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4726.0 - Information Paper: Perspectives on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Identification in Selected Data Collection Contexts, 2012  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 01/02/2013  First Issue
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BACKGROUND

Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is statistically measured by self-identification. That is, individuals who answer in the affirmative to questions about Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin make up the population of people enumerated as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in any data collection instrument.

The Standard Indigenous Question (SIQ) was developed by the ABS and is used across a number of government agencies to collect statistics relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The question is expressed as follows:


Image: Standard Indigenous Question wording and response options


This self-identification methodology is widely used around the world and is supported by most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and representatives. It requires that individuals a) know their biological ancestry and b) make the decision to disclose it when requested to do so in a specific data collection context (for example, when responding to a survey or enrolling in a course of study).

The ABS has conducted a number of research projects aimed at understanding the factors involved in self-identification as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in data collection contexts. This paper outlines the views offered to the ABS in the course of that research, along with a brief overview of relevant literature. The ABS hopes this contribution to the wider understanding of identification in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics will be of value to those who develop, contribute to and use these measures. While subjective individual factors are difficult to quantify, an understanding of the personal considerations that lead to identification or non-identification can offer another layer of meaning when examining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics.

The Commonwealth definition (Department of Aboriginal Affairs, 1981) provides three criteria that determine an individual’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander status:

A person is considered Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander if he or she:

  • Is of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin
  • Identifies as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
  • Is accepted by an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander community.
The Standard Indigenous Question explicitly ascertains the first component of the Commonwealth definition. It is noted that the third component (community acceptance) is rarely assessed in ascertaining an individual’s Indigenous status in data collection contexts. The Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is therefore comprised of the people who identify themselves as its members at any point of enumeration.

Populations that are measured in this way can change in a number of ways. Demographic change, the result of births to, and deaths of, existing members of the population, is the primary mechanism for population growth or decline. Others include changes to enumeration and data processing procedures and changes to identification behaviours. Changes to enumeration and data processing procedures can affect the number of people who are included in population counts and estimates, while changes to identification behaviours reflect varying propensity to identify on the part of individuals responding to questions about their Indigenous status.

Propensity to identify is widely considered to be one of the factors in measuring Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, both in administrative and survey data collections. Propensity to identify is defined here as the likelihood that individuals will self-identify as belonging to the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander population when asked about their Indigenous status. This paper will focus on propensity to identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in Australian data collection contexts (though international perspectives on identification are canvassed in the literature review).

Further to this definition, it is noted that in some cases, Indigenous status information is disclosed on behalf of respondents by a third party. The most obvious examples of this are a) the population Census, where questions may be answered by one household member on behalf of other household members and b) situations in which parents and/or carers answer on behalf of children or individuals who are unable to provide information themselves (including birth and death registrations).

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some settings a person responsible for data collection may enter a response to a question or questions about Indigenous status without asking the question of the individual; this is discussed in the focus group summaries that follow. In these cases, incorrect Indigenous status may be recorded on the basis of physical appearance, name or group/community membership or other factors that are considered inappropriate for determining Indigenous status. Administrative processes are also noted as contributing to data quality issues in this area.

It is necessary for researchers and data users to consider why individuals identify, or choose not to identify, as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in data collection contexts. Changes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population counts (not attributable to demographic increase or changes to enumeration and data processing procedures) suggest that individuals identify differentially across time and contexts. Observed disparities between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander records in administrative data sets and known service use or expected population representation in these data sets also support this notion. The decision to disclose one’s Indigenous status is a personal one, and potentially complex. In addition to an individual’s assessment of the question and the data collection context, identification may be influenced by attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that the individual is not consciously aware of. To the extent that it is possible to understand the process of identification, however, it is incumbent upon the ABS and relevant data users to consider identification and its antecedents as a key part of the data collection/enumeration process.

An understanding of the factors involved in identification as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander can inform our broader approach to, and interpretation of, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics. An example of this is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population growth, beyond what is attributable to demographic factors, observed at the 2011 Census (ABS, 2012a; ABS, 2012b). An increase in the number of people identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander is widely considered to be a contributor to growth in that population. This research, along with further analytical work, may contribute to discussions around the recorded population growth observed at the 2011 Census and, more broadly, measurement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander outcomes for policy.

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