A deficit approach to research

Colonisation has a negative impact on indigenous cultures and ways of life. Disease, death and despair are its handmaidens. Colonisation is not a word that is bound in the past tense, chained to the actions of previous settlers, but is a word that continues to creep and choke in the present tense, perpetrated by our own actions or inactions.

One way in which research enacts colonisation is by researchers taking a deficit approach in explaining their findings. In a deficit approach the impact of privilege, power and structural inequalities are not taken into account. Instead individuals are blamed for their situation, that somehow it is their fault that they didn’t climb out of the poverty in which they were born or that it is their fault that they didn’t receive the same opportunities in life that someone living in a leafy treelined suburb did. A deficit approach is insidious, colouring our language and placating our conscience. Health professionals, for example, may talk about patients being lazy or non-compliant as explanations for poor health and ‘life-style’ diseases. Researchers may attribute causal factors for disease to a person’s ethnicity. Politicians may use the rhetoric of treating people ‘equally’ and frame policy in such a way that responsibility shifts from society and the state to individuals. In a recent example of applying a deficit approach the National government established The Ministry for Vulnerable Children in 2016. In applying a label of vulnerability to children the government placed emphasis on weakness and fragility rather than stressing children’s strengths. The Children’s Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, launched a blistering attack on the English name and vowed to only use its Māori name, Oranga Tamariki1, which is aspirational and positive.

In a similar way Kaupapa Māori research looks for the positives in people. It avoids a deficit approach to explaining causality and instead digs deeper, teasing out the structural and institutional factors that contribute to health inequalities. In such a way policy action, that arises from research, may have more impact than the action that results from blame.

  1. Oranga Tamariki means health and wellbeing of children 

Written on January 26, 2017