The purpose of research is to find answers to questions that are being raised or to provide a new understanding, perhaps even solutions to problems that have been identified. It can be a tool to understand reality, for action and for change. Starting with a problem or question, the attempt to collect the necessary information and data to resolve the issue will provide a better understanding of the phenomenon, help identify means of action and eventually lead to further questions (refer to the diagram at the end of this section).

Once you have clearly defined what you want to know or understand, decide how to go about doing it. There is a relationship between the what and the how.

Research is generally divided into two broad categories: quantitative research and qualitative research. Either category or both can be chosen depending on what is being investigated.

Quantitative Research is used to quantify something. It brings to mind polls, but also includes surveys that produce essential statistics that inform public policy. Some examples are the number of children per woman, the average cost of renting, the number of people per dwelling, income distribution, etc. Quantitative research has its own tools: questionnaires with closed questions (yes/no answers, or very short answers, e.g. How many televisions are in your dwelling?) with responses from a large group of people. Methodologies (random, proportional to the population, etc.) have been developed to generate samples of people to ensure results are representative and generalizable to a given population.

When voting intention polls for municipal, provincial or federal elections are published, a questionnaire was obviously not sent to every elector. A sample was generated. That means a questionnaire was sent to a high enough number of people as to be representative of the entire population. This number is determined by different statistical parameters.


Should a new school be built? The need for one should be assessed. Research could determine how many preschool children live on the reserve and where parents intend to send them once they are old enough to attend school. A survey could then be formulated to answer the question and sent to all households. The results would be representative of all families on the reserve, but not necessarily of all reserves.

Qualitative research is used to describe, document, understand and analyze social, political and cultural phenomenon—to name a few. Qualitative research can provide a more comprehensive view of social reality. It can prove especially helpful to explain motivations, to understand points of view and experiences, and to develop recommendations to change a situation. It is also an approach that can, if desired, involve more directly the people with whom we do research (research with, rather than on). However, the results are not generalizable and it is impossible to know if they are representative of other similar cases elsewhere.

Qualitative research has its own tools/postures: participatory action research, biographical method (life histories, life trajectories, biographies, autobiographies, etc.), observation (participatory or non-participatory), collaborative research and activist research. Tools must be designed to match the research question, the objectives and what you would like to know (community mobilization, data collection, and so on).

“Among the various research methods, participatory action research is preferred in Aboriginal research largely because it establishes close cooperation between the researchers and the people related to the research topic.1” This collaboration makes community action more likely after the conclusion of research. Participatory action research is based on the principle of knowing-doing-transforming.

“Collaborative research may be viewed more as an attitude or approach rather than well-defined techniques to be followed.2” Indigenous research seeks to empower. It goes in the direction of fully understanding one’s own knowledge and deciding how to use it.

Furthermore, Indigenous research (for and by) need not mimic research done by the majority society. Indigenous peoples have their own way of seeing the world and have ways of understanding reality that are unique. Research tools must reflect this vision of the world.

[1] Quebec Native Women, Guidelines for Research with Aboriginal Women, p.10 2012,
[2] Kishk Anaquot Health Research, Collaborative Research: an  “Indigenous lens” Perspective, p.1 April 2008

Ex. 1: How many women are single parents in the community? This is a quantitative research question.

Ex. 2: How do single mothers live in the community? This is a qualitative research question.

Research Phases


Clearly define what you want to know or understand;

Define it as either qualitative research or quantitative research, or both.

This will help determine how to collect the necessary information;

Qualitative research helps to understand the different aspects of a question;

Quantitative research helps to quantify one or more questions.

Indigenous Principles applied to Research

The ways to conduct research and the criteria to ensure its quality and validity have traditionally been developed from non-Indigenous understandings of knowledge. But these models are not always consistent with or adaptable to Indigenous communities.
Research by and for Indigenous people therefore involves adapting it to Indigenous ways of doing, seeing and knowing. It is important to recognize this. Of course ways differ from one people to another, but in all cases, this must be taken into account and research must be adapted accordingly.

It is important to look at reality from the perspective of the women themselves, to analyze their research prejudices, to take into account the community context and the historical process of colonization, to consider expressions of national identity (as a people) without concealing the tensions and negotiations at the community, family and intergenerational levels.

Recognizing both the knowledge community members possess and the contribution they make to research by participating in it, improves research quality. The closer to perceived reality, the easier it will be to grasp it in all its subtle shades. If the perspective of the people themselves is not the starting point, research results could be incomplete or differ from those that would have been obtained with the full participation of community members.

Research in Indigenous Communities

Several Indigenous women researchers around the world have identified the following principles: respect, reciprocity, wholeness (holistic or comprehensive approach), complementarity and harmony. It is also important to remember that Indigenous peoples consist of several distinct peoples and they have collective rights.

What does each principle mean in a research context?

How can research tools be adapted to these principles? How much should methodologies be modified?

Respect: “Informers,” the people likely to possess information that could contribute to research, are not research objects, but rather individual collaborators who influence the research process. Respect is not reserved solely to participants, but also shown to the community’s authorities and culture.

Reciprocity: this is an extremely important value in Indigenous communities. What will women receive in return for participating in the project? Will it be a better understanding of their reality? Tools to help them value their knowledge and boost their capacity to render it visible? Information cannot be gathered without then sharing it with the community.

Wholeness/ circle/comprehensiveness: a holistic or comprehensive approach. Human beings cannot be separated into pieces, nor can they be separated from their environment. This must be reflected both in action and in the way reality is understood. People and cultures often have a spiritual dimension that cannot be separated from the whole. This must be taken into account as an integral part of research, be considered an element of the environment (purification, greeting etc.), and eventually also as an element of healing.

Complementarity: man/Woman and Human/Nature. This is a universe that differs from that of the dominant society, in particular from that of the feminist movement which, through its struggle for equality, has not placed much value on complementarity. The relationship to land and with the different elements in nature cannot be disassociated from the Indigenous worldview. Humans are not above animals, plants and stones. They belong to the same world.

Harmony: the search for harmony as described by Indigenous peoples, and women in particular, is one of the objectives of life. It is a search not for conflict, but rather its absence. Constant attention is required to preserve or restore balance.

Although it may not always be easy, these principles must be taken into account at each research phase. This means they must be kept in mind when choosing the type of data collection strategy, when writing interview questions, when choosing the topics under which the information will be aggregated and when sharing findings and summaries, etc.

Collective rights: indigenous peoples are members of distinct nations with their own forms of governance, traditional or not. It is impossible to ignore this reality because it influences all facets of Indigenous life. Collective and community aspects must always be taken into account.
The context of colonialism must also be taken into account because it impacts on ways of life, organisation and thinking. In 2007, the rights of Indigenous peoples were recognized at the international level in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It sets out the different developmental conditions of Indigenous peoples as distinct nations, as collectives.


A child living in a violent home can be removed from the family by the Quebec Director of Youth Protection (DYP) and be placed in a foster family. The DYP’s objective is to remove the child from a dysfunctional environment in order for him or her to grow up in a functional one that provides care. This DYP practice is the same for all children. On an individual basis, this practice may be justified in some respects, but in an Indigenous context, what does such a practice mean? What possible impacts could it have on an Indigenous child? On the community? If no attempt is made to know the impact child placements have on a community, there is the risk the consequences for a child being raised outside their culture and extended family will not be considered. If several children are removed from their community, what does that mean for the future of that community and its cultural health?

The principle of respect for the culture and community would involve seeking out traditional modes of child protection and calling upon the competent authorities in the community to intervene. The principle of harmony would highlight that removing a child from the cultural context could prove a more traumatizing experience (breaking individual and community harmony) than the reason the child was removed in the first place. It would be one violence replacing another.


Indigenous Principles
must be understood
in a context of collective rights
and distinct nations