Researching and educating with Māori in New Zealand – ethics of care in practice

by Tula Brannelly

This blog is a reflection on how I came to realise that the ethics of care offered a systematic framework for guiding non-oppressive and decolonising practices when I worked with Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand. I was a senior lecturer in mental health at Massey University in Wellington from 2006 – 2015. My initial stance was that as Māori are over represented in mental health services, I would need to learn more about why that was, including how the Māori worldview sits with Western psychiatry, and I needed to understand more about impacts of colonisation and development of approaches that were sensitive to Māori wellbeing. 

Through partnerships, I came to understand the ethics of care as a guide for ethical practice. Whenever I worked with Māori, I interpreted kaupapa (ways of doing) as an ethic of care in practice.

Amohia Boulton and I wrote about kaupapa and ethics of care (see further reading below).  Values such as care (manaakitanga), guardianship (kaitiakitanga) and relationality (whakawhanaungatanga) were evident through formal protocols such as welcomes on the marae (meeting place), in hui (meetings) and through students’ accounts of kaupapa mental health services.

I had previously used an ethic of care as a systematic framework to critique practices of care for people with dementia. In this new context it provided a way of thinking about ethical research practices that valued relationships, intellectual property ownership and care. 

Joan Tronto’s  Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of careand Caring democracy ethic of care suggests a two-pronged approach – the first is to understand marginalisation where it exists, to take responsibility for addressing inequality. The second was the integrity of care that suggests five elements of practice that can review or guide care. They are:

  • Caring about – attentiveness to all in the relationship to understand needs and aspirations
  • Caring for – responsibility for taking action to meet those needs
  • Caregiving – competence to know how to take action and achieve care
  • Care receiving – responsiveness to the people involved to know whether care has been achieved
  • Caring with – solidarity in that the care meets the needs of the marginalised

Positioning indigenous people as ‘the problem’

One of the issues identified in our Footprints in the Sand podcast was the tendency for indigenous peoples to be positioned as ‘the problem’ without the ability to solve challenges. This signifies a Western-centric superiority that positions non-indigenous as having the answers, and thus negates indigenous knowledge and values. Understanding marginalisation through the ethics of care is relational, thereby requiring knowledge of experience, and understanding how people affected by marginalisation see what would work to overcome marginalisation. Taking responsibility takes account of this knowledge to design potential actions.  

The integrity of care, in research terms, may be expressed as attentiveness to the researched community, the researchers and others involved in the research process. Particular attention needs to be paid to the person who is arranging access as they are often a person of the community that is vouching for the researcher to have sensitivity to the community.

The community may want to be part of the research, but not in the way the researcher has planned. In my experience, individual consent forms became meaningless as many whanau (family) members wanted to join in the interview. People may want to guide the research or add something that is not part of the research proposal, and whether this is included may have profound effects on the agreement or willingness to participate. 

Responsibility can be shown in researchers being responsive to the requests of the community, including changes to the proposal or the addition of specific questions and reflexivity to include different perspectives. This would be usual in coproduced research, but maybe less accommodated in other approaches. 

Competence can be tricky. How competent is competent when working with a different worldview than you are used to, with concepts that are not directly translatable to a Western worldview? In the podcast for this project Helen discussed stepping forward and stepping back, and I understand this as being able to step forward and show competence in what is expected of you – your research approach, the questions you are asking and the knowledge you are producing that is valid, well designed and justified.

Stepping back is acknowledging the deficits in your knowledge and being open to instruction and direction, and accepting that from others. I found that some language knowledge to understand some parts of discussion in te reo (Maori language) was helpful, particularly to learn pronunciation. 

Responsiveness is shown by a willingness to revisit and check that what was agreed was achieved and whether any changes are required to how the research is progressing. This requires adequate time to inform people and get feedback, and a willingness to change course. 

Solidarity is shown by centralising the position of the people affected as the start and end point of activity. Solidarity is shown in building trust with people, by understanding and acknowledging experience, by accommodating suggested ways of overcoming challenges and by evaluating outcomes according to the wishes of that community of people. (See The ethics of care and transformational research practices in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Relationships and responsibilities

Central to care ethics are the tenets of relationships and responsibilities in an interdependent complex system. As a person who has benefitted from colonial power (as a UK citizen), it is my responsibility to consider the implications of research that is undertaken and the potential impacts on the communities it affects.

Before we meet, we are already in a relationship formed and shaped by previous connections. We also have the power to shape future connections, but only if the community feels some benefit of the research and sees a value in continuing such partnerships. 


I would like to acknowledge the following people and organisations – particularly Amohia Boulton with whom I have written extensively;  Te Waka Whaiora and Te Roopu Pookai Taaniwhaniwha supported the education of nurses; and Te Rau Puawai was a Massey University workforce initiative so I had a role supporting undergraduate and postgraduate Māori nurses through this programme. 

Further reading

  • Carol Gilligan, 1982, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development
  • Joan Tronto, 1993, Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care
  • Marian Barnes 2012, Care in Everyday Life
  • Tula Brannelly, 2018, An ethics of care research manifesto, (International Journal of Care and Caring).  
  • Amohia Boulton and Tula Brannelly Care Ethics and Indigenous Values: Political, Personal and Tribal in Barnes, M., Brannelly T, Ward L and Ward N (2015), Ethics of Care. Critical Advances in International Perspective, Policy Press.
  • Tula Brannelly, Amohia Boulton, and Allie Te Hiini, 2013. A Relationship Between the Ethics of Care and Māori Worldview—The Place of Relationality and Care in Maori Mental Health Service Provision. Ethics and Social Welfare.)