Cross-cultural collaborative research: A reflection from New Zealand

By Jeff Foote

Jeff Foote (biography)

How can non-indigenous researchers work with indigenous communities to tackle complex socio-ecological issues in a way that is culturally appropriate and does not contribute to the marginalisation of indigenous interests and values?

These questions have long been considered by participatory action researchers, and are of growing relevance to mainstream science organisations, which are increasingly utilising cross-cultural research practices in recognition of the need to move beyond identifying ‘problems’ to finding ‘solutions’.

As an example, I borrow heavily from work with colleagues in a partnership involving the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (a government science institute), Hokianga Health Enterprise Trust (a local community owned health service) and the Hokianga community.

The Hokianga is an isolated region of New Zealand and has a predominately Māori population (the indigenous people of New Zealand). This work has supported Hokianga hapū (sub-tribes) to take collective action to improve access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, commencing in 2000. Our projects have been informed by a blend of kaupapa Māori (Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999) and systemic intervention (Midgley, 2000) approaches, and illustrate how roles between hapū and non-indigenous researchers were negotiated and what that meant for the framing of the research.

Our work has assumed that collective action based on Māori social structures produces better health, social and environmental outcomes than traditional expert driven approaches, as well as acknowledging that financial and technical support from outside organisations are necessary to improve drinking water and wastewater systems, requiring a multi-agency approach.

Two critical issues have been framing the problem and valuing different expertise.

A key requirement was the ability to move skilfully between the framings held by Hokianga hapū and outside agencies to find common ground, and importantly, ensure that the research remained firmly located in hapū values and interests. This involved working with the consent of kaumātua (elders) and facilitating multiagency workshops on the marae (focal area of a Māori village). Following tikanga (customs) and kawa (protocols) helped ensure a level playing field between hapū and agency participants by making sure hapū views were voiced in a culturally appropriate and safe manner.

A challenge is to make explicit the different boundaries drawn by hapū and outside agencies, and to avoid generating mistrust given experiences of colonisation and institutional racism. For example, a significant barrier to improving marae onsite wastewater treatment and disposal systems has been the need to obtain building and resource consents from regulatory authorities before philanthropic organisations were willing to contribute funding. As this was seen as conflicting with hapū mana (authority), hapū contested the right of government agencies to determine marae land-use. However, a shared concern with the health of the environment and the people meant that hapū and agency participants were willing to explore and consider novel ways that regulations could be applied and compliance met.

As a transdisciplinary team of hapū and non-indigenous researchers, we also had to be explicit about whose expertise was privileged during different research phases. We viewed moving between te ao Māori (the Māori world) and te ao Pākehā (the Western World) in terms of a tuākana (senior/leader) and tēina (junior/novice) relationship, roles and responsibilities. When non-indigenous researchers were in te ao Māori, our hapū researchers were our tuākana and we were to learn from and be guided by them. When the research team was dealing with te ao Pākehā, the tuākana/tēina relationship was seen, fluid and moved back and forth depending on what expertise was needed. Acknowledging and valuing the different sources of expertise held by the research team lead to learning on different levels, built trust and enabled a cross-cultural and collaborative approach.

How have you negotiated the complex dynamics of cross-cultural research?


Many thanks to my co-researchers from Hokianga Health Enterprise Trust (Marara Rogers-Koroheke and Hone Taimona) and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (Maria Hepi).

To find out more:

Hepi, M., Foote, J., Marino, M., Rogers, M., and Taimona, H. (2007). ‘Koe wai hoki koe?!’, or ‘who are you?!’: Issues of trust in cross-cultural collaborative research. Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online, 2: 37-53.

Midgley, G., Ahuriri-Driscoll, A., Foote, J., Hepi, M., Taimona, H., Rogers-Koroheke, M., Baker, V., Gregor, J., Gregory, W., Lange, M., Veth, J., Winstanley, A., and Wood, D. (2007). Practitioner identity in systemic intervention: Reflections on the promotion of environmental health through Māori community development. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 24: 233-247.


Tuhuwai-Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples. University of Otago Press: Dunedin, New Zealand.

Midgley, G. (2000). Systemic intervention: Philosophy, methodology and practice. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers: New York, United States of America.

Biography: Jeff Foote is a Science Leader in the Social Systems Team at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research. His research centres on applying systems approaches to complex public policy issues including freshwater management, family violence prevention and the management of non-communicable diseases. His research interests include systems methodology, complex change and involving the ‘hard to reach’ in service design and delivery. He is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Centre (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series developed in preparation for the second meeting in January 2017 of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

2 thoughts on “Cross-cultural collaborative research: A reflection from New Zealand”

  1. Hi Melissa,
    My name is Maria and I was one of the co-researchers working with Jeff from ESR. I understand where you are coming from. We were very lucky that with our first project in the Hokianga we had 18 months to develop and build a relationship as well as design the project together with our two co-researchers from Hauora Hokianga. We only had this luxury as we were able to access funding that was left over when another scientist left ESR. The beauty of it was that once we had completed that project we then didnt need to invest another 18 months into developing the next project and several after that as the trust was now cemented. So a high cost at the start but it resulted in over 15 years of various research projects with Hauora Hokianga. You may also like to read the article I wrote, ‘Koe wai hoki koe?!’, or ‘who are you?!’: Issues of trust in cross-cultural collaborative research, which is mentioned above under ‘To find out more’

  2. Interesting case study – thank you for sharing Jeff. I particularly liked the description of your use of tuākana and tēina. I think that is a really useful model.

    I am interested about how much time you had for the project and whether or not you were very time constrained. In a project that I worked on where a multi-disciplinary research team were informing a community group including indigenous groups, to support environmental decision-making, one of the particular difficulties that we faced was a matter of timing or time constraints. What we experienced was that the amount of time for the whole project determined by policy-makers was out of step with the required time needed for appropriate and genuine engagement with Maori. We found that this coloured how genuine many of the collaborative efforts from the research team were viewed by Maori.
    Did you experience anything similar?


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