4726.0 - Information Paper: Perspectives on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Identification in Selected Data Collection Contexts, 2012  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 01/02/2013  First Issue
   Page tools: Print Print Page Print all pages in this productPrint All  
Contents >> Propensity to Identify Research Projects >> Focus Group Research: Propensity to Identify in Administrative Data Collections


Focus group research was conducted in 2010 to explore attitudes toward identification in administrative data sets. An external consultant with extensive experience in conducting research with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities and groups was contracted to conduct the research on the ABS’ behalf. Focus groups were conducted in Darwin, Nowra (regional NSW), Western Sydney, Redfern (NSW), Brisbane, Logan City (Qld), Melbourne and Perth. A range of age groups were represented (though not evenly distributed across groups) and a total of 189 people participated across 20 focus group sessions. Participants were not asked to disclose their residential address. It is therefore assumed that, with the exception of participants who may have been visiting these non-remote locations temporarily, these focus groups collected the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in non-remote areas only.


Focus group participants offered a range of reasons for their decisions to identify, or not identify, as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.

Factors encouraging identification

Across a range of administrative data collection contexts the reasons for disclosing one’s Indigenous status tended to be associated with:

  • Pride in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage
  • The perception of positive consequences (for the individual) of identifying, for example:
    • access to specialised services (including Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander liaison staff)
    • referrals to appropriate services
  • An understanding of the use of statistics in determining funding allocations, particularly for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander services
    The view that participants would tend to identify consistently across contexts was expressed. The principal reason given for identifying as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person was pride in this heritage.

    Factors discouraging identification

    Conversely, reasons for not identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in these contexts included:
    • the risk of prejudicial treatment as a result of identifying
    • habits based on negative past experiences or learned behaviours
    • discomfort with the manner in which the question is asked
    • a lack of understanding about the reason the information is being collected.

    Participants spoke of procedural issues such as incorrect or inappropriate terminology, including the use of the word ‘Indigenous’ or the use of a single, combined ‘Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander’ response, as factors leading to differential identification.

    Participants also expressed the importance of understanding the reason for collection of data on Indigenous status. If organisations appear to be collecting the information for their own benefit only, participants suggested they may be less likely to identify. Literacy and language issues were also raised, with particular reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may have travelled from remote areas to access services, and may need additional assistance with reading forms or with understanding questions in English.

    Participants gave examples of situations in which identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander had led to negative, or ‘double-edged’ consequences; these included employment and education contexts. Participants also discussed being conscious of the potential consequences of identification when answering questions about their Indigenous status. For example, older participants discussed experiences related to the Stolen Generation and their subsequent distrust of government organisations.

    Participants also described situations in which their Indigenous status had been ‘assumed’ by data collectors and they had not been given an opportunity to disclose (or withhold) this information.

    Participants expressed concerns about confidentiality and privacy, and discussed discomfort with the amount of information requested by some organisations. Related to this, the need for clear information about the reasons for collecting Indigenous status data was raised. Respondents suggested that, where the need for the information is clear, identification is a more straightforward issue.

    Documentation and ‘proof’ of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage was also discussed. Difficulties with obtaining ‘Confirmation of Aboriginality’[footnote 1] certificates were raised, particularly for people who had been removed from their families. Fostering, adoption and the death of family knowledge holders were also mentioned as reasons why some people are unable to obtain documentation confirming their Indigenous status. Internal politics within communities and groups can also contribute to difficulties with documentation.

    Participants discussed ‘respondent fatigue’ (resulting from past experiences of being asked to disclose their Indigenous status) leading to inconsistent identification. Where respondents had been asked about their Indigenous status, or had been asked to justify their response to questions about their Indigenous status, they reported becoming frustrated and ceasing to identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in some contexts.

    A range of social factors contributing to decisions about identification were also mentioned. Experiences of racism and discrimination, peer pressure (particularly in discouraging identification among young people), embarrassment and shame in the context of data collection, and the extent to which an individual identifies with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander culture were discussed.

    Participants indicated that if they felt that discrimination and stereotyping would result from their choice to identify, they were less likely to do so. Employment and housing contexts were offered as an example of participants choosing not to disclose their Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage due to fear of discrimination.

    When discussing the issue of stereotyping, the portrayal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the media was raised. Participants spoke about at times feeling ‘second class’ as a result of negative portrayals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Some participants also indicated that Aboriginal culture is not understood or respected. This may or may not be consistent with the views of Torres Strait Islander peoples.

    In some cases, particularly for young people, the perception that extra benefits are available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can be a disincentive to identifying. The desire to be accepted in new environments (where young people have moved to a new location for work or study) was also raised as a reason for some young people not identifying.

    Participants identified other factors identified as potential causes of differential or non-identification, including:
    • Marriages between Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and people of non-Indigenous descent can lead to children with fairer appearance, which may reduce their willingness to identify.
    • Younger Aboriginal individuals, who were not raised in a community setting, may be less inclined to identify.
    • Learned family behaviour was noted to be an important factor in the decision to identify.
    • The issue of proving Aboriginality was thought to be possibly more difficult for fair-skinned Aboriginal people, even where there is community acceptance.
    • It was expressed that Aboriginality is not about the colour of an individual’s skin, and this bias in perception of Aboriginal people (i.e., that they have dark-coloured skin) could make identification difficult for Aboriginal people with fair skin.
    • Individuals not knowing their heritage until later in life could contribute to differential identification.

    It should be noted that some of the factors identified above refer specifically to the Aboriginal culture and may or may not reflect the views of Torres Strait Islander people.

    Generational differences in attitudes to identification were discussed; the range of comments made across the focus groups indicated that age is a key factor in identification issues. Pride in one’s culture and confidence to disclose your descent was noted to ‘come with age’ and may result in an individual’s propensity to identify changing over time. Participants acknowledged the issues facing young people, who were thought to be less confident and more subject to peer pressure. It was suggested that as a result of these factors, young people may not consistently disclose their Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin.


    1. As outlined by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) a ‘Confirmation of Aboriginality’ can be in the form of:
    • A letter signed by the Chairperson of an incorporated Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander organisation confirming that you are recognised as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person, OR
    • A confirmation of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent form executed by an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander organisation <back>

    Previous PageNext Page