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
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Contents >> Propensity to Identify Research Projects >> Focus Group Research: Propensity to Identify in Surveys


Focus groups were conducted in 2012 to explore attitudes to identification in census and survey contexts in urban areas. Understanding the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in urban areas was of particular interest; previous analysis of census counts has identified that, where large increases in the enumerated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population occurred, a large proportion of the growth occurred in urban areas (See: Occasional Paper: Population Issues, Indigenous Australians, 1996, Catalogue Number 4708.0). More recently, analysis of 2011 Census data has identified a similar trend (ABS, 2012b). Significant non-demographic growth in urban Indigenous populations has also occurred elsewhere in the world (Eschbach, 1993).

An external consultant with extensive experience in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and groups was contracted to conduct the research on the ABS’ behalf. Groups were conducted in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Darwin and Hobart. A range of age groups were represented (though not evenly distributed across groups) and a total of 203 people participated across 18 focus group sessions. It should be noted that, with the exception of participants who may have been visiting these urban locations temporarily, these focus groups collected the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in urban areas only. Participants were not asked to disclose their residential address.

Questions were grouped around topics including:

    • Reasons for identifying or not identifying
    • Impact of collection mode
    • Identifying on behalf of a third party (or the experience of having one’s identity disclosed by a third party)
    • Changes in identification behaviours over time.

The research design sought to understand perspectives on identification for each mode of collection: interview, paper form and online form, however it was observed that discussion tended to refer to general attitudes toward identification. Differences between collection modes were observed, for the most part, only where differences inherent in the collection mode would force a specific opinion. For example, issues to do with interviewers being known to respondents impacted on views about Indigenous identification in interview surveys, whereas pride in identity was reported as a reason for identifying regardless of collection mode.


Factors encouraging identification

Across all methods of collection the reasons for disclosing ones Indigenous status information were commonly attributed to:
    • A sense of pride and confidence in their identity
    • The perception that disclosing this information can lead to benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the individual personally
    • The perception that disclosing this information can promote recognition for issues related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
    • Having a ‘Confirmation of Aboriginality’[footnote 1] to support their identification
    • The perception that answering the question was compulsory in certain contexts.
Factors discouraging identification

Across all methods of collection, the reasons for not disclosing ones Indigenous status information were commonly attributed to:
  • The belief and experience that identifying can have negative repercussions for the individual and the wider community
  • The belief and experience that identifying may lead to racism, discrimination or differential treatment
  • Learned behaviour as a result of past experiences
  • Being offended at being asked the identity question in certain contexts
  • Needing more information about the reasons the information is being collected.
There were a number of other factors that participants indicated affected their propensity to disclose their Indigenous status information. These included:
  • Who was conducting the survey
  • The content, purpose and relevance of the survey
  • The perceived relevance of the identity question to the survey
  • Access to the information being collected
  • Practical considerations such as timing, duration and setting.
Other notable findings included:
  • Participants tended to report that their propensity to identify would be the same regardless of how the survey was enumerated;
  • Younger participants reported more of a willingness to disclose their Indigenous status than older participants;
  • Identifying on behalf of another person was generally seen as unacceptable unless that person was an immediate family member.
The perceived benefits of identification, either at the group or individual level, were raised in these focus groups and discussion was similar to that observed in the 2010 focus groups. Participants also spoke of identification promoting recognition of issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The importance of accurate statistics on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population was raised. Participants also discussed the commonplace nature of survey research and reported identifying ‘automatically’ without giving significant consideration to the decision.

Conversely, the belief and experience that identifying can have negative repercussions for the individual and the wider community and may lead to racism, discrimination or ‘different’ treatment was reported as a motivation not to disclose one’s Indigenous status. Some participants also indicated that their reluctance to identify is ‘learned behaviour’ as a result of negative past experiences.

One reason noted by participants for not identifying was being offended at being asked the Indigenous status question in certain contexts. Participants expressed frustration at the frequency with which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to identify themselves compared with other population groups. The wording of the question was noted as important in obtaining accurate responses.

Participants also noted that they need information about the reasons the information is being collected in order to make an informed decision about identifying. The impression that answering the question was compulsory in certain contexts was also mentioned.

There was discussion about ‘qualifiers’ of Indigenous status. While some participants felt that an individual should be able to identify if they wished to, some expressed a view that an individual is required to possess a ‘Confirmation of Aboriginality’, which is a form of documentary evidence of an individual’s Indigenous status. It is important to note that this tension may exist in the broader population, as it may discourage self-identification dependent on the view of the community an individual resides in. Some participants spoke of being more comfortable with identifying now that they have a ‘Confirmation of Aboriginality’ certificate.
Findings from the focus groups also indicated that it may be difficult for people with newly discovered Indigenous status to disclose their status in a group environment as this can often be treated with scepticism.

Differences across survey methodologies

While participants tended to indicate that survey methodology would not have an impact on their response, the following views were offered by participants who held specific views on the different survey approaches.


Participants cited the anonymity granted by paper surveys as a promoter of identification behaviours; participants noted that considerations related to the perception of the interviewer (for example, the interviewer’s perception of their skin colour) are eliminated in the paper survey context.
Literacy and numeracy issues were cited as barriers to people disclosing their Indigenous status on paper surveys. Participants also mentioned that the absence of an interviewer who could answer questions about the survey content and/or assist with form completion may contribute to non-identification.


Similar issues, particularly in relation to confidentiality and the privacy afforded by completing the survey alone, were discussed in relation to online surveys. Additional concerns relating to online privacy and the use and security of data were raised, along with computer literacy and internet access as potential impediments to identification.


Interview-based surveys raised some complex issues for enumeration design. Participants noted that the presence of an interviewer can assist with understanding the survey and the purpose of individual questions, but they also expressed that identification may be more sensitive in this context because interviewers may make judgements about a respondent’s Indigenous status on the basis of their physical appearance (or other factors). Participants also noted that for individuals who are sensitive about their Indigenous status (for example, because of recently having discovered their heritage or because of negative past experiences), an interview may be a more confronting context in which to consider disclosing their Indigenous status than a paper or online survey.
When considering ‘in person’ and telephone interviews, participants stated that in person interviews are preferred for a range of reasons, including privacy and security and the ability to be sure of a data collector’s credentials.

Person collecting the data

Discussion points included whether participants would feel more comfortable identifying if interviewed by a person known to them as opposed to a stranger, and if interviewed by an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person as opposed to a non-Indigenous person. Views were mixed, and included the perceptions that a known interviewer was preferable because of the trust inherent in an established relationship; conversely, that a known interviewer may discourage identification because of privacy concerns within established social networks. Participants also noted that, when interviewed by a stranger, they could choose to withhold information that may otherwise be already known to an interviewer with whom they are acquainted.
The impact of the Indigenous status of the interviewer was mixed. Participants variously expressed that an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander interviewer may be preferable in some contexts (depending on survey content) and, conversely, that a non-Indigenous interviewer may encourage identification (this appeared to be related to the social/familial networks issues raised above). Participants also indicated that the Indigenous status of the interviewer would have no impact on their propensity to identify.

Organisation collecting the data

Participants expressed mixed views on the impact/s of the organisation collecting the data. Where the organisation was a consideration in the decision to identify, issues involved included:
    • The level of trust in the data collection organisation
    • Whether the organisation was ‘known’ to the individual
    • Who was representing the organisation
    • Whether or not that organisation asked for ‘proof’ of identity
    • Perceived negative or positive implications of identification for the individual and/or the broader community
    • The reputation the organisation has with Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander peoples.
Views about government organisations in the context of data collection included the high demand placed on Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities and groups to participate in government research. Both trust and distrust in government organisations were expressed in relation to disclosing Indigenous status.
Where the ABS was referenced specifically, recognition of the Census of Population and Housing was particularly noted and participants expressed that they would identify on the Census. Participants reported that the ABS’ work is important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and that the ABS can be seen as safer and more trustworthy than other organisations. The understanding that participation in ABS surveys is required by law was also raised, as was the perception that the ABS is somewhat separate from, and different to, other government organisations.

Third party identification

Views around identifying on behalf of others tended to centre on family connections. Where participants commented on identifying on behalf of others, they spoke about their willingness to identify on behalf of members of their family and about the importance of having another person’s permission to identify on their behalf. Where participants held the view that they would not identify on behalf of another person, reasons tended to be associated with privacy and the right of the individual to make their own decision about identifying. Participants suggested that views on third party identification may vary across geographical areas – specifically, that views on identifying on behalf of others may be different in remote areas.
Where participants spoke about having had their Indigenous status disclosed on their behalf by someone else, they tended to report that this had been done by family members or an elder in their community. This was perceived, by the participants who described it, as acceptable. Inappropriate examples of third party identification, such as where an external body had reported a person’s Indigenous status without their consent, were mentioned.

Inter-generational perspectives and changes over time

Participants expressed the view that young people may be more likely to identify, and to do so consistently, than older people. Past experiences and changes in the socio-political environment around identification were discussed, namely that young people may have had less experiences of negative or prejudicial treatment and that identifying is encouraged more now than in the relatively recent past.
Changes in the environment surrounding identification were also discussed in relation to changes over time in an individual’s identification behaviours. Participants spoke about increased confidence in their identity as they grew older leading to increasing identification behaviours. Participants’ knowledge of the importance of identifying (for the purposes of social policy and population enumeration) and their increasing comfort with research questions were also mentioned. When discussing changes in identification behaviours over time at the population level, young participants compared negative experiences of older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people known to them with their own more positive or neutral experiences. Participants commonly expressed the view that it is easier and more beneficial, both at the group and the individual level, to identify these days.


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>

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