preserved in ways that are available to both the current and future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their struggles for self-determination and social justice.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (2020) AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research.
Cunneen, C. and Tauri, J. (2016) Indigenous Criminology. Bristol: Policy Press.
George, L., Te Ata o Tu MacDonald, L. Tauri, J. (2020) Indigenous Research Ethics: Claiming Research Sovereignty Beyond Deficit and the Colonial Legacy Vol: 6.
Smith, L.T. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd ed. London: Zed Books. Melbourne: Emerald Publishing Pty Limited
Further Reading and Resources
Bull, J. (2017) ‘Research is Relational: From Principles to practice in Reconciliation’. Centre for Indigenous Research, Culture, Language and Education.
Carleton University Institute on the Ethics of Research with Indigenous Peoples (2016) ‘What is the Carleton University Institute on the Ethics of Research with Indigenous Peoples?’ Faculty of Public Affairs – Carleton University.
Maamwizing Indigenous Research Institute (2018) ‘Our Research, Our Community, Our Indigenous Sovereignty’.
Office of Public Engagement, Memorial University of Newfoundland (2016) ‘A Sense of Optimism- The NunatuKavut Research Ethics Project’. YouTube.
Rural Routes Podcasts (2017) ‘Julie Bull on research ethics in Indigenous communities’, Season 2, Episode 2. Soundcloud.
The Sociological Review (2020) ‘Research Ethics and Indigenous Peoples 101 | Linda Tuhiwai Smith’. YouTube.
Why does Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012: xi) argue that the word research ‘is probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary’
Consider the role that sovereignty plays in Indigenous research ethics?
Why is it important that researchers engage with local Indigenous cultural traditions and practices when developing research ethics protocols
Discuss the four key principles underpinning the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ code of ethics AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research
What, if any, are the similarities and differences between Indigenous research ethics and participatory and solidarity action research?
Submitted by Stephen D. Ashe