Traditional Culture and Aboriginal Wellbeing

Traditional Culture and the Wellbeing of Indigenous Australians: An analysis of the 2008 NATSISS (pdf)

Dr A.M. Dockery
Centre for Labour Market Research, Curtin University

Research based on data from the 2002 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey found evidence of a positive link between Indigenous Australians’ attachment to their traditional culture and a range of mainstream socio-economic indicators, contrary to the common assumption that traditional culture is a barrier to achievement. This paper uses data from the 2008 NATSISS to further explore the concept of ‘cultural attachment’, breaking it down into four constituent elements: participation in cultural events and activities, cultural identity, language and participation in traditional economic activities. The positive effects of cultural attachment on mainstream socio-economic indicators are confirmed, and now found to extend to subjective wellbeing. This is important as subjective measures of wellbeing are based on Indigenous peoples’ own values and preferences. Indigenous Australians who identify more strongly with their traditional culture are happier and display better mental health, but at the same time experience more psychological stress due to stronger feelings of discrimination. The findings suggest that traditional cultures should be preserved and strengthened as a means to both improving the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians and to ‘closing the gap’ on mainstream socio-economic indicators.

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12 Responses to Traditional Culture and Aboriginal Wellbeing

  1. conrad says:

    “contrary to the common assumption that traditional culture is a barrier to achievement”

    Is it really common? I’ve never assumed that, and at least based on the eyeball test, retaining traditional culture is positive for NZ also.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I think the way they express it is a bit clumsy, but I think there’s a widespread belief that aspects of indigenous culture can be inimical to a decent life in western society – for instance the difficulty of hanging onto your own property and resisting ‘humbugging’.

  3. Ken Parish says:

    I have certainly argued (and continue to argue) that there are aspects of traditional culture that are inimical to success (and therefore in the long term well-being) in the dominant culture e.g. this post.

    It’s often dangerous to draw definite conclusions from an article abstract without carefully reading the article (although maybe Nicholas and Conrad did so). In fact on my reading there is nothing in this study that contradicts anything in my post (which in turn draws on expert assessments by Sutton and others). Dockery mostly draws on subjective reports of well-being by Aboriginal people in a 2008 survey. One would expect people to report higher subjective well-being when not being subjected to change. Change is stressful and challenging but sometimes the only way to move beyond endemic disadvantage.

    To the extent the survey examines objective measures its findings are mixed and consistent with what I would have expected:

    These suggest that stronger cultural identity is associated with higher educational attainment and a higher probability of being employed. Speaking Indigenous languages is associated with markedly superior health, and lower likelihoods of abusing alcohol or of being charged, but appears to create barriers to employment. The positive association between speaking Indigenous languages and health may relate to the effectiveness of intergenerational communication of traditional knowledge and values associated with health. Participation in traditional economic activities is the one cultural dimension that seems to be associated with inferior outcomes, notably in terms of education and the chances of being arrested or risky consumption of alcohol.

    I have argued only that particular aspects of traditional culture are inimical to education, employment and successful enterprise i.e. “payback” violence and beliefs about sorcery; sorry business for extended durations given endemic poor health and frequent deaths; kinship sharing obligations in situations where kin to whom obligations are owed are addicted to alcohol or drugs and prone to violence to “humbug” money out of mothers of young children (which is why many Aboriginal women quietly support this aspect of the Intervention). Maintenance of tradition and custom in general, and especially language, is fine and one would expect it to be at least as strongly associated with well-being as maintenance of culture and attachment among migrants. Indeed research suggests that bilingual education models may achieve better outcomes than teaching solely in English. In any event, adapting and developing traditional culture is something that only Aboriginal people themselves can do. The assumed equivalence Dockery draws between self-determined cultural change/adaptation and “assimilation” policies is unfortunate and rather leads one to suspect that this is a piece of advocacy research.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Ken, I agree with everything you say except the presumption that people don’t like change. I think that depends on what it is, how it’s occurring etc.

    Which brings me to another point that I thought you were going to make, and which perhaps you have in a way, but I thought I’d make it more explicit. It’s coincident with a point I’ve made a few times here relating to different methodologies.

    The keenness for rigour and for ‘scientific’ validity in the social sciences means that multivariate analysis is regarded as a pretty important vehicle for getting to conclusions. This typically ends up with very crude and linear understandings of factors in play – when the real relationships (if one can speak in such a way) are in fact characterised by rich interactions and interdependencies. So the idea of ‘sensitivity’ to or ‘continuity with’ indigenous culture becomes one of the variables in the multi-variate analysis and then we go find it’s relationship as the independent variable with various dependent outputs.

    But neither the variable, nor the environment that it is manifesting itself is in fact anything like as well behaved as this. So we end up with a very crude and fragmentary understanding. Note I think this is often true in more or less purely economic analyses. (Keynes argued something similar in describing Tinbergen’s early general equilibrium models of the economy as being ‘black magic’.) So if it’s true there, how much more true is it when one brings in culture and politics.

    This is why what I’ve called ‘the historical method’ (but which could be called the narrative method) has value because it has a chance of capturing some of these subtleties (these days we are supposed to call them ‘nuances’) and is often able to be more explicit about commonsensical connections it’s making. Trouble is, if this method is less crude, less immune to subtleties, alas it imposes no mechanical protocols of legitimation on the researcher – or to Lakatos’s terminology is more or less infinitely tolerant of a ‘protective belt’ of auxiliary hypotheses to protect some preferred conclusion from the data.

    So it lacks ‘scientific rigour’ (an overrated but not worthless thing in the social sciences) and is seen to lack it.

  5. paul walter says:

    The humanity of this thread leaps out and bites you.
    Why am I filled with sadness?
    This in the context of the unplatable performance of Garrett last night- in the presence of a young, literate activist- and the subsequent slicing and dicing of Jones and Garrett by Katter.

  6. conrad says:

    “This is why what I’ve called ‘the historical method’ (but which could be called the narrative method”

    I think you’ll find that this is called qualitative analysis in many areas of the social sciences (there are many different variants of it) if I’m correct in understanding what you mean. When it is done well it can be very informative and lead to more serious investigation of particular areas. When it is done horribly, well, it leads to horrible stuff (I seem to remember a horribly done study led to Troppo’s biggest thread of doom a few years back). In general, the basic idea isn’t to provide great generalizations or scientific explanations, but to explore issues in areas where it isn’t already entirely clear what you are looking at or what you are looking for. Once these are identified, you can then do other more targetted styles of analyses that lead to more scientifically valid explanations.

    At least for the question here, it would be very handy to do a cross-cultural investigation so you could see what might be good, bad or indifferent across indigenous cultures. This could then lead to other forms of analysis that really get at the problem in a more scientific way and you could try and determine whether there are core factors that help (e.g., keeping your language) and core factors that hinder (e.g., various forms of condoned violence), and how they might interact.

  7. FDB says:

    I’m wondering whether there’s an element here of reversed causation. It seems plausible that the rediscovery of culture, which is a pretty big part of contemporary Aboriginal culture, is the domain of those with the time and money on their hands to do it.

  8. paul walter says:

    FBD, that’s only because with so many aboriginals damged by white colonisation, only the middle class are left, to pick up the pieces second hand.
    Survival in adverstiy reduced to artifacts for dinner parties.

  9. Mel says:

    I skimmed the paper and I’m not impressed for many reasons, far too many to list without writing a medium sized book.

    Firstly I object to the the misleading and confusing way of using the word culture adopted by the report. Culture is any pattern of behavior found within a community. As far as most/many pre-colonial indigenous socieies is concerned, this includes intermittent warfare, clubbing one’s head with a lump of wood until the skull fractures in response to grief and stealing women from neighbouring clans for forced marriage every bit as much as it includes “gathering wild plants or berries” (p. 22)

    As to the picking of wild berries, are the berry pickers happy because they picked the berries or did they pick the berries because they were happy? Also, did the indigenous person who picks the native cherry ballart experience greater wellbeing than the indigenous person who picks whitefella cherries in some boutique orchard? This paper doesn’t enlighten me.

    Self-reporting is another huge problem. Isn’t a happy, out, loud and proud indigenous person likely to be more eager to report participation in cultural pursuits and thus likely to over-report? I would certainly think so.

    Something stinks with the language issue too. Metro indigenous persons live longer, healthier lives than their outback cousins. The former are much less likely than the latter to speak an indigenous tongue yet you wouldn’t pick that up from this report. Based on this report, one might also be forgiven for thinking that remote indigenous community “feral” kids who never attend school and lack a working grasp of English are happier than meadow larks. Even more so if they pick wild berries.

    And so on and so forth.

    In summary I think this is run-of-the-mill, cause-pushing research of genuine advantage only to an enterprising anthropologist who is brave enough to investigate the “culture” of progressives with a tertiary social science education.

  10. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Enough pussy footing around Mel, tell us what you really think!

  11. Patrick says:

    This is a real group hug thread for me.

    I (less surprisingly) agree with Ken, on the broader point of traditional aboriginal culture.

    I agree strongly with FDB, too.

    If you consider the key claim of the paper in light of, in particular, Ken’s criticism:

    Research … found evidence of a positive link between Indigenous Australians’ attachment to their traditional culture and a range of mainstream socio-economic indicators, contrary to the common assumption that traditional culture is a barrier to achievement

    It is quickly apparent that you don’t really learn anything supporting that conclusion. This ‘common assumption’ is set out in more detail in the paper:

    the assumption that elements of traditional Indigenous culture are incompatible with the achievement of socio-economic outcomes valued in mainstream society.

    Clearly one could be a bit more granular than that. For example, payback violence is only indirectly relevant to ‘socio-economics’; it’s primary effect is physical harm incompatible with the achievement of a healthy life valued in mainstream society.

    The paper continues:

    Even those who argue for the right of Indigenous people to maintain traditional culture and lifestyles often present this choice as a trade-off with socio-economic outcomes valued in the mainstream, but as a legitimate choice for Indigenous people to make

    Clearly, unless the world died and I didn’t notice, there are trade-offs involved in adapting a subsistence culture to a world of abundance, and adapting a basic barter economy to a sophisticated financial economy, etc. Only an obscure fringe suggests that traditional culture needs to be extinguished in order to facilitate this adaptation (although a sadly misguided majority believed this in the not-distant-enough past).
    Similarly, I would have hoped that only an irrelevant fringe believed that traditional culture did not need to adapt and evolve somewhat in order to be relevant to aborigines today.
    If your reaction to a car is to spear it, your culture will be short-lived.

    So, it’s bad for me, but I even agree with Mel!

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