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Decolonising qualitative research with respectful, reciprocal, and responsible research practice: a narrative review of the application of Yarning method in qualitative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research

Abstract

Background

Indigenous academics have advocated for the use and validity of Indigenous methodologies and methods to centre Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing in research. Yarning is the most reported Indigenous method used in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander qualitative health research. Despite this, there has been no critical analysis of how Yarning methods are applied to research conduct and particularly how they privilege Indigenous peoples.

Objective

To investigate how researchers are applying Yarning method to health research and examine the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers in the Yarning process as reported in health publications.

Design

Narrative review of qualitative studies.

Data sources

Lowitja Institute LitSearch January 2008 to December 2021 to access all literature reporting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research in the PubMed database. A subset of extracted data was used for this review to focus on qualitative publications that reported using Yarning methods.

Methods

Thematic analysis was conducted using hybrid of inductive and deductive coding. Initial analysis involved independent coding by two authors, with checking by a third member. Once codes were developed and agreed, the remaining publications were coded and checked by a third team member.

Results

Forty-six publications were included for review. Yarning was considered a culturally safe data collection process that privileges Indigenous knowledge systems. Details of the Yarning processes and team positioning were vague. Some publications offered a more comprehensive description of the research team, positioning and demonstrated reflexive practice. Training and experience in both qualitative and Indigenous methods were often not reported. Only 11 publications reported being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander led. Half the publications reported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement in data collection, and 24 reported involvement in analysis. Details regarding the role and involvement of study reference or advisory groups were limited.

Conclusion

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be at the forefront of Indigenous research. While Yarning method has been identified as a legitimate research method to decolonising research practice, it must be followed and reported accurately. Researcher reflexivity and positioning, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ownership, stewardship and custodianship of data collected were significantly under detailed in the publications included in our review. Journals and other establishments should review their processes to ensure necessary details are reported in publications and engage Indigenous Editors and peer reviewers to uphold respectful, reciprocal, responsible and ethical research practice.

Introduction

Indigenous peoples have undertaken research since time immemorial, as evidenced in our continued survival prior to, and post colonisation and contemporary coloniality [1]. However, Indigenous peoples have long been researched by non-Indigenous peoples as mere objects, without prior consent to the research and commonly without meaningful engagement, or access to the results. In colonised countries, research has been utilised as a tool to dehumanise Indigenous peoples [1]. In Australia, research was used as a tool to justify Terra Nullius, “no man’s land”, the grounds on which the continent was taken by the crown with no negotiation or treaty offered [2] to the 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations [2, 3] that have lived on this land, now called Australia, for over 60,000 years [4]. Research such as that conducted by D. J Cunningham (1889) “The Spinal Curvature in an Aboriginal Australia” which reported “…In these particulars the Australian spine resembles somewhat the spine of a Chimpanzee” [5] was used to de-humanise Aboriginal people, disrupting culture and cultural practice [6]. Findings were applied to understand the antithetical other and to justify the claim of Australia as uninhabited lands. Further, Darwin used such data to support his theory of evolution, arguing that the “natives” (sic) were the living example of the difference in degree between humans and apes [7]. Australia was colonised on a racially imperialistic basis which has been embedded through coloniality [8]. In the words of Linda Tuhiwai Smith:

“This collective memory of imperialism has been perpetuated through the ways in which knowledge about indigenous peoples was collected, classified and then represented in various ways back to the West, and then through the eyes of the West, back to those who have been colonized”. [1] (p. 30)

In response to the colonial legacy of research and its dirty [1] reputation among Indigenous people, the use of Indigenous research methodologies and methods to aid in decolonising the research process have been advocated for, and by Indigenous academics domestically and internationally [1, 9]. Decolonising approaches recognise that the way of knowing has been historically and institutionally contrived in a Western construct, [10] and that Indigenous methodologies and methods can be used to shift the research paradigm and privilege Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing. Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing are shaped by our relationality. Relationality to each other, our lands, our knowledge systems and our storylines [11].

Morton Robinson describes;

“Relationality is an inextricable part of our sovereign knowledges, informing our scholarship to produce innovative social research. As a presupposition it shapes ways of knowing, being and doing to be connected is to know, and knowing is embodied in social relations and bloodline to country, determined by ancestors and creator beings that guide who can be a knower and of what knowledges”. [11]

Relationality shapes Indigenous methodologies, informing the ways in which research is conceptualised, designed, conducted, analysed and disseminated. As such the ways in which Indigenous methodologies are applied will vary depending on the relationality, social and cultural positioning of the researcher and peoples involved. In an example outlining Indigenist Research Methodology, Aboriginal scholar Rigney states:

“Indigenist research is research by Indigenous Australians whose primary informants are Indigenous Australians and whose goals are to serve and inform the Indigenous struggle for self-determination”. [12] (p. 118)

Research methods are then applied by the researcher to undertake the research, the ‘doing’. An international systematic review by Drawson et al. reported three key components to Indigenous Research Methods:

  1. 1)

    Researchers must situate themselves and the Indigenous Peoples with whom they are collaborating in the research process

  2. 2)

    The inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in the research process in a way that is respectful, reciprocal, and decolonizing and preserving of self-determinism, and

  3. 3)

    Prioritization of Indigenous ways of knowing [13]

These key components of Indigenous research methods coincide with the established standards for conducting ethical research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, such as the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Values and Ethics Guideline, [14] the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Code of Ethics [15] and the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AHMRC) Key Principles [16].

Yarning in Indigenous qualitative research is one method being used in Australia and internationally, [17] and has been recommended for use in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research [9] to privilege Indigenous ontologies [18]. Yarning has been used in recent research as a way to safely engage with participants to explore research questions relating to the topic of the study. The cultural safety of yarning enables sensitive issues to emerge as it fosters agency among participant(s) including the ability to disclose information at their own discretion [14]. Yarning is led by the researcher where the participant is encouraged to tell their story from the position of their lived experience. Whilst the research topic yarn does not follow a pre-determined set of questions, it does include a yarning topic guide relating to the research that the researcher is listening for in the story. Yarning does not follow the formal conventions of research interviewing and can weave in and out of the yarning story where the role of the researcher is to listen for cues related to the research topic. Yarning as a research method must also draw on cultural protocols and practices that are relevant to the people’s involved. Yarning draws on relationality through processes of the Social, Work and Research Topic Yarn which can inform either Collaborative Yarning or Therapeutic Yarning as presented in Fig. 1 [17]. Relationality of the Yarn is paramount to producing rich data [19]. It is reasonable to expect that Indigenous Standpoint generates deeper relationality, through shared experience and understandings of the Yarn [19].

Fig. 1
figure 1

A working depiction of the Yarning Process as developed by Dawn Bessarab

Whilst there appears to be consensus among Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars on the need for decolonising research approaches and the importance of utilising Indigenous research methodologies and methods, we could not find literature specifically relating to how these are pragmatically applied to the conduct of research. The NHMRC directs researchers to conduct ethical research in line with six core values: Spirit and integrity, Cultural continuity, Equity, Respect, Reciprocity, and Responsibility [14]. Our Indigenous-led team sought to investigate how researchers are applying Yarning method to ethical health research. We then examined and analysed the Yarning process, including the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as reported in health publications.

Research team

Our lived experiences and coming to understand our relation to the world is complex, dynamic, but fundamentally important, as we recognise that Indigenous peoples ways of knowing, being and doing are relational [11]. This includes, but is limited to what is known, how it is known; the nature and embodiment of our realities, encapsulating what exists, what is possible, [20] and how we relate to our respective programs of research.

The majority Indigenous research team is led by a Wiradjuri woman MK with disciplinary training in social science/social work and Indigenous knowledges connected to Wiradjuri, Worimi and Awabakal country. KB is a non-Indigenous researcher, experienced in qualitative health research with a social science background. SM is a Noongar woman with disciplinary training in exercise and sport science and a current medical student. CC is a Palawa woman of the Trawlwoolway clan with training in midwifery, nursing and public health, and experienced in mixed methods research. DB is an Indigenous researcher from the Bard and Yjindabandi nations in Western Australia and is a senior social worker with extensive background and expertise in Aboriginal health research and methodologies specifically yarning. RM is from the Bagumani (Modewa) Clan in Papua New Guinea, with training and experience in public health and epidemiology.

Our research team embodies over 200 years of lived Indigenous experience and over 60 years’ experience conducting qualitative research in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

Methodology

This review forms part of a larger project exploring the conduct of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research, led by an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research team. A primary scoping review was conducted of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research published since the establishment of the Closing the Gap campaign [21]. This parent review included 2,150 articles and is published elsewhere [22]. When conducting this review, the authors sought to extract information on the reported use of Indigenous research methodologies and found 5% of articles reported using Indigenous methodologies and/or methods. Indigenous methodologies/methods were predominately reported in qualitative papers. This was not published in the parent review.

This review of Yarning aims to answer two research questions:

  1. 1.

    How are researchers applying the Yarning method in qualitative health research?

  2. 2.

    What is the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers in the Yarning process, as reported in health publications?

Design and inclusion criteria

The parent review applied a systematic literature search via the Lowitja Institute website using the search tool Lowitja.search to access all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health literature in the PubMed database. The selected topics in the database were “all” and “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander”. Publications were included if they presented original data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health in Australia and were published between January 2008 and December 2020. The search was updated to include publications until December 2021. Publications that were identified as using qualitative methods for data collection and analysis were assessed. From this, those that reported using Yarning method were included for analysis in this review.

Level of reporting assessment

We assessed the level of reporting in the selected publications using a purpose-built tool to examine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement and oversight of the research. The tool was developed as informed by our research questions, ethical research guidelines and an established Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander quality appraisal tool [23]. The tool was developed due to the timeframe of included publications, and an acknowledgment of the lack of reporting guidelines for ethical research practice with Indigenous peoples prior to 2019 [24]. The tool has six categories; (1) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement in development of the research, (2) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement in data collection, (3) experience of researchers reported, (4) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement in the analysis, (5) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific ethics approval granted, and (6) whether the original method publication was cited. Two authors (MK, KB) independently reviewed each document and ranked each publications level of reporting high (5–6), medium (3–4) or low (0–2). This assessment was not used to exclude studies or inform analysis, but rather it was used for Collaborative Yarning among the authorship team which is reflected in the discussion.

Data analysis

Full text publications were imported into NVivo software for analysis. Three members of the research team who conducted the quality appraisal (KB, MK & SM) engaged in Collaborative Yarning with all authors (MK, RM, KB, SM, CC & DB) to inform the analysis.

Thematic analysis, as outlined by Braun & Clarke, [25] was used to examine how researchers apply Yarning method in qualitative health research (MK & KB). The initial phase included familiarisation with the data. The team members involved in data coding (KB, SM & MK) have been immersed in the data throughout the primary review, and by reading and sorting each qualitative publication that reported using Yarning methods during the inclusion phase. The senior author DB familiarised the data by reading a sample of publications identified by MK. The sample of papers were selected, including a variety of reporting levels, to inform Collaborative Yarning practice to unpack the different perceptions in reporting of Yarning methods. Further, this approach assisted to ensure consistency between the authorship team, actively facilitating discussion on different points of view. The team members met and engaged in Collaborative Yarning to discuss the data after reading the selected publications on how Yarning was reported, and how it was being analysed according to the research questions.

Similar to Fereday, [26] thematic analysis was approached through a hybrid of inductive and deductive coding. As noted in our first research question, the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was a key component to our analysis. Codes were developed deductively from our research questions as we sought to draw out the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Yarning process. These codes included: “Aboriginal Involvement”, “Analysis approach”, “Framework Methodology”, and “Yarning Processes”. While these were not necessarily “pre-conceived” by the coders (MK & KB), they were broadly discussed prior to coding in relation to the research questions and were then sought out by the researchers. In conjunction with the initial deductive codes that were drawn out to address parts of the research aims, the coding process was predominantly inductive. Inductive coding was used to examine the integral components of Yarning processes, justification of method and the way that these methods, processes and involvement were being reported. MK & KB independently coded the same three publications before meeting to discuss initial themes. The authors found that overall, coding was similar, with some variations on wording to describe themes. After agreement, MK & KB continued to code a further five of the same publications before meeting again to compare. Any conflicts were discussed until agreement was reached, although disagreements were limited. SM cross checked codes and contributed to discussions of clarity of definitions. MK & KB coded an additional seven publications for comparison, before KB went on to singularly code the remaining publications. SM then reviewed all publications and codes for consistency and agreement to ensure all paper were coded independently and in duplicate.

Results

Search results are outlined in Fig. 2 using the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis (PRISMA) four-phase flow diagram. The total 2,150 papers in the parent reviewed were screened, an updated search was conducted and found 8 new qualitative research papers. N = 354 papers reported use of qualitative methods, Yarning method was reported in n = 46 papers and were included in analysis.

Fig. 2
figure 2

PRISMA Flow diagram of study selection process

Of the 46 included publications, 15 were considered high level reporting across focus area, 19 medium level reporting, and 12 low level reporting. We elaborate on the intricacies of this throughout the result section.

We found that researchers are reporting the application of the Yarning method to qualitative research methodology in a wide variety of ways. Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers and research teams are using the method, collecting data and involved in analysis.

The following sections will be presented in a manner that addresses the research questions, by detailing how Yarning is being applied to qualitative health research as reported by the included publications, and what role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander play in the research process.

How Yarning is being applied to qualitative health research

Our analysis of the 46 publications showed a variety of reporting on the way that Yarning is applied to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander qualitative health research. We begin our critical analysis into this, by first looking at why researchers report using Yarning, followed by how they report using Yarning and how they situate themselves as qualitative researchers and their team in the research process.

Why Yarning?

Reasoning for using Yarning method varied across publications. It was predominantly considered to provide a culturally safe and sensitive data collection process [27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36,37,38] that privileged Indigenous knowledge systems through connection and relationships [27, 31]. Enabling two-way knowledge sharing; [27, 37, 39] using narratives; [40, 41] storytelling [27, 28, 31, 34, 37, 41,42,43,44,45] and addressing unequal power relationships were most commonly used to justify why Yarning was used, as it is a research process that acknowledges and builds on cultural protocols. One publication stated Yarning was the preferred research method for the older Aboriginal community (see Table 2, 1.3) [46].

Yarning was reported to be an Indigenist research practice [28] that allows for more flexibility than other interviewing approaches [27]. Yarning method was considered to provide an environment that fosters rapport with participants, open discussion, and allow for participant-led research to co-create knowledge and privilege Indigenous voices.

How Yarning processes are being reported

Details regarding the specifics of the way that Yarning was conducted were often vague. For example, many publications simply stated that Yarning took place, without detail on the settings or the conversations that took place. However, some publications described various components of yarning, such as Therapeutic or Social yarning. For example, “In this study, social yarning was used at the beginning of conversations with young people to establish a connection not strongly associated with the actual purpose of the yarn.” [27] (see Table 2, 2.1).

Most publications reported using audio recording and transcribing to collect data, however, note taking was also reported as a form of data collection [27, 47]. Note taking replaced audio recording to reduce potential harm and was deemed culturally safe in some instances. Mostly, it was due to consent not being obtained by participants who preferred note taking. One publication recognised that starting the recorder had the potential to break the flow of the yarn, so continued taking notes instead.

Eleven publications provided their entire interview guide [31, 34, 39, 45, 48,49,50,51,52,53,54]. Others provided a sample of example questions, [40, 44, 55,56,57] while others briefly described areas explored during Yarning [27, 28, 39, 43, 47, 54, 58,59,60,61]. One publication noted that there was “no set interview guide and that participants were encouraged, with consistent prompts to ‘yarn’ about their experiences with renal service providers” [62]. Some descriptions were minimal stating guides either had minimal questioning or use of probes [42] or simply stated that they were semi structured.

Some of the more comprehensive papers provided insight into seating arrangement, reimbursement to participants, and provision of meals. One publication described the seating arrangement as a component to providing a safe environment that allowed the researcher to observe body language and non-verbal cues (see Table 2, 2.4) [27]. Eight publications reported reimbursement to participants, which were usually vouchers of between $20 and $50 for their time in participating in the study [40, 49,50,51,52, 63,64,65]. Five publications reported incorporating a meal within the data collection. [32, 38, 45, 63, 65] Study sizes for individual Yarning was reported to include between 4 [49] and 74 participants [28] with minimal justification for the choice of numbers. Yarning circles were often applied across community settings with each Yarning circle including between 5–17 participants at each individual circle. All but one [66] of the publications (n = 45) reported the sample size.

Publications reported using varied sampling approaches including convenient sampling, [41] and opportunistic sampling [42], usually through routine health care [27, 41, 51, 58, 67]. However most papers reported purposeful sampling, [27,28,29, 34, 39, 47, 48, 55, 56, 59,60,61, 68] including through key community Elders and representatives [33, 50, 69].

Timeframes when conducting Yarning varied significantly from 10-30 min [27] up to 2.5 h, [44, 55, 56] more generally publications reported 40-60 min. Yarning circles were often reported as generally held at a time and place suitable to the participant [58] with use of community outdoor settings or participants houses. While Yarning was predominantly used to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, some Yarning circles included non-Aboriginal participants such as health providers.

Research team positioning

Generally, details regarding the research team positioning were not available in publications (see: Table 1 & supp. 1). Exemplar papers described the research team and their positioning and demonstrated reflexivity on how this influences all stages of research (see Table 2, 3.1). In these instances, authors described their ability to have “deeper” conversations with their participants, and the importance of established relationships in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research. Some publications acknowledged that this contributed to providing a safe and favourable environment for participants.

Table 1 Included articles
Table 2 Descriptive quotes: how Yarning is being applied to qualitative health research

Training and experience in both qualitative and Indigenous methods were often not reported. Eleven of the publications that reported Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander involvement in data collection also outlined the experience, qualifications and expertise of the interviewer/s (see Table 2, 3.2) [33, 39, 40, 42, 45, 50, 51, 60, 64, 65, 72]. Six of the publications specifically stated that the interviewers had relevant training in conducting qualitative interviews [31, 33, 45, 50, 51, 72]. One publication [31] specifically detailed that the research team had been trained in Yarning methods with Professor Dawn Bessarab, who validated the method. This was a more comprehensive example of the way training was reported compared to the way training was reported in other publications.

The role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Yarning process

We sought to detail the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in each stage the research process in publications that use Yarning method. In particular, we examine the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in leading the research, collecting data, analysis, and acting as an advisory to the research.

Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander led research

Eleven of the forty-seven publications reported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as having led the research [28, 30, 32,33,34, 40, 42, 54, 64, 65, 70]. Those that were led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics occasionally offered details on the authors and their roles. This was detailed using the authors initials, followed by their Aboriginal status, positioning, and role in the project. However, these details were scarce and difficult to immediately identify within publications. More comprehensive papers reflected on how these factors created an approach that helped centre Aboriginal voices in the research process (see Table 3, 1.1).

Table 3 Descriptive quotes: The role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Yarning Process

Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander involvement in data collection

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers were reported as responsible for data collection and interviews in only half of the publications [71]. Some publications provided less detail on data collection involvement than others, and simply noted that the researcher was Aboriginal and therefore culturally safe (see Table 3, 3.2).

Seven publications reported that interviews were conducted by both Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and non-Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander researchers, [28, 31, 39, 56, 57, 59, 63] often citing that one was there to assist the other. One publication identified that there was “no difference in data, in terms of collection or results, was perceived by the non-Indigenous researcher when conducting the interviews.” [57].

Six publications reported that there was no Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander involvement in data collection and the conducting of Yarning circles [29, 38, 48, 49, 67]. Some publications did not expand on this, and simply stated that the data collection was conducted by a non-Aboriginal researcher without further discussion (see Table 3, 3.3). Others were more reflexive when addressing not having had an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person collect the data. One publication [29] stated that they attempted to have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researcher involved, however, due to existing responsibilities of Aboriginal people in the area, they were unsuccessful (see Table 3, 3.4). This publication then addressed the absence of Aboriginal involvement by detailing the critical part that relationships with the staff at Aboriginal Health Services were to different stages of the project. Another paper stated that the lack of Aboriginal involvement “may have impacted on the richness of interview data” [48].

Whilst rare, some papers suggested Yarning methods as an effective way to counter the impact of not having an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person collect the data (see Table 3, 3.5).

Others accounted for the lack of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander involvement in data collection through using Aboriginal guidance over the project, stating ongoing guidance was sought throughout various stages of the project (see Table 3, 3.6).

Overall, the absence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement in the collection of data was frequently not addressed by publications. Eighteen publications did not report whether or not there were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander involvement in data collection [28, 31, 32, 34, 36, 37, 41, 46, 47, 52,53,54, 58, 62, 66, 69, 70, 72]. For the most part, these publications did not identify who was responsible for conducting the Yarning circles.

Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander involvement in analysis

Twenty-four of the 46 publications reported Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander involvement in analysis [28,29,30,31,32,33,34, 39, 40, 43, 45, 47, 49, 50, 52, 55, 56, 58,59,60,61,62, 64, 65]. Predominately it was simply stated that there were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander researchers or advisory groups involved in the process, without further elaboration of exactly what the involvement entailed. One paper suggested that Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander investigators helped non-Indigenous researchers to “increase their cultural understandings and read the data differently.” [28]. Other publications reported a collaborative analysis revision by experts and Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander coinvestigators (see Table 3, 4.1). This was deemed efficient in the inclusivity of perspectives that may have not been considered.

Many publications did not report whether or not they had Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander involvement in data analysis. Some of these included publications that used the researchers initials to demonstrate involvement in analysis but did not specify whether they were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. Not having Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander involvement in data collection was typically not reflexively addressed.

One publication did report not having Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander involvement in data collection and identified potential issues with this throughout their publication with reflections such as “The challenge for a non-Aboriginal researcher exploring issues within the Aboriginal community is to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.” [67] Other publications noted (by those who acknowledge it) that Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander advisory, person or group was used to overlook data analysis.

A limited number of publications indicated that participants were offered the opportunity to provide feedback on the findings (see Table 3, 4.2). It was often reported by simply stating that data was returned to participants for feedback. Some publications elaborated on this, with one suggesting that yarning with participants about the results allowed for them to review and engage with the interpretation of data. Some publications noted that transcripts were not returned to participants, nor were the data validated by participants without further comment.

The few publications that reported using an ‘Indigenous approach’ to analysis were slightly more comprehensive than those that reported grounded theory approach (see Table 3, 4.3). Overall, details on analysis were often lacking, and were the least comprehensive component of the methodology sections.

“Aboriginal Advisory”

Only twenty-nine of the 46 included publications reported having an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander advisory, person or group throughout the course of their study [27,28,29, 31, 33, 34, 36, 37, 39,40,41,42,43, 45,46,47, 51, 53,54,55,56, 59, 60, 62, 63, 65,66,67,68]. Advisory groups were used to oversee the research, analyse data, develop protocols, guide research conduct, identify potential services and recruitment, and develop interview guides. Publications that offered a more comprehensive description of the role of the advisory group gave details on who was involved, such as Elders and community members, and how their guidance was utilised in each stage of the research process (see Table 3, 5.1). Often, these publications noted that the reference groups held the study team accountable for conducting appropriate and respectful research.

Most publications reported an Aboriginal reference or guiding group, with limited details on who was involved, or what exactly their role entailed (see Table 3, 5.2). Many of the publications did not mention Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Advisory until the acknowledgment section of the manuscript. The process of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander advisory varied across publications, with limited consistency in the level of reporting and who was involved.

Discussion

This is the first review to critically analyse the use of Yarning method in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. Through this, we make recommendations on how systems, including the Academy and other mechanisms such as journals, can better incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing, being and doing into systems and processes, to ultimately uphold research integrity.

Although there is a strong and growing evidence-base for Indigenous quantitative methods that have been used by Indigenous scholars with ongoing room for improvement in everyday practice, [73] researchers using Indigenous methods in health research frequently report using qualitative methods [13]. Qualitative methods are said to privilege Indigenous voices [12] and remove power imbalances [13, 18]. Yarning method is the most commonly reported Indigenous method applied to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander qualitative health research. Despite this, our analysis shows that details regarding how Yarning methods were applied, and the intricacies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement (such as stages, level or type of involvement), were significantly under reported. While part of this may be attributed to limitations in researcher reflexivity, the level of detail required to situate authors positionality, relationality as well as thoroughly describe research processes are not always achievable within the existing parameters of journal and reporting guidelines. We offer our recommendations and improvement opportunities for both researchers, and academic institutions to ensure reporting in publications reflects the need for ethical and reciprocal research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as per the NHMRC Values and Ethics Guideline, [14] the AIATSIS Code of Ethics [15] and the AHMRC Key Principles [16].

The right reasons? Why are researchers using Yarning methods?

In the reviewed publications, Yarning was frequently cited as a way of decolonising research practice. It was considered culturally safe, offer two-way knowledge sharing, built on cultural protocols, and allow participant led research while attempting to better balance and privilege Indigenous voices. Numerous research has validated Yarning as a recommended method to privilege Indigenous ontologies [9, 17, 18]. However, it is not simply enough to report employing an Indigenous method such as Yarning and assume that it is adequate. Yarning is grounded in cultural positioning [17] and relationality [11]. Therefore, the application of Yarning will vary based on the context and the researcher (including their social and cultural positioning, and considerations of power and control) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community involved. Similarly, Yarning is not simply the means to collect the data. Decolonising research must address the research process as a whole and centre Indigenous worldviews, values and principles [1, 74]. This is depicted in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Visual representation of the Yarning Process in line with decolonising research practice as depicted by Michelle Kennedy

Reporting positioning, reflexivity and relationality is essential for ethical research

Irrespective of employing a decolonising approach, researcher positioning is well understood as a necessary component to conducting reflexive, ethical and quality research in all qualitative research practice. Researchers are embedded within the research process, and are therefore required to constantly consider their worldview and positionality [75]. As Kiekelame and Swartz (2019) conclude “the importance of reflexivity and self-reflexivity as a transformative approach in a decolonising process cannot be over emphasised” [76]. Despite researcher positioning and reflexive practices being at the core of qualitative research and the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led research, we found limited information reported on the research team’s context, including social and cultural positioning and relationality which is a central “presupposition of an Indigenous social research paradigm”; [11] our belonging to Mob and Country, the connection to the living earth must be recognised and strategically mobilised by Indigenous peoples in developing an Indigenous research agenda.

While some publications articulated social and cultural positioning and relationality of researchers and decolonising research practice, most were silent on these aspects. This silence and subsequent invisibility, often leads to reinscribe racial dominance in theorising, analysing and undertaking research in practice; embedded through the ongoing experience of colonisation and the ingrained nature of coloniality across Australia.

Non-Indigenous authors did not always detail reflective practice or identify their social and cultural positioning. This is in opposition to decolonising research practice which seeks to address Euro-Western dominant paradigms [1, 77]. Describing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement, researcher reflexivity and positionality, and relationalities are crucial in research, including both qualitative processes and decolonising approaches. This is even more critical when Indigenous methodologies and methods are reportedly being applied by non-Indigenous peoples. Publications that reported using an “Indigenous lens” rarely articulated how this was applied, and how it informed the publication. While this can partially be attributed to structural publishing barriers, such as word count limitations, it is essential for researchers to describe how an Indigenous lens was applied as well as their role and how their perspectives inform the research process. It is not enough to note the application of an “Indigenous lens” but also how they applied this lens, particularly from a non-Indigenous standpoint. Reflecting on how their own practices, world views and experiences impacted and influenced the research outcomes and effectively and accurately represented the voices of participants in the research. Accountability in qualitative research requires the application and description of reflexive research practices in relation to the researcher and the researched. It is not possible for a researcher to completely omit researcher bias. It is therefore imperative to outline the reflexive processes, and how Indigenous peoples informed the research in a comprehensive manner in favour of upholding culturally safe, ethical and best practice qualitative research.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be involved in all stages of the research process

Despite ongoing calls for, and emphasis on the importance of having research to be led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, only a quarter of publications self-reported Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people as lead researcher. The remaining papers were silent in reporting Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander researcher(s) involvement or were led by non-Indigenous researchers. The transformative nature of Indigenous-led research is well established, [1] as such we urge all researchers to report leadership of the research in the publication.

Just over half the papers reported Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people’s involvement in data collection, with limited information provided on qualifications/training or the relationship and cultural expertise to the participants or community engaged in the research. Acknowledging the centrality of following cultural protocols and practices when conducting Yarning method, details on data collection must report this detail when applying the method.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander involvement in analysis was seldom detailed, more frequently papers reported advisory groups, increasing cultural understanding, with and oversight as their primary role. Researchers and coders play a pivotal role in the process of thematic analysis [78]. Detailing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement in all levels of the research conduct including the analysis is paramount to accurately representing the voices of those being researched and supporting ethical and cultural safe research. Decolonising research practice must privilege Indigenous knowledges and uphold self-determination and sovereignty which is not excluded from the analysis and reporting process. In line with recent research into Yarning application, [19] we recognise the need for refinement in the analysis process, and the importance of producing details of method and methodologies used.

As stated by Atkinson et al. [19“the more relational the Yarn, the greater the thickness of data, and an Indigenous Standpoint is likely to generate more relationality through shared implicit and explicit understanding for the Yarn”. Our research demonstrates that the relationality of Yarns is not consistently carried beyond the stages of data collection and into analysis, or at least, is not reported on.

We found that at times, Aboriginal research assistants were used to collect the data, but were not involved in the interpretation of the Yarns. To produce ethical, quality research, Aboriginal people should be involved in all stages of the research from conceptualisation to dissemination, including the analysis and interpretation. Understanding and conceptualising data collected from Yarning should involve Indigenous ontologies and standpoints to ensure participants stories are correctly and appropriately reported in the research results.

The role and details of Aboriginal reference/Advisory groups need to be reported

The formation of a community advisory or Aboriginal reference group (CAG/ARG) is important in ensuring governance and efficacy in the research process, as well as upholding Indigenous knowledges, sovereignty, and self-determination. The Aboriginal Health & Medical Research Council ethical guidelines state that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘Advisory’ or reference groups must be representative of the group being studied and have knowledge or experience of the research matter and must be engaged throughout the life cycle of the project not just at the development or consultation stage [16].

While the majority of publications reported having a CAG/ARG that provided oversight to the research process, we found that publications reported limited details on who was involved, and their specific role, particularly regarding analysis, reporting and validation of results. This detail is critical to understanding how the CAG/ARG is both representative of the group being studied and how their Indigenous knowledge, self-determination and sovereignty were upheld in the research process. While some publications offered detailed explanations of who was in the advisory group and what their role was through the research process, others simply stated that the research was overseen or guided by an Aboriginal advisory group. Offering details on the CAG/ARG is crucial, particularly when non-Indigenous researchers are engaging with Indigenous methods, such as Yarning. We question: Who validates that the methods are applied correctly? Is this left to the researcher to self-validate? And where is the research team’s accountability to the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander community being studied?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander “Advisory” or reference group are critical to ethical research practice, and must not be used to rubber stamp the research process. Research that aims to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must foreground Indigenous knowledges, sovereignty, and self-determination through relationality. Watego asserts “The transdisciplinarity required to effect change requires more than a bringing together of different methodologies—it demands attention to different ways of knowing and being in a relational, rather than hierarchical, manner, recognising the limitations of different knowledge systems as well as their strengths, so that the most appropriate conceptual tools are brought to bear in addressing the grand challenges we face both now and into the future” [79].

Academic institutions and journals require structural change to account for reporting

As detailed throughout the results and discussion section of this review, authors frequently omitted important details regarding standpoint, positioning, reflexivity, level of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement, and explanations of methods. It is reasonable to assume that silence in some of these areas are due to barriers in publishing. Academic journals should cater to the need to report reflexivity and positionality, particularly in relation to Indigenous research, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research. Many journals have restrictive word counts and journal structures and essential reporting requirements, which create barriers to effectively reporting adequate details that demonstrate best practice, ethical and equitable research. Academic journals and existing structures should require accurate reporting to produce community relevant, scientific excellence in quality and valid qualitative inquiry, that considers and contextualises findings to the local context. Additionally, it is important to move beyond reporting qualitative rigour as simply just a check box exercise. The Qualitative Health Research (QHR) journal recently released an editorial detailing why their review process does not use checklists:

These lists ignore the value of the product of the research: They do not address the originality, the substance, the contribution, and the potential results to the actual topic—which is after all the purpose of the project itself. [80]

The editorial explains that checklist reviews can undermine the value of qualitative inquiry [80]. This authorship team suggested that beyond checklists, journals acknowledge Indigenous knowledge systems and seek contribution of Indigenous peer reviewers on the reporting of Indigenous methodologies and methods to uphold the appropriate reporting requirements [81].

Strengths and limitations

This paper reports a review of publications reporting the use of Yarning method in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. Our review was led by an Aboriginal research team including the author of the Yarning as a legitimate research method publication [17]. Our review provides a critical analysis of Yarning method as applied to qualitative health research and provides guidance to researchers on the future use, and reporting of Yarning method. Whilst Yarning is a culturally safe method that is preferred by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, non-Indigenous researchers need to consider the significance of relationality, sovereignty, and integrity of the research in the doing through the inclusion of Indigenous leadership at every stage.

Authors note that the Yarning method is applied to other disciplines of research and as such this paper offers limitations to understanding it’s broader application. Some publications in this review also included the use of other Indigenous and/or decolonising methods which were not analysed and out of scope in this review. Further analysis on additional Indigenist methods would be insightful.

Conclusion

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be at the forefront of research about them. Coloniality has embedded systemic racism in our societal structures, privileging non-Indigenous peoples and disadvantaging Indigenous peoples. Coloniality perpetuates ideas about Indigeneity which are then formed and validated through social, cultural, and political structures, practices, and beliefs. They play out in our languages, knowledges, academic discourse, personal and social interactions and popular cultures, and other domains that assign and negotiate meanings and values [82]. Universities and research are not omitted from coloniality, which too, continue to systematically privilege non-Indigenous knowledge systems, methodologies and methods. Despite cutting edge research by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since time immemorial, the exclusion of Indigenous knowledges, ways of knowing being and doing has a lasting impact that extends to peer review publications processes and policy development. Euro-Western academic hierarchies, “gold standard” reporting do not necessarily allow for, or consider, Indigenous ways of knowing or uphold Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination in the research process. Although Yarning is recognised as a legitimate research method to decolonising research practice, this method must not be used lightly to justify safety and security in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It must be applied rigorously and reported accurately, describing how the different types of yarning were applied in research, the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at all levels of the research, and the outcomes. We found that researcher reflexivity and positioning were significantly under detailed as was Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ownership, stewardship, custodianship and analysis of data collected in our reviewed publications. Researchers, particularly non-Indigenous led research teams, must only report using an Indigenous method if they are willing to report adequate detail on its application and comprehensive detail on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were involved in all levels of the research. Journals and other establishments should review their process to allow for these details to be documented in research publications without penalty and acknowledge the critical role of Indigenous Editors and peer reviewers. Only through this, can we uphold respectful, reciprocal, ethical, and responsible research practice.

Availability of data and materials

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article [and its supplementary information files].

Abbreviations

CAG/ARG:

Community advisory or Aboriginal reference group

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Acknowledgements

We wish to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the continuing custodians of the lands on which we live and work. We pay respects to the Awabakal, Worimi, Wurundjeri, Ngunnawal, Whadjuk peoples and their Elders past, present, and emerging.

Funding

No funding was received for this study. MK was supported by an NHMCR Early Career Fellowship (No. 1158670) during study period.

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MK & DB were responsible for study conception and design. MK, KB & SM were responsible for data extraction and analysis. All authors contributed to interpretation of data, as well as the drafting and revision of the manuscript. All authors have viewed and approved the current version for submission.

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Correspondence to Michelle Kennedy.

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Kennedy, M., Maddox, R., Booth, K. et al. Decolonising qualitative research with respectful, reciprocal, and responsible research practice: a narrative review of the application of Yarning method in qualitative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. Int J Equity Health 21, 134 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12939-022-01738-w

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Keywords

  • Qualitative
  • Aboriginal health
  • Indigenous methods
  • Critical review
  • Yarning method