Culture and Wellbeing: The Case of Indigenous Australians


A recurring theme in Indigenous affairs in Australia is a tension between maintenance of Indigenous culture and achievement of socio-economic ‘equity’: essentially ‘self-determination’ versus ‘assimilation’. Implicit in this tension is the view that attachment to traditional cultures and lifestyles is a hindrance to achieving ‘mainstream’ economic goals. Using data from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, stronger attachment to traditional culture is found to be associated with enhanced outcomes across a range of socio-economic indicators. This suggests Indigenous culture should be viewed a part of the solution to Indigenous disadvantage in Australia, and not as part of the problem.

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  1. 1.

    Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle (Little Children are Sacred), Report of Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse (2007).

  2. 2.

    For example, in a longitudinal survey conducted between 1994 and 1996 Australian jobseekers indicated a willingness to move house if offered a suitable job in only around half of all job-search episodes, and the figure is even lower for short-term episodes (ABS 1997, p. 37).

  3. 3.

    More specifically, the SAS 9.0 Factor procedure was used with principal components method.

  4. 4.

    A second measure of cultural attachment was developed based on a ‘hierarchical’ allocation (see Dockery 2009a, b). The motivation for this second measure was firstly as a sensitivity or robustness test to the principal measure of cultural attachment. Second, the value of the cultural attachment score is strongly influenced by the individual’s activities. This potentially creates problems of endogeneity in which declining socio-economic outcomes, say poor health, may be argued to cause the decline in cultural attachment. The hierarchical measure gives much greater weighting to fixed cultural traits of speaking an Indigenous language at home, fluency in Indigenous language, recognition of homelands and identification with a clan, tribal or language group. These are unlikely to be affected by the outcome measures being modeled. Similar results to those reported in Tables 3 and 4 are achieved when the hierarchical measure of cultural attachment is used instead of the measure based on the factor analysis.

  5. 5.

    Completion of a vocational certificate level I or II was deemed equivalent to one half a year’s education, a trade or Certificate III/IV equivalent to 1 year and a Diploma to 2 years. The finding of a positive effect of cultural attachment on educational attainment is insensitive to alternative specifications, including an ordered probit model of highest qualification attained or a binary probit model of the probability of completing high school.

  6. 6.

    Hunter has previously presented evidence that Indigenous 13–17 year olds are substantially more likely to attend school if they speak an Indigenous language than those who do not (2007b, Table 3).


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The measure of ‘cultural attachment’ used in this paper was developed as part of a project funded by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research entitled Cultural Dimensions of Indigenous Participation in Vocational Education and Training. The results relating to educational attainment and the literature review also derive from that project see (Dockery 2009a). I would also like to acknowledge the useful feedback provided by members of the Indigenous Advisory Panel to that NCVER project.

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Correspondence to Alfred Michael Dockery.

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I would like to dedicate this paper to Deborah.

Appendix 1: Factor Scores (Loadings) for Calculating Index of Cultural Attachment

Appendix 1: Factor Scores (Loadings) for Calculating Index of Cultural Attachment

Table 6 Loadings for the ‘cultural attachment’ factor

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Dockery, A.M. Culture and Wellbeing: The Case of Indigenous Australians. Soc Indic Res 99, 315–332 (2010).

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  • Indigenous
  • Culture
  • Wellbeing
  • Australia