New Zealand has its own version of ‘postcolonial science studies’. This is supposed to emancipate those who see themselves as subjects of colonial oppression, but the actual consequences may be very different.

Kaupapa Maori research methodology (KMR) has been systematically integrated into New Zealand’s national science framework and presented as a viable methodology for conducting research that involves Maori as participants and in areas identified as being of specific relevance to Maori. Statements requiring research scientists to take KMR seriously are now variously found in government science policies, national-level research funding guidelines, national and university ethics committee guidelines, and professional bodies’ research codes of conduct. Further, many departments in the state services sector have commissioned KMR. In the field of health, for example, state-sponsored KMR research has been undertaken on issues such as mental health and youth suicide, sudden infant death syndrome, and cancer care services. Within the field of justice, KMR has been one of the dominant methodological positions employed to examine family and domestic violence along with criminal offending. Moreover, a wide range of disciplines within the tertiary sector now teach KMR methodology as a stand-alone, fully fledged conception of inquiry. Because KMR methodology has largely been developed by postcolonial educational researchers (see especially L Smith, Decolonizing methodology, University of Otago, 1999), the field of education has proven to be a particularly fertile ground for the proliferation of KMR theory and practice. Of further interest, is the fact that the influence of KMR methodology is not confined to New Zealand’s shores. Often described as ‘critical cultural pedagogy’, the KMR perspective has also been exported to other nations including Australia and Canada, and presented as a feasible research methodology.

We believe that KMR methodology needs to be taken seriously, but not for the reason that it contributes a credible alternative to standard research methodology. To the contrary, we suggest that KMR methodology may very well be a suitable candidate to represent New Zealand’s own variant of fashionable nonsense (cf A Sokal & J Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense, Picador, 1999). As we will argue, while KMR adherents employ the notions of liberation and empowerment to promote their doctrine, the uptake of their views and practices may in fact subvert the potential for researchers to undertake genuine scientific inquiry in areas of clear national need.

Postcolonial science studies

According to the postcolonial view, so-called Western science (hereafter referred to as orthodox science), promotes a distinctive set of values, methods, and standards of scientific rationality that are consistent with European culture and its expansion. Traditional science is therefore assumed to be complicit in the historical subjugation of peoples and, in the contemporary context, culpable in actively oppressing alternative ways of coming to know the world. All manner of possibilities are meant by ‘alternative ways of coming to know the world’, including indigenous science, deep ecological wisdom, spiritual connectedness, cosmological narratives, and not the least, narratives constructed through ‘blood memory’. The objective of postcolonial science studies is therefore to emancipate those people who identify themselves as the subjects of (post) colonial oppression and to legitimate their views of what constitutes reliable and coherent knowledge. In other words, it is a rescue and reunite mission.

KMR methodology is best thought of as a localised strain of postcolonial science studies. It, too, has its own alternative way of coming to know the world, which involves ‘decolonising’ methodology. This task is performed by “[interrogating] methods in relation to cultural sensitivity, cross-cultural reliability, useful outcomes for Maori, and other such measures” (F Cram, Maori Science, Auckland Uniservices Ltd, 2000). The colonising features of conventional methodology that KMR proponents are most concerned to identify include a commitment to objectivity, the requirements of justification, and a failure to acknowledge that historical and structural causes are responsible for current problems where Maori are over-represented. In addition, the interrogation demands that Maori are characterised in a specific way. This requires making explicit statements about a Maori worldview, collective identity, cultural values, and spirituality. It is thought that once the interrogation has been completed, and replacement notions such as cultural sensitivity have been incorporated into a research framework, a genuine ‘Maori way of knowing’ or ‘Maori methodology’ will emerge.

Use of the term decolonise clearly signals that KMR embodies a postcolonial view of science. Moreover, by advocating a ‘Maori way of knowing’ that replaces, or exists alongside, orthodox science, proponents of KMR methodology make the strong claim that the acquisition of scientific knowledge is, and ought to be acknowledged as, culturally relative. We believe that the KMR strategy of ‘interrogation’ actively distorts the conduct of inquiry and has led to the misguided patronage of epistemological and methodological relativism within many New Zealand research circles. Just as importantly, we suggest that KMR adherents’ refutation of objectivity, reliability, and validity as they are conventionally understood, combined with the demand that Maori be characterised in a particular way, is seriously misleading.

Ideological influence on scientific matters

Since the passing of the Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act in 1985, New Zealand has steadfastly reorganised itself along bicultural lines. In 1988, with the release of the Royal Commission on Social Policy report, the Crown acknowledged the importance of the concepts of protection, participation, and partnership. These concepts were drafted into public policy, including science policy, to reflect the nation’s commitment to the socio-political ideology of biculturalism. We maintain that these concepts entail a political and moral obligation to be responsive to Maori needs and aspirations. But this does not equate to endorsing the epistemic imperative of the KMR doctrine that there is a Maori way of knowing. However, the justification for the recommendation that KMR methodology needs to be taken seriously by research scientists is usually found in recourse to these concepts, which generally inform government and institutional policies that acknowledge the Treaty of Waitangi.

We believe that KMR advocates have exploited the political environment by insisting that the ideology of biculturalism affords their doctrine special privilege and protection, which has resulted in many fields of research being domesticated by KMR. By drawing on a key tenet of bicultural ideology, KMR adherents can claim that their doctrine has epistemic parity with standard accounts of scientific methodology on the grounds that it represents a separate, yet equal, worldview. However, the problem that arises here is that with KMR adherents’ rejection of orthodox research methodology, including standard criteria for evaluating knowledge claims, the means by which the epistemic worth of KMR outputs are to be evaluated remain to be disclosed. In short, it is questionable whether the products of KMR can be said to constitute empirically validated knowledge. Although this might seem to be a glaring oversight from a doctrine committed to liberating Maori, KMR advocates have simply side-stepped the issue of evidence by claiming a disinterest in it. Rather, KMR is now considered to represent a ‘rights-based approach’ to research as the following passage from a recent report on cancer services delivery to Maori makes abundantly clear:

The project was informed by a kaupapa Maori framework that recognises the structural causes of inequality, such as unequal power structures, colonisation, and institutional racism … The project was influenced by a rights-based approach to health, which recognises Maori human, indigenous, and Treaty of Waitangi rights (D Cormack et al, Access to Cancer Services, Ministry of Health & Wellington School of Medicine & Health Sciences, 2005, p2).

Kaupapa Maori research methodology

Although KMR methodology has been characterised in different ways, the following doctrines are among the most important: the rejection of orthodox science as an inappropriate model for conducting research of benefit to Maori; an assumption that this prevailing view of research is positivist in nature; a selective commitment to elements of both postmodern thinking and critical theory; and, a determination to use research methods, especially qualitative methods, in a liberatory manner.

The rejection of positivism

KMR methodologists roundly reject a position they call positivism, which they take to be the general philosophy that underlies orthodox science. However, their treatment of this topic is beset with two major problems. First, positivism is given a minimal characterisation that bears limited resemblance to any recognised form of positivist thinking, such as the logical positivist philosophy of science that was influential in the first half of 20th century philosophy. Second, it is mistakenly assumed that positivism is the philosophy that underwrites modern science. This is not so. Logical positivism has been a spent force for about 50 years, a significant historical fact that seems to have escaped the notice of KMR methodologists. Moreover, the influence of positivist ideas on social science research has been overemphasised. There is good evidence that the post-positivist philosophy of scientific realism (C Hooker, A Realistic Theory of Science, State University of New York Press, 1987) has been the philosophy of primary influence in the social sciences. By remonstrating against a position that is no longer influential in philosophy, and whose influence in the various sciences has been considerably overrated, KMR methodologists have been lulled into a false sense of security about the worth of their own position.

The rejection of objectivity

Advocates of KMR methodology have frequently criticised “positivist” social science research for its commitment to the ideal of objectivity. However, again, the target of criticism is not subjected to an informative examination, and no convincing reasons are given for thinking that the pursuit of objectivity should be dispensed with. Basically, objectivity involves putting aside one’s predilections and preferences in order to secure impartial reason. It is this very pursuit that makes science rational. However, it is important to stress that seeking objectivity does not preclude taking contextual factors into account when determining what counts as good reasons, nor does it imply that one should factor out the notion of human agency in the process of knowledge production.

It is important to appreciate, further, that the pursuit of objectivity does not require one to take a neutral stand on relevant matters. Objectivity and neutrality are different things, although they are often confused. Objectivity is concerned with validity and reliability. Neutrality has to do with serving interests. One can take a stand, or seek goals, without compromising objectivity. We think that in objecting to the aims of orthodox science, KMR methodologists are inclined to believe mistakenly that one must challenge the processes that aid objectivity in order to allow researchers to serve their preserved set of interests. KMR methodologists also claim that the pursuit of objectivity results in the adoption of a hierarchical relationship between the researcher and the researched that results in a distancing of Maori from the research process. It is for this reason KMR methodologists favour the use of research methods which are participatory and democratic. However, there are a number of methods in orthodox social science that explicitly adopt a participatory methodology capable of contributing to an understanding and improvement of the worth of both individuals and society. One example is the autobiographical method in which a team assists the central participant to accurately represent how they view their own life-course.

We also think it worthy to note however, that while KMR adherents argue for a more democratic and participatory approach to research, they seem to ignore the fact that Maori social organisation is replete with examples of hierarchical interactions. Jahnke and Taiapa (in Social Science Research in New Zealand, Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2003) attest to this point by insisting that within Maori settings, knowledge is hierarchical and not universally available to all. If the motivation of KMR methodologists is to emancipate the people by liberating and legitimating a Maori way of knowing, then they should reconsider the merits of pursuing objectivity.

The use of qualitative methods

KMR methodology is strong in its commitment to the use of qualitative research methods. This probably reflects the widespread assumption in social science methodology that quantitative methods are an outworking of positivist thinking, and that they should therefore be replaced by qualitative methods, which are thought to be more appropriate. In our view, this belief is difficult to defend. The fact that many statistical methods are used in research to fashion empirical generalisations in no way prevents the researcher from fashioning theories in order to explain those generalisations. Indeed, the production of empirical generalisations motivates the anti-positivist activity of constructing explanatory theories. The widespread use in the social sciences of latent variable methods to construct explanatory theories is an expression of a commitment to the philosophy of scientific realism, and not to positivism.

We think a better understanding of research methods is to be had by viewing them, not as either quantitative or qualitative, but by regarding them each as having both quantitative and qualitative dimensions. For example, grounded theory, the most prominent qualitative methodology in the social sciences, is in good part the product of a translation of ideas from selected sociological quantitative methods of the 1950s. Moreover, there is nothing in principle to prevent researchers from using quantitative methods within its fold. For example, one might use the statistical method of exploratory factor analysis to help generate explanatory theories that are grounded in robust data patterns.

KMR methodologists are part of the widespread tendency among qualitative methodologists to misleadingly cast orthodox science as incapable of dealing with qualitative methods. However, even logical positivism is capable of accommodating qualitative methods, though of course, it does not do so with the same degree of flexibility and success as contemporary realist accounts of science. The misuse of methods

Despite criticising the methodology of orthodox science, KMR researchers have nevertheless made use of a number of its research methods. Often, they have interviewed research participants by using focus groups. This procedure permits researchers to obtain and analyse qualitative data by focusing on a specific topic or set of issues. The method is thought appropriate for research with Maori because of its claimed ability to give participants a genuine voice and thereby empower them in the research context.

However, despite its seeming simplicity, focus group research is very difficult to carry out effectively. Although there is an extensive literature detailing the requirements for carrying out focus group research, the data analytic part of the method is underdeveloped. As a result, focus group research tends to have low reliability and validity and is subject to various forms of moderator and respondent bias. Such biases may in fact be compounded in particular settings where hierarchical interactions have been institutionalised, and there is differential access to knowledge. By using focus groups as a primary method of data collection and analysis, KMR faces a difficult challenge to produce the quality research it seeks.


Despite the considerable influence KMR exerts within New Zealand policy and research circles, its attendant methodology is unsound. We believe the integration of KMR methodology into New Zealand’s science policies, institutions, and programmes has occurred as the result of a policy imperative rather than because it offers a satisfactory account of, or genuine alternative to, orthodox research methodology. KMR methodologists provide no good reason for abandoning the best methodologies of orthodox science. There is an irony in the fact that contemporary mainstream scientific methodology contains resources that are better suited to research with Maori than those of KMR methodology. We invite KMR researchers to engage the methodological literature of orthodox science seriously. We believe that if they do so, they will find resources sufficient for carrying out worthwhile research in their fields of interest. Marie and Haig (New Zealand Science Review, 63, 2006) contains an overview of such a methodology, as well as a more extensive critique of KMR methodology.

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