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The Australian National University

Indigenous household structures and ABS definitions of the family: What happens when systems collide, and does it matter?

Working Paper 26 / 2004


In August 2001 three CAEPR researchers, each based in a different community, observed the conduct of the national Census in the Northern Territory and Cape York Peninsula. The purposes of this research were twofold: to evaluate the ABS’s Indigenous Enumeration Strategy as it was applied in this particular context, and to assess the quality of the data that were collected. This paper, based on research in a remote Northern Territory outstation community, focuses on the questions that were designed to elicit information about household structure.

The data collected in the census are a vital tool for the formulation of policy across a very broad range of issues. Pursuing the red herring of forcing Indigenous families and households into mainstream categories is a waste of time and effort, and diverts attention from the significant underlying issues. If the quantifiable population characteristics of Indigenous Australians are to emerge clearly from census data, the questions on the Indigenous form need to be as culturally neutral as possible, in order to minimise misunderstanding on the part of the Indigenous interviewers and respondents.

The designers of the census need to step back from the questions on household structure, and decide precisely what information they wish to elicit. Is it information primarily about family structure, or about the size, age distribution, gender composition, and dependency structures of households? If it is decided that the latter data are the most important, one possibility which would sit more comfortably with the Indigenous facts, would be to add a new type of household to the ABS list—the extended family household.

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