QMJC May 2021: It’s all about Whanaungatanga: Alcohol use and older Māori in Aotearoa

First published: 27/05/2021 | Last updated: May 27th, 2021

Herbert, S., Stephens, C. and Forster, M. (2018). It’s all about Whanaungatanga: Alcohol use and older Māori in Aotearoa. AlterNative, Vol. 14 (3) 200–208

The above article, selected for the May 2021 meeting of the SSA QMJC at KCL can be accessed here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1177180118785381

Article discussed online within the National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London with 10 attendees from King’s College London, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Exeter. Discussion led/chaired and summarised by Stephen Parkin.

Summary of the Article

This article considers the role and social meaning of alcohol amongst older people within Māori communities in Aotearoa (New Zealand). Herbert, Stephens and Forster applied indigenous research methods in their explorations of alcohol and social relationships; and, more specifically, a Māori-centred research approach to their study (assisted by members of the authorship team identifying as Māori). In their study, the researchers held a series of hui (social meetings) with older Māori, involving kōrerorero (discussions) of alcohol that also followed tikanga (norms and values) associated with Māori cultural/social etiquette. From these kōrerorero, the researchers concluded that alcohol and its use is best understood in terms of the Māori concept of whanaungatanga (maintaining relationships). Although the study stresses that whanaungatanga can occur either with or without alcohol, the authors emphasise that it is the concept of maintaining and sustaining relationships that is more important than the use of alcohol.

The content of the article and its findings may be best summarised in the authors’ statement that “the overarching narrative was that ‘alcohol supports whanaungatanga, and the physical locations of alcohol use support whanaungatanga. However, it’s about the whanaungatanga, (emphasis added) not the alcohol use, in fact alcohol is not even necessary and there are other options for supporting whanaungatanga’.” (Herbert et al 2018, 203).

In conclusion, Herbert and colleagues discuss whanaungatanga as being integral to older Māori people’s participation in social environments, as addressing loneliness and exclusion and, more generally, as important to individual/shared identity, community cohesion and social organisation through the strengthening of relationships. Accordingly, this indigenous research concludes that indigenous values and associated cultural constructs should be considered in promoting an overall increase in personal/social health and well-being.

Discussion of the Article

The article proved to be of great interest to the journal club participants. A variety of topics were discussed that related to differences between indigenous and other research and to specific findings/statements contained within the article. These discussion points are summarised below.

Discussion of differences between indigenous and ‘non-indigenous’ research

This article was purposely selected for inclusion in the KCL SSA QMJC series because of its focus upon indigenous qualitative research methods (and because such research can provide alternative constructs of social phenomena to those obtained from other research). Similarly, although a version of this article has also been published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, the version discussed here appeared in the journal Alter Native: An International Journal for Indigenous Peoples. The choice of journal was therefore selected for the journal club to purposely promote wider interest in qualitative research by and for indigenous people/communities.

The discussion within the meeting appeared to achieve these aims, as topics raised focused upon the indigenous language and terms of expression used throughout the article, and the design and delivery of indigenous research.

The use of indigenous language and terms throughout the article was the initial talking point in the meeting. This is because Māori terms for cultural constructs (values, behaviours and etiquette) are given prominence over their ‘English’ counterparts throughout the article (although translations appear as each term is introduced – and all are collated as a glossary in the final sections of the article). Throughout the text, Herbert et al utilise this Māori centred language to describe not only the methods of research conducted but also to explain the way in which these methods were embedded within expected social norms and practice of Māori culture. The group reflected on how the language underlying these methods might be consistent with and relevant to the Māori wider way of life. For several of the group, these terms and expressions were also regarded examples of culture that were built into the text and made the article ‘stand out’ in terms of originality and content. Others commented that the use of indigenous language made the QMJC group realise the difficulties that any marginalised and minority group (who may not speak English as their first language) can face on daily basis when communication prioritises a ‘different’ language.

As a result of the importance of culturally relevant terms/expressions throughout the article, group members recognised that it is necessary for non-indigenous researchers to ‘get the language right’. This was discussed further in the context of designing research and developing interventions, so that each should be ‘culturally relevant’ in order to be meaningful. The group felt that such sentiments were applicable to any form of qualitative research and to any study involving specific groups or populations with lived experience of shared health conditions/social issues whether indigenous research or not.

The group also reflected upon the research methods described in the article. For example, the tikanga and social etiquette underlying the various hui involved the use of prayers or blessings, gift giving and paying respect to elders and those who have passed. The group’s discussion here focused upon the way in which indigenous cultural norms facilitated and provided opportunities for narratives and stories to be shared within and across the various meetings. In addition, some people attending the hui were part of the lead author’s existing social networks. Each of these practices was discussed in comparison to qualitative methods located within other research. As an example, the group discussed the role of the researcher in a focus group setting in UK settings. In such methods of data generation, the researcher often guides and directs the topics discussed, and organises the conduct of these meetings (and the group participants) in such a way to be consistent with a particular methodological approach to social science. However, in an indigenous (Māori) context, Herbert et al demonstrate how hui involve the sharing of stories and narratives (not ‘data’), by people observing age-related and culturally specific norms and values as part of the social interaction. In the latter context, the fact that Herbert was socially-known to those involved in the hui was not considered a barrier to the research and its methods. Instead, this a priori knowledge of others (in an indigenous context) was considered to be a strength of the study – as it possibly reinforced participation and the social / community identities of those involved. Such familiarity may be considered subjective, or influence confirmation bias, in studies of social behaviour that do not prioritise an indigenous positionality.


Discussions of whanaungatanga within the article

In addition to the issues summarised above, the group also discussed a number of points relating specifically to whanaungatanga (social relationships), this being the main topic of the article.

For example, the universality of ‘loneliness’ – regardless of cultural setting – was raised by one member of the group (albeit after the meeting, as they could not attend the meeting on the day). This was considered particularly poignant in a post-COVID-19 era, at a time when large sections of the global population may have experienced some form of social isolation during national/regional ‘lockdowns’. This led to questions regarding how whanaungatanga in Aotearoa is/was maintained in Māori communities during such public health interventions that require/expect a form of ‘loneliness’ to occur (by law in some countries).

Similarly, the article contained the view that drinking alcohol alone and at home was considered as problematic as it did not have any connections to whanaungatanga. This led to a discussion of whether or not people involved in the hui felt able to contribute to such discussions if they themselves drank alcohol at home, alone. This raised questions of whether or not the notion of ‘socially desirable responses’ (i.e. saying what you think a researcher wants to hear) was applicable and relevant to indigenous research/ers. The group could not reach any consensus on this matter.

A third discussion point concerned the concluding statement that ‘participants in this study point to health and well-being benefits associated with whanaungatanga in the context of alcohol use’ (p.206, emphasis added) The group discussed the authors’ implied meaning in the ‘health and well-being benefits’, associated with a substance that causes widespread harm, without any agreement.

The group could only hypothesise and consider each of these discussion points relating to whanaungatanga. This was because of the detached nature (and cultural setting) of the meeting participants from the Māori-centred indigenous research. For these reasons, this summary provides an opportunity for the lead author (Dr Sarah Herbert) to provide a post-script response to these specific discussion points in the space below. This is perhaps an unorthodox – albeit unique – contribution to the SSA QMJC website, as it involves the lead author providing feedback on a discursive article about their research. However, it should also be noted that such ‘unorthodoxy’ is more associated with the scientific norms and practices of other research – but is considered entirely orthodox (and expected) within the practice and principles of indigenous research/ers. It therefore seems appropriate to provide this space for Dr Herbert to contribute to this article.


Lead Author’s Response to Discussion (as post-script).

Kia Ora Stephen,

Thank you for the providing opportunity to respond to your group’s discussion notes regarding our paper “It’s all about Whanaungatanga: Alcohol use and older Māori in Aotearoa”. It sounds like an interesting and robust conversation.

In regards to your points about the use of indigenous language, in this case Te Reo Māori, this is really interesting for me and it also made me smile as I read these comments. We actually had to really rein in our use of Te Reo Māori (Māori language) when we were publishing this study as a) we were pitching at a wider/international audience and as such, we were mindful of needing to get that balance between drawing on Te Reo Māori and privileging the dominant English language. One of the most frustrating things about receiving reviews for papers which have been submitted for publication in more mainstream journals is that often we have to reduce our use of Te Reo Māori and/or we get comments like “instead of using ‘hui’, can you not just use ‘meetings’?” while the translations offer some meaning for readers, they do not always capture the true essence of the Māori term. I have to say though that ALTERNATIVE and other indigenous journals don’t tend to limit us in our use of Te Reo Māori and I absolutely agree with your comments that language is so important in terms of providing insights into Māori ways of being and knowing and navigating the world.

In regards to your comment “group members recognised that it is necessary for non-indigenous researchers to ‘get the language right’”. Absolutely, I agree with this, and great qualitative researchers will pay specific attention to this when engaging with indigenous and/or minority groups I believe.

Relating to your comments on the research methods, specifically, how “a priori knowledge of others was considered to be a strength of the study – as it possibly reinforced participation and the social / community identities of those involved”. I think for me, it also highlights the importance of whanaungatanga (relationships) as having a primary function within the social structure of Māori society. Having those relationships and connections is actually what allows for great opportunities to carry out research because that relationship will actually facilitate the entire engagement with participants throughout the research.

In thinking about your comments in the COVID-19 era and the social isolation that occurred during ‘lockdowns’. I am also really interested in this. We observed during our ‘lockdown’ periods in Aotearoa that Māori adapted/modified/altered our tikanga in recognition of the need to keep our whānau and communities safe. That is the beauty of tikanga – it is fluid and may be drawn on for all and any situations to guide our behaviour, as it has successfully done in the past, in the present and of course it will continue to do so in the future. So, I am particularly interested to learn how tikanga may have changed in the context of alcohol use here in Aotearoa during the COVID lockdowns.

Regarding the comments around the possibility of social desirability bias impacting what participants shared with me. Of course, this was something I was mindful of during the research and even as I make these comments, I realise that I may of course be biased here too! However, we had some very honest and frank conversations about alcohol use during the face to face interviews and the Kaupapa whānau hui. For example, when we discussed what constitutes a ‘binge drinking episode’ or a ‘hazardous drinker’ participants, in a candid manner, expressed their binge drinking experiences as well as some claiming the label of ‘hazardous drinker’. What was important though was that these labels held little meaning to participants as the positive elements e.g. whanaungatanga that occurred during such an occasion and the fact that their alcohol use occurred in a safe environment meant that that was not seen as problematic alcohol use. Further, we did have participants share their ‘drinking at home on their own experiences’ and yes, I would think there may have been some sort of social desirability bias occurring here perhaps. However, participants were clear that when they drank at home on their own they knew this was problematic and they acknowledged that it was not a good time for them or that it was not a good thing to be doing. So I think there was a degree of openness and transparency around this.

In relation to your third discussion point concerning the statement about the ‘health and wellbeing benefits’ this was related to the health and well being benefits that resulted from older Māori having time and space to engage in whanaungatanga, rather than alcohol use per se. The [sad] reality is, is that Aotearoa is saturated in alcohol environments, so when there are opportunities for whanaungatanga to occur among older Māori, often, it is in environments that also contain alcohol. Importantly, I think this statement is really about recognising that Māori understandings of health and wellbeing are holistic. The positive influence/consequences of older Māori have opportunity to engage in whanaungatanga, for these participants, outweighed any perceived negative effects from the alcohol use that may have also occurred. For some, going down to their local RSA on a Friday evening was the absolute highlight of their week and this is what they looked forward to and enjoyed (because they would see their whānau and friends and engage in whanaungatanga) and this was more important that the potential negative physical impacts of alcohol use (and other negative impacts).

I think that is all from me, and I am so pleased to know that our research generated such interesting discussion and thought provoking reflections. I wish you all the best in your future research discussions.

Mauri Ora,
Sarah Herbert


The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA or the author’s academic institution.

The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.