Research is a Dirty Word


Indigenist Research and Aboriginal Agency: Do remote Indigenous communities need digital literacy? and who’s role is it to determine that?

In their text Internet on the Outstation: The Digital Divide and Remote Aboriginal Communities, Rennie et al. state that it is their objective to examine ‘the cultural and economic systems that influence Internet adoption and use’ (2016, p. 14).

Unfortunately, by skimming over the social, cultural and historical context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, Rennie et al. (2016) ultimately reads as another academic writing about Indigenous people by non-Indigenous identifying* people, which fails to realise the inevitable intertwining of research and colonisation in developing a discourse for knowing the Indigenous Other (Christie et al. 2013). As Rankjin et al. (2009) explains: ‘Culture is not just of academic interest, it is the very essence of a person’s being’. Rennie et al.’s failure to properly acknowledge this, and effectively balance these world views and knowledge systems, ultimately serves to diminish the validity of their findings.

Martin (2006) elegantly explains the common practice of agency assignation with regards to Indigenous perspectives on Western researchers:

In these (scholarly) theories Aboriginal People are represented as powerless and hopeless in the face of their inevitable assimilation. Aboriginal regulation of Outsiders is rarely investigated for Aboriginal agency.
(p. i)

Research is a powerful tool in influencing Indigenous policy. In the case of remote Indigenous communities, previous applications of government policy have seen the destruction of Aboriginal cultural identity through the severing of ties to Land, as detailed by Dudgeon et al. (2010):

The concept of community has a political agenda for the state, whereby Indigenous people were moved into sites such as reserves, missions and fringe camps as part of the process of colonisation, dispossession and dispersal, and later for bureaucratic convenience.

Whilst Rennie et al. briefly acknowledges that ‘the mutations of the policy apparatus’ with regard to community infrastructure in remote Australia, ‘reveal the aspirations and assumptions about how remote communities should exist’, they differentiate themselves as being situated ‘within a media studies tradition’, ignoring how their chosen research approach perpetuates the colonial strategies they seek to separate themselves from.

There are brief moments of awareness as the text delves further into detail about the why the Internet has been awarded this saviour status:

The agendas of the government and NGOs […] impose an untested assumption that such engagement is desired in the first place. (Rennie et. al 2016, p 11).

There are also some strong, context-based, practical arguments:

The idea that Internet access can resolve the larger problem of government failure in addressing disadvantage is problematic. We can say, however, that the Internet brings a level of banal administration which, due to distance, remote communities have not previous had the benefit of. (Rennie et. al 2016, p 15).

However, the condescending tone of the text overall is inescapable, and is exemplified by describing the rates of Internet adoption in remote Indigenous communities as ‘bafflingly low’ (Rennie et al. 2016, p. 13).

Thankfully, to remedy this perplexing task of understanding remote Indigenous community needs, Martin details protocols for culturally safe and respectful behaviour:

This stronger dialogic and self-reflexive researcher role works towards addressing, if not neutralising, issues of power of researcher over researched. When research is transformed in this way, it is itself, transformative and works towards achieving Aboriginal sovereignty in research. (Martin 2006, p. ix)

Martin also posits an Indgenist research interface that retrieves agency:

Researchers are not to assume they are entering a ‘frontier’, or to perpetuate the fiction of terra nullius (ideological, physical or intellectual), but to work from a paradigm of relatedness. […] With relatedness as the premise and impetus, there is no such thing as Outsider, or Other, but of Another’. (Martin 2006, p. 8)

Maybe if Rennie et al. had used such an approach, they wouldn’t be so baffled by their findings, and the needs of remote Indigenous communities, with regards to digital literacy and beyond, might be properly considered.

* According to my personal research of their academic profiles (Swinburne University of Technology) and online profiles

Reference List

Christie, M., Guyla, Y., Gurruwiwi, D. and Greatorex, J. 2013, ‘Teaching in Country: Connecting remote Indgenous knowledge authorities with university students around the world’ in Information Technology and Indigenous Communities (eds.) Ormond-Parker, L., Corner, A., Fforde, C., Obata, K and O’Sullivan, S. AIATSIS Research Publications 2013

Dudgeon, P., Wrigh, M., Paradies, Y., Garvey, D. and Walker, I. 2010, ‘The Social, Cultural and Historical Context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian’ in Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Isalnder mental health and wellbeing principles and practise. (eds.) Purdie, N., Dudgeon, P and Walker, R. Department of Health and Ageing. Canberra

Martin, K. 2006, ‘Knock Before You Enter: Aboriginal regulation of outsiders and the implications for researchers’. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

Ranzjin, R., McConnochie, K., Nolan, W. 2009, ‘Psychology and Indigenous Australians: Foundations of cultural competence’. Palgrave Macmillan, South Yarra, VIC. Chapter 2, pp. 30

Rennie, E., Hogan, E., Gregory, R. Crouch, R., Wright, A. & Thomas, J. 2016, ‘Introduction’, Internet on the Outstation: The Digital Divide and Remote Aboriginal Communities, pp.13-27.


Image List

Dreamtime Aboriginal Art Knowledge Library, 2016. Viewed 1 October 2016, <;.


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