ACSPRI Conferences, ACSPRI Social Science Methodology Conference 2010

Font Size:  Small  Medium  Large

Doing research with Aboriginal women: The impact of whitness

Margot Rawsthorne

Building: Holme Building
Room: Holme Room
Date: 2010-12-01 01:30 PM – 03:00 PM
Last modified: 2010-11-17


This paper will explore the methodological and ethical challenges of doing research with Aboriginal women. The paper will draw on the lessons from a two year evaluation project on the Aboriginal Women Against Violence Project, located in south western Sydney. The project involved two strategies: educating Aboriginal women as community mentors in relation to violence; and establishing a steering group to advocate for better service and system responses to Aboriginal women. This evaluation research had a number of challenges as well as opportunities.


A white academic undertaking evaluation research with Aboriginal women needs to be very sensitive to historical tensions which shape ongoing relationships (Whyte and Krakouer, 2009: 12). This sensitivity requires methodology that ‘are intended to give voice and prominence to communities previously marginalized in research practices’ (Evans et al, 2009: 894). This sensitivity also creates the opportunity to focus attention on the ‘whiteness’ of the institutions which Aboriginal women face, particularly in relation to violence (Evans et al, 2009: 894). Aboriginal people in Australia are both over and under researched. They are over-researched as a ‘problem’ but under-researched in ways that seek to reflect their lived-experiences of being Aboriginal in a white society.


The study adopted a mixed methodology, aiming to collect robust evidence of the impact of the AWAV program (Whyte and Krakouer, 2009: 23). The initial evaluation design was informed by previous evaluation of anti-violence programs with white participants. The assumptions underlying this approach (particularly literacy levels and written expression) were quickly challenged.  Sensitivity to the research relationship demanded flexibility in responding to this challenge. The initial research design included the use of pre and post questionnaires with women participating in the training program. In Group 1 a four paged questionnaire was used to collect data. Feedback from the AWAV Project Worker was that participants found the questionnaire difficult and were embarrassed at the length of time it required to complete.  Accordingly, with input from the AWAV Project Worker and Project Co-ordinator, focus groups were decided as being a better way of collecting information about the impact of the group. It was also agreed to provide the researcher with access to art work produced by participants as part of the group (with their express consent).  This art work represented their understanding of domestic violence, how women can be helped and the sources of support or strengths in their lives. The use of images in qualitative research is a small but exciting area of research practice creating opportunities to uncover powerful meanings and understandings (Kearney and Hyle, 2004).


The evaluation research highlighted the need to be flexible and creative when undertaking research with Aboriginal women.  It highlighted the significant barriers of literacy, mistrust and trauma in understanding Aboriginal women’s experiences of violence. Improving our knowledge of Aboriginal women’s experiences requires a commitment of time, a willingness to listen and an ability to create an empowering dialogue.  The conference paper will explore these issues in greater depth, creating a dialogue with participants about how white academics can best work with Aboriginal women to build knowledge.