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Te Kāhui Kura Māori, Volume 0, Issue 2

The Impact of Tā Te Māori Rangahau / Methodologies of Māori Research on My Work

The Impact of Tā Te Māori Rangahau / Methodologies of Māori Research on My Work

Kaupapa Māori is an attempt to retrieve space for Māori voices and perspectives. It is also about providing a framework for explaining to tauiwi what we have always been about…[this] also opens up avenues for approaching and critiquing dominant, Western worldviews…[it is]  an intervention strategy. The common sense of any society often goes unnamed and therefore unchallenged. (Cram 2001:40-41)

the answer is in the intention
that lies behind the question
put that on your standardized multiple choice
i mean, how’s this supposed to look to me?
but half of divinity
out there trying to make harmony
with only one voice
(DiFranco 2006)


The Victoria University of Wellington Te Kawa a Māui course MAOR408 Tā Te Māori Rangahau / Methodologies of Māori Research has had a profound impact on my research. Indeed it has had a substantial impact on the way I view academia generally. Ideas of reflexivity, postcolonial and postmodern deconstructions of positivist objectification have been gaining ground in academia for some time now, however, it has only been through studying indigenous critiques and methodologies that I have felt the full force of the damage done to communities through research. This in itself could have been immobilizing. In the past, an awareness of postcolonial critique has at best served to problematise my work, making me anxious about my role as a researcher – what Tolich has called “Pākehā paralysis” (2002). However, MAOR408 has offered the first real guidance at working through this - confronting and questioning my influences, intentions and attitudes and moving forward. It is hugely inspiring and liberating to discover methodologies that offer a way out of “paralysis” into something empowering for the subjects of research and researchers alike.

Peggy McIntosh has identified it is a distinct feature of white privilege that “I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs” (McIntosh 1990:5), furthermore, as Pākehā we are usually encouraged to do so. I think it is crucially important to resist that privilege and engage with Māori scholarship. This material not only opens my eyes to the struggles of indigenous academics (and communities) and makes me appreciate their criticism of mainstream academia, but also allows me to learn from innovative indigenous research methodologies. These methodologies, while often specific to Māori community situations, tend to place an importance on people and relationship building in ways that should be recognised by any qualitative researcher.

The Role of the Intellectual

What is the role of the intellectual - in academia and in wider society? At their best, intellectuals should act as the critics and conscience of society. In Richard Benton’s words, the university should be like “a den of the tuoro. A little more benign, perhaps, than those that patrol the coasts and waterways, but no less effective when it comes to barking, burrowing underground, and emerging when necessary to give a miscreant society a judicious bite.” (Benton 2001:1) This is emphasised by Edward Said (1994) who claims that true intellectuals must resist being co-opted by those in power and stand up for the universals of truth and justice at all costs. Along with Foucault (1991), I am a little suspicious of this image of the “universal intellectual” (which I will return to shortly), yet I find Said’s vision of the intellectual highly appealing. I cannot help enjoying the idea that if you are not making people uncomfortable, you are not really doing your job properly.

Of course, it is foolish to be too idealistic about academic freedom. Noam Chomsky (2002) has demonstrated that radicals have a hard time staying in the academy, despite their merits, because it is essentially a political environment. Benton argues that in Aotearoa, what threatens academic freedom is not so much suppression as neglect, because of the increasing neoliberal emphasis on commercially useful knowledge (Benton 2001). Yet he argues that “Education is still, as it always has been, fundamentally a subversive activity…” (Benton 2001:2). Similarly, Denzin and Lincoln view educators within a critical pedagogy framework as “transformative intellectuals”, who can lead emancipatory cultural politics through promoting “critical literacy” (Denzin and Lincoln 2008:8).

Stanley Fish, author of Save the World on Your Own Time (2008) may not believe this to be a good thing. He claims academics should merely inform their students rather than preaching to them, allowing them to make their own judgments. However, critical theory has basically nullified this kind of argument. Thus, following Jeff Corntassel, I believe there is no shame in being “an activist posing as an academic” (Corntassel 2003). This is where I wish to position myself (with a full awareness that a degree of “posing” or politicking is necessary within these institutions): always pursuing the subversive, emancipatory potential of education.

Critical Theory

For research to be emancipatory it needs to be solidly grounded in critical theory, which questions the assumptions of traditional Western modernist research. What Ralph Pettman refers to as the “modernist project” began in seventeenth century Europe and is based on the idea that unfettered reason is an end in itself (Pettman 2001). This pursuit of rationalism was itself believed to be universally emancipatory, as reason was seen to lead to the betterment of society because of its ability to “discipline power with truth” (Krasner cited in Zalewski 1996:344). Universal “Truth” was determined through reason and rationality, which were themselves seen to be neutral. However, thinkers such as Foucault have called this neutrality in to question, and claimed there is no possibility of universal understanding, no way of standing outside of the present historical and social context, no ground for general principles (Rabinow 1991). Academics are embedded in the world, and are not capable of the god-eye-view they strive for. As Pettman puts it, modernism contains the seed of its own unraveling by critical theorists, for "there is nothing to stop the rationalist from standing back to look - at standing back to look" (Pettman 2001:92). Thus, postmodernists are able to argue for plural “truths”, since the tools of modernism do not generate universal “truth” but rather meaning, which is based on agreement over the rules for producing “truth” (Zalewski 1996).

When we stand back to look at who makes the rules about what counts as valid epistemologies and methodologies, the idea of “disciplining power with truth” becomes problematic. According to Foucault, it is the very search for such universals that has blinded us to the actual ways that power function in our society (Rabinow 1991). The institutions that claim to be neutral should be the first to be scrutinized. While it is often presented as being purely liberating, knowledge is inherently bound up with power. Social sciences have been involved in the control of dominated groups through “dividing practices” - in which people are objectified, categorized and therefore able to be excluded if they are outside of a perceived “norm”. This is closely related to “scientific classification”, which treats the body as a thing and adds to objectification. At the centre of ‘modernity’, and therefore the norm against which all else are judged, is the white, middle class, European male (Pettman 2001). Suddenly, the “truths” uncovered through this rationalism look a lot less universal, a lot less emancipatory.

Postcolonial theory

Postcolonial theorists use the tools of critical theory to deconstruct the Western knowledge systems that have been used to justify and sustain colonial domination of indigenous communities. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is a good example. Fanon describes a “compartmentalized” colonial system, which must be deconstructed in the name of decolonization (Fanon 2004).  Bhabha refers to a situation of “universality-with-racism” (Bhabha in Fanon 2004: xxiv), in which the colonised individual is in principle offered equal citizenship, and yet is constantly marked as inferior and “other” through the colonisers gaze. This requires a delicate balance of concepts of “sameness” and “difference”. To maintain their identity and authority, the colonizers have to uphold a myth of strict differences between “us” and “them” (Rennes 2008). Because these fictional lines tend to blur, especially in relation to sex and children, Françoise Vergès calls this the “colonial family romance” (Rennes 2008:65). The MomDad (colonizer) demands that the children (colonized) becomes like them, through assimilation. Fanon describes this paternalistic coloniser attitude as “a mother who constantly prevents her basically perverse child from committing suicide or giving free rein to its malevolent instincts” (Fanon 2004:xxiv). The colonised is expected to remain perpetually indebted for this protection, for the “gifts” of “civilization”. Yet the coloniser expects them to remain child-like, different, inferior, “like us, but not too like us”.

This fear of sameness led to the scientific racialism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. For example, in 1824 Julien-Joseph Virey attempted to prove that there were two separate human species (“white” and “black”/non-white) (Rennes 2008). This can also be seen in the fear of miscegenation (“mixing of races”). Sartre concludes that “one of the functions of racism is to compensate the latent universalism of bourgeois liberalism: since all human beings have the same rights, the Algerian will be made a subhuman” (Sartre quoted by Bhabha in Fanon 2004:xxiv). Within this colonial system of thought, the large body of research done with indigenous peoples has been objectifying and disempowering. “Research has not been neutral in its objectification of the Other. Objectification is a process of dehumanization. In it clear links to Western knowledge research has generated a particular relationship to indigenous people which continues to be problematic” (Smith 1999:39)

It is easy to talk about “colonisers”, like they are ‘out there’, in history, the villains of Victorian Africa etc. However, I have to face the ugly reality that I am those colonisers. While I may personally side with tino rangatiratanga, my attachment to the university makes me an agent of the Crown (Nursing Council of New Zealand 2005). Framed in more positive terms it means I am in a position of responsibility to uphold my side of the Treaty partnership. However, this association between research and the Crown has many unsettling connotations.  Further, as Don Shamblin notes in “Reflections of a White Racist”, no matter how progressive we may consider ourselves to be, we are so steeped in racist rhetoric that it is impossible for Pākehā to distance ourselves from it (Shamblin 1996). Thus, this theory must be personalized, taken into the body. I believe this relates to what Zalewski describes as theory as everyday practice: “To understand theorizing as a way of life implies that we must take into account many more human activities and behaviours than would be considered sensible by those who utilize theory as a tool” (Zalewski 1996:348). It also makes me think about Haunani-Kay Trask’s comments that the university can only be a training ground for struggle – you have to actually go out and struggle (Trask 2001). In this sense, I identify very strongly with what Angela Brew has called the “journey variation” of research, which is experienced as personally transformative (Brew 2001:25). Research into biculturalism cannot be merely read and written about, it requires a substantial remaking of my entire self and life.

Grand Narratives, Counter Narratives

Part of the postcolonial response is the critique of the way that history has been told from the perspective of the colonizer (Smith 1999; Pere 1991). The writing of nineteenth century non-Māori historians was influenced by a view of Māori as primitive savages, whose indigenous history traditions were inaccurate, perhaps even irrelevant. Joe Anaru Hetekia Tekani Pere has noted that these writers “were arrogant in their belief that they had a better understanding of things Maori than the Maori himself” (Pere 1991:29). This dismissal of indigenous history comes partly from a belief in the inferiorities of such history and partly because these histories challenge the grand narrative of the imperialist mission of colonization. Because of the Western preoccupation with notions of ‘race’, early non-Māori historians disregarded the importance of tribal history and attempted to create an overall picture of ‘the Māori race’ out of the various local traditions. This focus saw localized traditions as contradictory, needing correction by the Western historian. Smith identifies this trend as history as a “totalizing discourse”: which assume it is possible and desirable to contain all knowledge within one coherent, chronological, universal narrative (Smith 1999:30-31).

However, Māori historians are increasingly challenging this grand narrative and reconsidering New Zealand historiography (Keenan 1999). Pere, for example, argues that we should really focus on tribal history, since until recently many Māori did not see themselves as forming a separate nation but rather based their loyalty and identity on iwi organization and the eponymous ancestor (Pere 1991). Similarly, Sir Tipene O’Regan has pointed out the importance of whakapapa as the authenticator of the historical tradition (O’Regan 2001). However, by contrast, Ranginui Walker’s work focuses on the ‘macro-view’ of Māori history, as a counter-narrative to the grand narrative of New Zealand history based on European perspectives (Walker 2004). On the macro, or ‘pan-Māori’ level, Māori clearly share a history under colonial domination, and this provides a context for many tribal histories.

Recently, the Waitangi Tribunal has led to the inclusion of these counter narratives into the wider public consciousness. Keith Sorrenson argued in 1989 that the Tribunal offered a forum for a “radical reinterpretation of New Zealand history” (Sorrenson 1989) and it certainly has helped expose some devastating colonial injustices. It has also allowed for dialogue between professional historians and iwi that would have been impossible otherwise. However, as Michael Belgrave has pointed out, the burden of litigation with its restricted concept of what is reliable evidence has confined the development of Māori historiography. For example, “rarely is oral history the site for debate. The key debates before the Tribunal have been more about the Māori interpretation of documents created by the Crown” (Belgrave 2005:46). It also locks Māori and iwi history into the history of race relations. In response to this, Aroha Harris has attempted to produce what she calls “concurrent narratives” - modern Māori histories that show the continuing independence of Māori traditions (Harris 2008). Similarly, Danny Keenan argues for the need “to describe Māori historical frameworks that incorporate a certain range of Māori processes, principles and controlling devices” (Keenan 1999:29).

While I am not a historian, this discussion of grand, counter and concurrent narratives has a strong bearing on my research into biculturalism in New Zealand. I would argue that for most Pākehā, at least, the grand narrative of the nation still underlies our thinking and allows for the perpetuation of white privilege. Put crudely, our society is based on a lie, which allows for the continuation of the status quo. In keeping with the “colonial family romance”, this seems like our big, dirty family secret that everyone can feel but no one wants to talk about. I believe the only way forward is to confront it directly. 

Kaupapa Māori

In recent years there has been a clear shift from Māori as objects of research to Māori as the researchers (Smith 1999). Academic trends in feminism and critiques of positivism as well as the development of the Waitangi Tribunal and Te Kohanga Reo have created the conditions for this transition. Based on the assertion that Māori systems of knowledge are as valid as Western counterparts, Māori scholars have been looking for theorizing that “starts from te ao Māori and extends outwards to te ao Pākehā, rather than the other way around”, yet is capable of weaving both traditions together (Irwin 1994:28). This has manifested as Kaupapa Māori: “Māori research by, with and for Māori [that] is about regaining control over Māori knowledge and Māori resources” (Cram 2001:37). Cram has defined seven guidelines for this kind of research. First is respect for people, which breaks down hierarchical position of the researcher and instead allows the participants to control the interaction (see Irwin 1994 on “rituals of encounter”). Secondly, he kanohi kitea emphasises the need for face-to-face meetings which establish relationships. Third is titiro, whakaronga…kōrero – watching and listening over a period of time, to develop shared understandings, should form the basis of any comment on a community. Fourth is manaaki ki te tangata, which encompasses collaboration and reciprocity. Fifth, kia tupato refers to cultural safety and the need for reflexivity over our insider/outsider roles. Sixth is kaua e takahia te mana o te tangata – avoid harming the mana of the participants – which involves keeping the community informed and in some control of the research, rather than merely taking information from them. Finally kaua e mahaki warn against flaunting your knowledge as an “expert”, rather knowledge should be made accessible and shared in empowering ways. Kathy Irwin comment sums this up: “writing as a Māori feminist my audience is not confined to those whose knowledge and credentials are validated by the PhD research process” (Irwin 1994:27).

Irwin notes that in relation to the promotion of Māori education “the debates in universities imply that there are fewer or lower standards of accountability, whereas the reality is greater or double accountability” (Irwin 1994:35). For example, Aroha Harris and Wendy Henwood have demonstrated the great need for innovation and delicacy when undertaking research in communities already suffering from research-fatigue (Harris and Henwood 2007). I do not expect to be capable of these subtle negotiations required to do true Kaupapa Māori research. I am not Māori, I do not have the whakapapa links or the knowledge of tikanga required to create a research project based on Māori perspectives and protocols. However, I do believe that I can take the general principles of Kaupapa Māori on board and work in ways aligning with them. Cram notes that: “One growing opinion is that non-Māori cannot conduct Kaupapa Māori research but non-Māori can support a Māori research kaupapa.” (Cram 2001:38). She goes on to add that “what is good for Māori is often good for people in general” (Cram 2001:38), and I believe this to be true. For me this means finding methodologies that are respectful and people centered. It also means a deliberate attempt to educate myself in both general indigenous critiques of Western society as well as the specific and localised worldviews of Māori. In these approaches I follow Denzin and Lincoln’s example: 

In arguing for a dialoguing between critical and indigenous theories, Denzin and Lincoln recognize that they are outsiders to the indigenous colonized experience. We write as privileged Westerners. At the same time, we seek to be “allied others”, fellow travelers of sorts, antipositivists, friendly insiders who wish to deconstruct from within the Western academy and its positivist epistemologies… We value auto ethnographic, insider, participatory, collaborative methodologies… - research practices that are reflexively consequential, ethical, critical, respectful, and humble. (Denzin and Lincoln 2008:6)

Denzin and Lincoln imagine a decolonized academy, which has confronted and over come academic complicity in colonisation, which “is interdisciplinary and politically proactive. It represents indigenous epistemologies and encourages interpretive, first-person methodologies.” (Denzin and Lincoln 2008:12) Indigenous academics are leading the way here, as can be seen in the 25 projects outlined by Smith, which include claiming, story telling, indigenizing, revitalizing, representing, reframing, democratizing and negotiating. After years of being uncomfortably positioned as a Pākehā student of culture within the dominant Western framework, I am excited about immersing myself in a field containing powerful indigenous voices which challenge the old mainstream and help guide me out of it.


In sum, the clear lessons I have to learn from Māori research methodologies are: firstly to confront and deconstruct the harmful prejudices and practices that underlie Western academic research. And secondly that there are alternatives available which allow for far more ethical and satisfying research. I am still digesting what I have learnt and this essay is perhaps only the beginnings of an articulation of their impact. Again, I believe I will be struggling with the ramifications of these theories and methodologies for years to come. While they make good sense and can be grasped intuitively, they are far removed from the way that many are often trained to function as academics. To put these methodologies into practice will be a great challenge, involving much questioning, soul searching, and trial and error.


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