Research Outcomes Part 3: Implications for Researchers and Educators

Outcome 6: Researching Together: Rethinking the Relationship between Academia and Koorie Communities considers the lessons learned from this project for researchers and communities working together.

Outcome 7: Education and Training for Professional Practice and Scholarship applies the principles and outcomes of this research to recordkeeping education and research training.

Outcome 6: Researching Together: Rethinking the Relationship between Academia and Koorie Communities

Introduction

Participant 23, Stage 1

"When I was telling people about this interview, that was the same feeling. "Just be careful what you say"."

Many of the outcomes presented in this report are located at the point of engagement of Indigenous and Western knowledge systems. At several points the researchers point to the need for paradigm shifts - for socio-legal systems, institutions and information professionals to rethink their foundations, to learn to recognise the ways in which these foundations are based on, and hence preference, Western understandings of evidence and memory to the exclusion of Indigenous ones, and in turn, to take on board the reality that these dominant paradigms have contributed to the marginalisation and colonisation of Indigenous Australians.

The research team was aware at the outset, at least to some extent, of an inherent tension in the research we were about to undertake: that it is based in one of the cornerstones of the Western knowledge system - academia. As the research has proceeded, however, we have learned much about the inadequacies of our engagement with Koorie communities and have recognised the need for a transformation of academic research so that its methods and outcomes value and embody an Indigenous worldview.

Applying academic research protocols to Trust and Technology

Participant 4, Stage 1

"Interviewer: Can you tell me a bit about what kinds of stories might be entrusted to different groups?

Without stepping on the toes I guess it is difficult. See I am a male talking to two females and it is difficult to be specific about the male specific stories."

In general terms, protocols for academic research involving people seek to ensure that research reflects the values of:

  • Merit and integrity (the research must be justifiable in terms of potential benefits, appropriate in selection of methodologies and use of resources, conducted ethically by people with appropriate skills and experience).
  • Justice (there must be fairness in the involvement of participants and in access to the outcomes and benefits).
  • Beneficence (any risks of the research must be balanced by potential benefits).
  • Respect (research must be conducted with regard for the welfare, beliefs, opinions, cultural heritage, privacy of participants). (National Health and Medical Research Council and Australian Research Council, 2007)

As the project was being developed standard academic research ethics approaches were applied to the research design. A procedure was established for gaining informed consent of participants and data was managed to ensure anonymity and confidentiality. Transcripts of interviews were returned to participants for checking and the right of participants to withdraw at any time was reiterated. Aware that Koorie communities have been much interviewed and studied by researchers sometimes with no apparent return to the community, the research team developed an information dissemination strategy which included sending periodical progress reports to participants. The project originated from within a longstanding relationship between the two major research partners, the Koorie Heritage Trust and Public Record Office Victoria, and their joint expression of the need to better deal with Koorie oral memory became the premise of the project. Hence the project appeared to satisfy a requirement to be of benefit to Koorie people.

Beyond the direct need to satisfy formal research ethics requirements the team was aware that, given the nature of our topic - trusted archival systems and services for Koorie people - we needed from the outset to apply the very notions we were investigating. As a project team involving both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, we recognised the need to build relationships of trust with the Indigenous communities of Victoria and particularly with those members who would become a part of the research community for this project. One way of doing this was to establish a project Advisory Group involving Koorie community representatives and recordkeeping professionals to periodically review the project’s progress and provide feedback to the research team.

Another way of building relationships was to engage an Elder, Diane Singh, as a research fellow. Initially the focus of Ms Singh’s role was community liaison; identifying and contacting potential participants, administering the informed consent process and being responsible for follow-up contact via community newsletters.

Trust and Technology as an example of academic - community collaboration: lessons learned

Participant 11, Stage 1

"We're the most studied people in the world. They've studied us for years and there was no consulting about it when they took our land. There was no consulting when they dug up our remains and took to the museums to study. There was nothing."

Participant 53, Stage 1

"Interviewer: So the recording might put [the storyteller] off.

Yes, and the pain of actually talking about that. They'd have to be completely comfortable with talking about it. So maybe sitting in a one-to-one situation, with someone like you, or like the fact that Di's in the room with us and she's an Indigenous person, making sure there is that Indigenous presence there and make someone feel comfortable with telling a story…"

Participant 3, Stage 1

"I’m of the belief that people have done things and used it and abused it and worked it to death over the times. They’ve used us as guinea pigs. A lot of people have done research and papers and things like that. Coming from a mission I’ve been through it all. People have done papers and you never get feedback or access to it. I think it’s important to give feedback."

The project thus began with a sincere intention to work collaboratively and respectfully with Koorie communities and to learn from, not just about, those communities. Without dismissing the points at which the research team has given effect to these intentions, we believe there are lessons to be learned from this particular instance of academic research based in an Indigenous community.

  • It takes time to build trusted research relationships. Although this project began with a long-standing relationship between two of the partner organisations - one a Koorie organisation and the other a major archival institution - relationships between the individuals actually doing the research and Koorie communities were on the whole not as well developed. The process of securing research funding does not lend itself to developing sustained research relationships with communities; teams of researchers tend to come together and engage with a community for project which is funded for two or three years only.
  • A longer period of engagement between academic and community participants prior to the start of this project would have significantly shaped the initial direction of the research. We began with the premise that there was a need amongst Koorie people to be able to record and preserve oral memory and that there was an inadequate understanding of, or response to, oral knowledge on the part of archival institutions. The title of the project - ‘Trust and Technology: Building an archival system for Indigenous oral memory’ - reflects this starting point. There are many reasons why the project so readily adopted this as its aim, some of them to do with the need to design an attractive funding proposal. However it is clear now that a more substantial process of consultation and engagement with Koorie communities would have caused us to ask more fundamental questions. Do Koorie people actually want to engage with archival institutions? Do they want an archival system built for oral memory? In hindsight, the very foundations of the project incorporated culturally biased assumptions with the potential to produce an outcome that subsumed an Indigenous knowledge system in a Western one: ironically, the very opposite of the project’s intention to be culturally respectful.
  • More groundwork before commencement of the project would have significantly changed a key role on the project team - the Community Advisor. It was initially envisaged that the main focus of this role would be on liaising with participants in stage one of the project; identifying participants, setting up interviews and undertaking follow-up contact with participants. The initial project plan did not envisage a role for the Community Advisor beyond stage one, however problems with this model quickly arose. For the research team’s stated commitment to ongoing consultation to have any validity, Ms Singh’s role needed to extend beyond the data collection stage. This shortcoming was quickly rectified, with additional funding being found to continue the position throughout the whole project.

    The research team also initially underestimated the centrality of the Community Advisor’s role. Was it essentially a research support role - to pave the way for the research team to follow - or was it a role that shaped and contributed to the research itself? It soon became apparent that Ms Singh’s standing within Koorie communities placed her well to contribute much more to the design and conduct of the research than our initial research plan had envisaged. This in turn had the potential to enhance both the participants’ confidence in the project and the richness of the information gathered in interviews. Again, the team addressed this issue when it was identified, and the Community Advisor had a much more hands-on, integral role in later stages of data gathering and analysis.
  • Not surprisingly we found ourselves having to negotiate points of incommensurability between Western and Koorie community frameworks in the research process itself, as well as in the subject matter we were investigating. Understandings of rights of privacy and anonymity are strongly embedded in Western academic research ethics, but are based on notions of individual rights and decision-making which may not align with Indigenous cultures. Similarly, understandings of what constitutes informed consent, conflicts of interest, coercion and unequal relationships in research all need to be rethought. In this project, for instance, most of the participants in stage one were personally known to the person who recruited them and who administered the process of gaining informed consent - the Community Advisor. This was initially questioned (though ultimately supported) by the University’s Ethics Committee because of concerns about the possibility of Ms Singh’s relationship with participants compromising their free choice about their involvement. Koorie community protocols, however, differ completely in their approach. Being part of and/or well known by the communities was essential for this recruitment role: for community participants this relationship gave the research process more integrity and credibility.

As often occurs with multidisciplinary applied research, an Advisory Group was formed at the commencement of the project. Membership reflected the various interests and expertises relevant to the project and included Koorie community representatives, recordkeepers and librarians representing key institutions and information technologists. A priority was to ensure that the Group could have input into the project without imposing too much work on busy people, hence meetings were infrequent. From the point of view of some members of the Advisory Group, meetings were too infrequent and did not provide sufficient opportunity to give meaningful feedback. Although all members of the group were very interested in the research and committed to the project’s objectives, it became evident that an alternative, or perhaps additional forum was needed for a community-based research project such as this one. In particular, the Advisory Group did not adequately represent the participants in the research - the interviewees. In discussion with Koorie Elders on the Advisory Group the research team came to the view that a reference group, comprised of all participants in the research, was a more appropriate forum for providing feedback, seeking advice and validation of the research.

Rethinking research partnerships

Participant 43, Stage 1

"It's no use having a story, for me, and then keeping it to yourself. But then that is so sacred it is only said within and to certain people within the family confines. So if someone from the university was to ask me, I'd say no. It is very, very selective who it be told to because you want that treasured. I still have a thing of seeing how historical data is questioned, how it is presented and interpreted, and then somehow the meaning goes out of that. So if I was to tell someone I would perhaps, not play it dumb, but I don't go beyond to let people know because that is very private."

Direct involvement of community representatives as research partners rather than research subjects, is relatively new in university research communities. Current research governance and protocols in universities, which include the processes for ensuring that the responsibilities of institutions and researcher are monitored, are based on ownership models that do not adequately recognise legal or moral rights of community partners. Joint control and ownership of research agenda, data and products are complex areas that require negotiations between many competing interests. (Iacovino, forthcoming).

Protocols for researching in Australian Indigenous communities have been developing within academia for several decades. These have attempted to apply the underlying values of ethical research to academic engagement with Indigenous people. However, as the above quote highlights, there is a limit to how far protocols steeped in Western academic tradition can go towards supporting community-based research. In the course of this project the research team has become increasingly aware of the ways in which, despite other intentions, the members of Koorie communities who contributed to the project have been positioned as subjects, not participants. Positioning academic and community participants in research as equal partners challenges many of the tenets of academic research institutions, protocols and methodologies. Some of the implications are:

  • Accepting an obligation to ensure that research funding supports community-based research partnerships. Funding is currently largely channelled through universities, resulting in short term, project-based research which is not conducive to sustained relationships between communities and researchers. Whether or not this model changes, university-based researchers have an ethical obligation to ensure that communities share control of research agendas and associated research funding.
  • New research methodologies and ethics regimes are needed to support the participation of communities. Positioning community and academic participants as equal partners involves ensuring that all voices are acknowledged and given equal standing. For example, anonymity - conventionally used to protect the privacy of data subjects and the quality of the data they contribute - may be appropriate in some situations, but in other instances it simply reinforces a conventional researcher-data subject relationship. Instead new modes of working are needed to enable the contribution of all participants to be acknowledged by name where appropriate. Similarly, concepts of research integrity, informed consent and equal relationships may need to rethought. It may be that a parallel research ethics process based on the ethics and values of communities is needed for Koorie community research.
  • Processes for scoping and setting up research projects, securing approval and funding need to allow for greater consultation and engagement between academia and communities, to enable iterative negotiation and shared decisonmaking about aims, processes, ethics, outcomes. These processes should be regarded and resourced as an integral part of community-based research, not as precursors to a formal research process. (Stoecker, 2005)
  • Alternative models of ownership for research data and outcomes are needed to undergird new relationships between research participants and to protect the rights and status of community participants. Ownership models need to ensure that research processes do not continue the history of colonising Indigenous knowledge and experience with the result that the communities involved lose control over the way it is used, contextualised and presented.

Despite the tensions and struggles expressed above, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of academia supported community-based research. Our expression of the inadequacies of current practices is far from unique, and the need for new approaches to researching with communities of various types is beginning to influence some university processes around the globe. Our experience of working and learning together enables us to envisage a transformation of parts of academia to make a participatory model of community-based research a reality. We are also confident that as the benefits to all parties of such a transformation are realised, new approaches will gradually become embedded within academic principles and processes.

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Outcome 7: Education and Training for Professional Practice and Scholarship

Participant 26, Stage 1

"Interviewer: Did you seek help from the librarian?

No. When you're looking at something you can't take up their time. There is not always someone there available that can show you how to work things. You pay your money to use the machine and then you're sort of left to your own devices. If you don't even know what you're looking for or how to go about looking for what you're looking for…"

Participant 58, Stage 1

"I know through meeting a lot of people from the stolen generation, and actually seeing them get access to their records, it's quite daunting. Files and files of stuff. I've sat there when people have ten A4 folders about them. You don't even know that much about yourself let alone somebody else to write that much."

Participant 18, Stage 1

"It would be nice to meet up with someone who could tell us exactly what's there and show us where to go, then be taken to the place each individual person which area they want to go into. I think it would be very important to have somebody with you and also have that little bit of privacy so that you could go through things yourself. I think it would be really important to have support there but also to have that amount of privacy if you wanted to go through your records, you could go through it, but at the end of you've got somebody there because it could turn out a bit traumatic and just need a bit of back up a bit of support."

Participant 35, Stage 1

"Interviewer: She talked to a lot of people?

She did, not just family. She never talked cultural stuff at all. Her boys played footy so she was involved with the footy, but she always kept that to herself. She was never in anybody's face or anything like that. She was great, that's why I was devastated when I couldn't find her birth certificate. When she passed away, as a grandchild we thought we would see how old Nan really really was.

Interviewer: And there wasn't a birth certificate?

No, and when you find the mission records that they're registered just like cattle records. That's a little bit devastating, because she was a person."

Participant 56, Stage 1

"Interviewer: So you would prefer Indigenous staff to manage the collection?

Yes I would, because there is always training out there. If this person wasn't as good as that person, train them up. Make them as good as that person. It's not their fault that that person has had the training and they haven't. I'm sure the capacity is there for that person to be trained."

The Trust and Technology research project has not directly investigated the question of whether the educational experiences currently available to Australian recordkeepers adequately support them in working with Indigenous communities. There is, however, an obvious direct link between the ability and readiness of practitioners to give effect to the directions proposed in this report and the foundational professional education and ongoing development undertaken by recordkeepers. Similarly there is a clear relationship between the readiness of researchers and research students to adopt more participatory research models, as proposed in the previous section of this report, and the formal and informal research training provided to them, and the expectations set for them, by academia.

Three broad observations relevant to professional education arise from Trust and Technology.

First, recordkeepers need an education which enables them to, and expects them to, recognise their own cultural perspectives and how these come into play in their work. Understanding that they are working within and applying a particular ontology is an essential first step towards recognising and embracing multiple ontologies. Recordkeepers need to be able to recognise the contexts in which the dominant conceptualisations and theory of their work have been developed, and the values on which these are based. Definitions - record, creator, evidence, ownership, authenticity - reflect a particular knowledge framework. Recordkeepers need to be able to identify the points at which this knowledge framework agrees with, excludes and conflicts with the ways of knowing and keeping of those with different cultural perspectives.

Recordkeepers also need exposure to the experiences of Indigenous Australians who have interacted with the dominant knowledge framework represented by mainstream archival institutions. These experiences should profoundly shape the perceptions and attitudes which recordkeepers have about the job they do. Koorie participants in this project have powerfully told of their experiences of using archival records and services, and many more recordkeeping professionals need to hear these stories directly. Some understandings which emerge from Trust and Technology are:

  • What it is like to use archives as part of a search for family and identity, and on occasion, the pivotal significance, for better or worse, of the search for and discovery of records.
  • The potency of records, even several generations later, and the real and lasting effects of the ‘archival gaze’ for individuals and communities today.
  • The breadth of Australian Indigenous knowledge, the diversity in ways of knowing and keeping and the dynamic relationship between institutional archives and oral memory.

Initiatives to increase the participation of Indigenous Australians in archival education need to continue and be extended (assuming that that education is pluralistic and culturally aware and does not simply impose current paradigms on students). In particular, efforts to develop and sustain community-based Indigenous archives programs need Indigenous recordkeeping professionals who are able to work across the usual boundaries of institutional archives and who can continue to reshape the services and systems within these community-based programs and in other settings.

Addressing the implications of this research will require educators themselves to grapple with a new paradigm within their own domain. Some key issues to be explored are:

  • What curriculum content is needed to make archival education more culturally inclusive and who should be involved in determining this?
  • What is the goal of archival education? In particular how can practitioners be educated to operate within a particular ontology whilst also being equipped with the ability to recognise its assumptions, biases and points of conflict with other ontologies?
  • What is the role of communities in the development and delivery of archival education? It is well established that academics, employers and professional associations are stakeholders in these processes. How can Indigenous community leaders also shape the curriculum and participate in its delivery?
  • How should archival educators and researchers themselves be trained?
  • Where and how should education be delivered? Is its current delivery in the academy and/or virtually an obstacle to making it more culturally inclusive and community-directed?
  • What might be the relationship of archival education programs with Indigenous studies programs and cultural awareness programs?

Leading employers and professional associations as well as recordkeeping educators need to be involved in addressing these issues. A set of principles derived from this report should inform course recognition/accreditation and the expectations set by employers and professional associations for ongoing professional development.

Many archival educators are already addressing the need to overhaul recordkeeping education to enable it to be more culturally diverse. Pluralizing the Archival Paradigm through Education, a collaboration involving researchers from the University of California Los Angeles, Monash University and Renmin University (Beijing), is an example of a current project examining the need for recordkeeping education that is inclusive of local and Indigenous knowledge and practices and is culturally sensitive and responsive. Inherent in this research is the understanding that integrating Indigenous knowledge and practices into the global paradigm within which archival theory and practice is situated will make that paradigm more inclusive and less in danger of being a neo-colonial force. This research project provides scope for the paradigmatic shifts which the Trust and Technology project proposes to be investigated further, particularly with regard to their implications for recordkeeping education.