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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.