Pacific Research Methodologies and Relational Ethics
Summary and Keywords
One could easily argue that Pacific research methodologies (PRM) and Pacific relational ethics (PRE) are not new: a genealogy of approach would take one back to the ancient Pacific philosophers and practitioners of ancient indigenous knowledges—indeed back to Tagaloa-a-lagi and the 10 heavens. However, in the last two decades, there has been a renaissance of PRM and PRE taken up by Pacific researchers based in New Zealand and the wider Pacific to counter the Western hegemonic tradition of how research is carried out and why—especially research involving Pacific people, families, and communities. In the diaspora, as ethnic minorities and in their island homes, as Third World nations, Pacific peoples and communities are struggling to survive in contexts of diasporic social marginalization and a neocolonial globalizing West. So there is a need to take stock of what contemporary expressions of PRM and PRE are, how they have developed, and why they are needed. This renaissance seeks to decolonize and reindigenise research agendas and research outputs by doing research based on Pacific indigenous theories, PRM, and PRE. It demands that research carried out with Pacific peoples and communities is ethical and methodologically sound with transformational outputs. In reality, the crisis in Pacific research is the continuing adherence to traditional Western theories and research methods that undermine and overshadow the va—the sacred, spiritual, and social spaces of human relationships between researcher and researched that Pacific peoples place at the center of all human/environment/cosmos/ancestors and animate/inanimate interactions. When human relationships are secondary to research theories and methods, the research result is ineffective and meaningless and misinforms policy formation and education delivery, thereby maintaining the inequitable positioning of Pacific peoples across all demographic indices, especially in the field of Pacific education.
The Samoan indigenous reference of teu le va, which means to value, nurture, and care for (teu) the secular/sacred and social/spiritual spaces (va) of all relationships, and Teu le Va , the Ministry of Education research guideline, both evoke politicians, educational research institutions, funders, and researchers to value, nurture, and, if necessary, tidy up the va. In a troubling era of colonizing research methodologies and researcher nonaccountability, Pacific educational researchers can take inspiration from a range of philosophical theorizing based on the development of a suite of PRMs.
This article focuses on Pacific research being developed in New Zealand for several reasons: the first published Pacific research guidelines were developed in the early 2000s in New Zealand, spearheaded by the call for “research for the Pacific by the Pacific” in the trailblazing work by Tuhiwai-Smith (1999) in decolonizing Eurocentric research methodologies for Māori people and communities and Helu-Thaman’s Kakala (1992) research framework; political responses and critiques of colonizing research agendas in 1,200 Pacific education MA/PhD theses across the period 1944 to 2008 deposited in New Zealand University Libraries (of which the largest proportion—35%—were completed at University of Auckland, followed by 20% at Victoria University), despite the plethora of Pacific research methodologies (PRM) available, overwhelmingly posit teu le va (preservation of a respectful social space between researcher and researched) and talanoa (data collection reflecting dialogue within Pacific communities) as their preferred methodological approaches (Burnett, 2012). For me, Pacific research developments in New Zealand have provided a genealogical and generative space for new understandings of Pacific relational ethics (PRE), and it is in New Zealand that Pacific research is being defined and interrogated through inter-Pacific and intra-Pacific lenses by Pacific scholars such as Sanga and Reynolds (2017) in their call for placing new work within existing patterns and models of research and Suaalii-Sauni (2017) and Suaalii-Sauni and Fulu-Aioluputea (2014). The latter works specifically are critical commentaries on key Pacific and Māori research approaches such as the va and Kaupapa Māori, thus interrogating the tools of research within specific PRM.
Of particular concern among Pacific scholars based in New Zealand is the explicit acknowledgment of va (genealogical relationships), as the field of Pacific research develops, and the need to be vigilant about what can and should be called Pacific research. Hence the need for careful and respectful critiques of the past, which have resulted in refinement of Kakala and Talanoa methodologies since the turn of the 21st century (Sanga & Reynolds, 2017, p. 200).
Other concerns are in the naming of non-Pacific things as Pacific (Tunufa’i, 2016), which diminishes the relevance of research to Pacific peoples. Sanga and Reynolds (2017) state that “critique is its own form of development, a conversation which, if respectfully conducted offers opportunities to honour origins and protect legacy. Through its agency the Pacific qualities of the field can be ensured” (p. 201), and with clarity, transparency, and reflexivity Pacific research will “know more of what it is and what it is not” (Sanga, 2014, p. 50).
Another concern is the accretion of “clutter” in Pacific research (Anae, 2007; Efi, 2005)—described variously as an “increasing web-like array of methods, methodologies, approaches, models and paradigms” (Tunufa’i cited in Saga & Reynolds, 2017, p. 201), and ideas that when distracted from their value have a “paralyzing effect” on deep understandings and appreciation of what gives Pacific peoples “meaning and belonging” (Efi, 2005).
The teu le va paradigm thus adds to the scrutiny of the genealogical va and critiques of the past and offers a “decluttering” of the field. It provides clarity and optimizes the meaning and centrality of relationship of research(ers) to Pacific research participants at all levels—with communities, research teams, funders, institutions, and policymakers (Airini et al., 2010). It is a focused consideration of the key Pacific research concept of teu le va and its relationship with relational ethics that argues for the need to pay attention to social and sacred spaces of relationships as these methods, methodologies, approaches, models, and paradigms are enacted. As such, it offers a consideration of the ontological questions of relationship in research methodology and provides an extensive examination of the development of teu le va as a framework in Pacific research and ethics, addressing the issues of accountability and responsibility within this paradigm.
In New Zealand, much of the development of the PRM/PRE field, defined here as Pacific paradigms, concepts, metaphors, models of “well-being,” research methodologies, and cultural competencies, has occurred in the education and health sector. Indeed, there is a sense of urgency in the way Pacific researchers are heeding the call to “disrupt hegemonic research forms and their power relations and to alleviate and reinvent new research methodologies and perspectives” (Smith, 2004, p. 2). Government demands for “evidence-based” and “culturally appropriate” research, the drive to develop new ways of thinking about research, and the need to build Pacific research capability and capacity has become more and more apparent. The development of PRMs has occurred in three ways. First are those that have been funded by government ministries and agencies focused on a bottom-up approach, seeking Pacific worldviews and epistemologies. Examples are the Pasifika education research guidelines (Airini et al., 2010; Anae, Coxon, Mara, Wendt-Samu, & Finau, 2001), Pacific research guidelines (Ministry of Health, 2005, 2014), and Pacific cultural competencies (Ministry of Health, 2008). Second are those that have been devised by institutions in a top-down manner; for example, University Pacific Research Protocols (Massey University, 2014; University of Otago, 2011). Third are those that have been developed organically by Pacific practitioners such as educationists, health practitioners, social science researchers, and others.
The Pacific models, guidelines, and competencies, some pan-Pacific and others ethnic-specific, are used as models to be emulated in the various fields, disciplines, organizations, and institutions. The guidelines funded by government ministries, the Health Research Council, city councils, and district health boards have been developed to encourage culturally appropriate research praxis and outcomes for Pacific peoples and communities. It is hoped that research projects using these guidelines and cultural competencies will provide robust evidence to persuade policymakers to shift their policymaking clout from the mainstream “one-shoe-fits-all” approach to addressing specifically Pacific or ethnic-specific issues.
Much of the development of this PRM/PRE field appears to be ad hoc, piecemeal, and fragmented (Anae, 2007; Efi, 2005; Sanga & Reynolds, 2017, p. 201) and highlights the necessity for more coordination and focus. What is needed is a comprehensive, conceptual framework for research with Pacific communities that offers holistic, theoretical foundations to improve and enhance the quality and quantity of research evidence informing various governmental policies, specifically Pacific education policy and Pacific education delivery.
Theorizing Pacific Research Methodologies
The starting point for the renaissance of PRM, PRE, and Pacific theorizing begins with Helu-Thaman’s Kakala as a research framework based on Tongan reference in 1992 (and further developed by Johansson-Fua  and Taufe’ulungaki, Johansson Pua, Manu, & Takapautolo ; see also Taufe’ulungaki & Manu’atu, 2001), and hence begins the discourse on PRM as addressing the va. But the main thrust for PRM theorizing and the disruption of traditional Western research methodologies was initiated with the work of Tuhiwai Linda Smith (1999) and her ground breaking Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. In it she writes:
the term “research” is inextricably linked to European Imperialism and colonialism. . . . The ways in which scientific research is implicated in the worst excesses of colonialism remains a powerful remembered history for many of the world’s colonised peoples. It is a history that still offends the deepest sense of our humanity. (p. 1)
This was written at a time when Pacific researchers were taking stock of the Pacific Way (Crocombe, 1976) and the inspiration of Hau’ofa’s (1994) empowerment theory in the (re)development of indigenous ontologies, epistemologies, and theories in an effort to transform colonizing research processes. It signaled the beginning of the end, certainly in New Zealand, for imposed Western research paradigms that distorted and misrepresented communities and their knowledge. The gaze was now on indigenous ways of engaging with indigenous communities and their knowledge systems (Kaupapa Māori [Smith, 1997, 2003]; Faafaletui [Tamasese, Peteru, & Waldegrave, 1997; Tamasese, Peteru, Waldegrave, & Bush, 2005]; Fonofale [Pulotu-Endemann, 1997]; Tivaevae [Maua-Hodges, 2000]; Talanoa [Halapua, 2000]; Pasifika Education Research Guidelines [Anae et al., 2001]).
Application of these PRM was not by accident but by necessity, given that Māori and Pacific populations have been at the bottom of the heap according to all demographic indices for the past two centuries. This positioning has now been accelerated by the juggernaut of globalizing neocolonialism and neoliberalism. Reasons for this positioning cannot be captured adequately by consulting statistics or censuses but by equitable and just dialogic approaches and research that also examine systemic influences and how these have affected Māori and Pacific people. Transformational change can only happen when good, robust research is translated into policy (re)formation and service delivery. The development of effective PRM and PRE since the turn of the 21st century in New Zealand is essential in this endeavor, as are de/anticolonization models and frameworks being developed in the Pacific region over the same period. Koya-Vakauta (2017) provides useful histories and synopses of numerous Pacific conceptual PRM that have emerged since the turn of the 21st century in the works of Pacific scholars in the region and in the diaspora, representing a diversity of Pacific cultures in her chapter “Rethinking Research as Relational Space in the Pacific” (pp. 65–84).
To demonstrate the breadth of this PRM/PRE field, a selection of key PRM is summarized in Table 1. The table organizes the development of key contemporary approaches chronologically (1992–2017) with original authors listed first, followed by subsequent genealogical development of the field. This is not an exhaustive list; however, for novice researchers, the primary sources and subsequent “careful and respectful critique” (Sanga & Reynolds, 2017, p. 200) of primary source theorizing listed will certainly provide a comprehensive gafa (genealogy) of the development of PRM across the indigenous and diasporic Pacific, as well as a reference point for the centrality of relational accountability and relational responsibility across the PRM/PRE field.
Table 1. Pacific Research Methodologies
Pasifika Education Research Guidelines
Anae, Coxon, Mara, Wendt-Samu, & Finau (2001)
(See Airini et al., 2010 for second MOE Pasifika Education Research Guideline)
Guidelines on Pacific Health Research
Ministry of Health (2005)
Ministry of Health (2014)
It is not surprising that most of these PRM either directly or indirectly refer to the va. In Pacific cultures, the va encompasses most if not all life, and thus Pacific people are born into a multidimensional flow of life, enhanced and protected by relationships that are not created but continued (Va’ai, 2017, p. 27). Given that this va or relationality may be articulated differently in different island cultures, what is common to them all is that relationality holds life in balance and harmony (Va’ai, 2017, p. 28).
Koya-Vaka’uta (2017) notes that the Samoan, Tongan, and Fijian PRM contain culturally specific ideals and philosophies and that notable similarities across these are metaphorical underpinnings and a focus on indigenous philosophies conceptualized around place/land and space/relations, cultural notions of the pedagogic self/self-concept and identity in relation to family and community, holistic understandings of the human-in-the-world grounded in balance for continuity and survival/sustainability, and spirituality and values (p. 78).
What is missing—and areas of concern for Koya-Vaka’uta (2017)—is the gap in research literature that prevents a holistic understanding of good research practice or pedagogy and a general lack of “rigorous discourse” critiquing these methodologies and methods. Koya-Vaka’uta calls for the need for a community of practice that will begin to theorize and practice PRM and establish a “new line of critical discourse” on reflective Pacific research praxis (p. 80).
This critique is echoed by Sanga and Reynolds (2017) who state “Despite the longevity of the philosophies and ontologies which are embodied in research endeavours, Pacific research and the self-conscious theorising which underpins it has a relatively short history” (p. 202). The authors call for intentional naming, describing, defining, relating, and separating theoretical constructs as acts of this theoretical development—in the context of contemporary concerns—and the need for further development of connections between theory from proximal and overlapping spaces such as Kaupapa Māori and Pacific theory. It is my contention that the discourse and theorizing on the va, focusing on PRE as a philosophical, ontological, epistemological, and methodological key (for it is at once and all these things), and teu le va theory with key principles of relational accountability and responsibility for transformational research, are valuable contributions to addressing these pedagogical and praxis concerns. After all, what the plethora of PRMs, methods, approaches, frameworks, models, and paradigms are evoking and naming are necessarily ethnic-specific Pacific metaphorical va—indigenous philosophies that spell out the relational va between the researcher and the researched described by Koleta Savaii (2016) as
Pacific peoples view the self as comprised of their social relationships, their land and physical resources, and the spiritual. This view of the self and the relationship between the self and others features the person not as separate from the social and environmental context, but as more connected and less differentiated from them. The emphasis is on attending to them, fitting in, and harmonious interdependence with them.
Whether Kaupapa Māori (land, community land family considerations); kakala (flower garland), talanoa (face to face dialogue); fonofale (holistic house); tivaevae (patchwork quilt); faafaletui (woven “houses”); vanua (land); tuli (heritage art); bu ni Ovalau (coconut tree); ‘iluvatu (mat); fetuutuunai (navigation), what is important is the context of the relational social and sacred va between the researcher and the researched and how PRE is embodied and enacted throughout their interactions. The educational research guideline document Teu le Va (Airini et al., 2010), on the other hand, extends the context of va and PRE to relationships not only between the researcher and the researched but to all relational collaborators involved in the research process (institutions, funders, politicians, participants, communities) and the need to value, nurture, and, if necessary, tidy up these relational va. Indeed, the detailed exhortation on how to teu le va at all stages of the research process (see Table 1: How the Teu le va Approach Can Be Understood and Acted On by Researchers and Policy-makers in Anae, 2007, pp. 16–17) goes a long way in helping to expose, reconcile, and direct human judgement and experience in the negotiation of successful Ministry of Education (MOE) contract bids. The theorizing and praxis of teu le va thus shifts the focus from metaphorical va to direct transformational action within these relational spaces for optimal research outcomes.
PRE that have been invoked to explain and understand PRM provide the relational thread that weaves together local/regional, diaspora/island-based, and outcomes “appropriate to a circular-evolving type of logic” (Ferris-Leary in Sanga & Reynolds, 2017, p. 202). Woven together, PRM approaches and teu le va are building a coherent PRM theory. PRM and relational thinkers are eclectic but systematic thinkers, weaving insights from others with their own original ideas to build this PRM theory. Teu le va theory has been born from this development, and, from my own experiences of the Samoan culture as a New Zealand–born Samoan woman, I have listened to others, reinterpreted, and modified and added my ideas over time. I have been prompted by my own reflections, constructive criticism, and the changes/crises in Pacific education in New Zealand, and I am continuing to develop my thinking over time as situations/policies change. At this time I am convinced that teu le va and PRE defined by Mila-Schaaf and Hudson (2009) as
making beautiful the va’: balance, symmetry, beauty—these are unapologetically “Pacific” aesthetic values strongly linked to wellbeing and good outcome. . . . As a matter of preference, connections are made and conflict minimised out of concern for the relationship and a desire for harmony and symmetry within the engagement (p. 17)
celebrates the Pacific ethnic-specificness of each method, methodology, approach, model, and paradigm and situates these under the shelter of an umbrella of supportive kin, able to nurture the various va involved in these, with love and care through both relatedness and separation.
Relational Accountability: The Va–Inspiring Relationality
Va’ai (2017) in his seminal work on Pacific relationality and Pacific itulagi, defined as “lifeworld,” adds to Smith’s (1999) Decolonising Methodologies and Epeli Hauofa’s (1994) theory of empowerment in Our Sea of Islands through a powerful hermeneutical lens. In his work, Va’ai sets out to purposively “decolonise the mindset and Pacific itulagi” (and by implication, methodology) through the focus on Pacific relationality (2017, pp. 17–41).
Approaches to PRM and Pacific relationality are underpinned by a complex ontology, epistemology, and ethic. They draw from a range of interdisciplinary authors from education, anthropology, health, history, sociology, and Māori/Pacific studies and from a range of different intellectual traditions (genealogy and kinship, indigeneity, decolonization, philosophy, postcolonialism, critical theory, praxis and empowerment, and Freirian thinking) in their development.
The centrality of the va as relational space, in which Pacific values of love, service, spirituality, respect, reciprocity, collective responsibility, gerontocracy, and humility are felt and enacted, have remained consistent across these published PRM (see Anae et al., 2001, p. 14; Koya-Vaka’uta, 2017, p. 78). Another commonality across the PRE is the focus on qualitative research methods rather than quantitative, and in some cases mixed methods. Qualitative research is given priority in terms of oral forms of communication through face-to-face dialogue or talanoa as a feature of the Pacific way (Crocombe, 1976) and PRE, and the importance of individual and focus group talanoa among research participants and researcher is emphasized. The glaring insistence on attention to the sacred and spiritual as integral to PRE is another consistent feature of PRM (Koya-Vakauta, 2017), and cultural competencies such as those in New Zealand are what sets PRM and PRE apart from colonizing research methodologies and relational ethics (Anae, 2017). This is evidenced by their increasing importance in health research guidelines (Ministry of Health, 2005, 2014), governmental cultural competency guidelines (Ministry of Health, 2008), and psychotherapy and healthcare discourse and praxis by practitioners (viz. marriage and family therapy and mental health) in defining spirituality and how to practice and teach it in clinical practice (Bagnoli, 2006; Callahan, 2013; Carlson, Erickson, & Seewald-Marquardt, 2002; Gabriel & Casemore, 2009; Pollard, 2015; Wessels & Muller, 2013).
In Pacific relationality we are called to put a’ano (flesh) on the bones of personhood, recognizing our commitments to each other in the humanity of relationships. The focus of relationality is on whole people as interdependent moral agents and the quality of the commitments between them. The space between people is, as the ethical or relational space, a space that must be nurtured and respected if ethical practice is to be enacted. Attention is focused on the particular, the context, the process, and the dialogue (Bergham & Dossetor, 2005). In this view mutual respect is identified as relationality (Va’ai & Casimara, 2017). As Pacific researchers our work lies in inspiring accountability in the va. Next we consider the place of spirituality in PRM and PRE.
Sacredness and Spirituality in the Va
Important to the Samoan view of reality is the concept of va:
Va is the space between, the between-ness, not empty space, not space that separates but space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity-that-is-All, the space giving meaning to things. The meanings change as the relationships/the contexts change.. . . A well-known Samoan expression is . . . “teu le va.” Cherish/nurse/care for the va, the relationships. This is crucial in . . . cultures that value group, unity, more than individualism: who perceive the individual person/creature/thing in terms of group, in terms of va, relationships.
(Wendt, 1996, p. 42)
Across PRM and PRE discourse the centrality of the sacred, tapu, and spirituality is indisputable. This gift of spirituality is defined as an ethical, profoundly relational and moral way of being that is a lived, everyday endeavor requiring continuous practice and daily mindfulness. It centers on an intimate relationship with God(s) of our understandings and how that relationship invites one into communal relations of respect, mutuality, accountability, compassion, and love.
Tui Atua (2009) states that the “tapu (the sacred) and tofa saili (the search for wisdom) are considered and situated in contemporary Samoan experiences and understandings of the ethical . . . and provide the basis for ethical research in a Samoan indigenous context” (p. 115). I support his call for the “re-appreciation” of the rightful place of the spiritual, sacred, and tapu in ethical debates. Teu le va provides a framework for interactions within which the sacred can be enacted. In Pacific contexts it can be experienced as a spiritual awakening and the recognition of the “sacred essence” beyond human reckoning, which comes from the knowledge that Pacific people are connected in a web to the gods. Some understand these gods as Tagaloa and all of creation, and others as the Christian God. Tagaloa is believed by many Samoans to be the progenitor creator god; however, ancient Samoan beliefs about Tagaloa, compromised by the influence of Christianity, colonialism, and capitalism, have been relegated to the “darkness” (Maliko, 2012) and certainly have less currency today.
These PRM and PRE perspectives suggest that if one views all reciprocal relationships with others as sacred, then the relationship will be more valued and more closely nurtured. The teu le va indigenous reference uses Tui Atua’s notion of va tapuia and genealogy and focuses on the centrality of reciprocal relationships in the development of optimal relationships. But how does one teu le va? And how, within the va, does interaction by involved parties occur? To teu le va requires that, using the gift of spirituality, one regards these (inter)actions as sacred in order to value, nurture, and, if necessary, tidy up the va in the context of va tapuia, experienced in research relationships. This is not to say that to teu le va in all one’s relationships is simple, nor is it an easy process, especially if there is disagreement with the other party in a relationship and one takes a more subservient role/position to the other. More often than not it is complex, multilayered, and fraught with difficulties. For example, teu le va is used in the wedding ceremony to imply that when problems occur in the marriage, one of the partners must relent/submit to the other, thereby cementing the institution of marriage. The other glaring example is the “ifoga” (forgiveness) ritual, where to teu le va means that the perpetrator’s family/village ritually seeks forgiveness from the victim’s family/village. This is actioned by the perpetrator’s party sitting on the ground in the victim’s village and waiting for however long it takes (hours, days, weeks, months) for the aggrieved party’s forgiveness. This is an apology reserved for the kinds of sins (murder, rape, adultery, theft) that in many other societies are punishable by death. This example more than any other illustrates not only the strength and power of the va if violated but also a means of reparation in the act of forgiveness to preserve the va. So to teu le va is not easy; it is difficult. But if all parties have the will, the spirit, and the heart for what is at stake, then it is a win-win situation and optimal outcomes will be achieved.
Teu le va is significant because not only does it infer protocols, cultural etiquette, both physical and sacred, and tapu, but it implies both proscribed and prescribed behavior and the concomitant moral and ethical underpinnings of behavior. It insists that direct action must follow to correct the relationship and/or the relational arrangement if a breach of the tapu in the va has occurred. Thus not only during formal rituals but also at small family or village meetings, when one is told to teu le va, the matter is taken very seriously and immediate action is taken to address the incorrect relational arrangement (Airini et al., 2010, p. 12). In essence, in all human relationships, the action/behavior and consequences consist of the duality of reciprocal practical action being sanctioned by spiritual, moral, and sacred support.
In our research relationships, Pacific researchers can teu le va in general by exposing, understanding, and reconciling our va with each other in reciprocal relationships in the research process and engaging in dialogue with all research participants at all levels. A person, as an independent being, is both separate from others (independent) and connected to others (dependent) at the same time. A relational personhood, or interdependent personhood, fosters rather than assumes autonomy. Thus the role of the Pacific researcher is to facilitate continued dialogue between all research collaborators to ensure debate and continued dialogue over time. Where there is tension or disagreement, to teu le va means to soothe, mute, and/or attenuate these, in order to correct or realign priorities to ensure the dialogue is kept intact and moving forward.
People and groups with whom we meet and have relational arrangements all have specific biographies (a whole plethora of ethnicities, genders, classes, ages, and agendas), and, whether they are family members and/or research collaborators, to teu le va means to be accountable, responsible, and committed to take all of these into account in the context in which these relationships are occurring in the enactment of ethical moments. It is this as well as through face-to-face interaction, words spoken, body language, and behavior, with purposeful and positive outcomes of the relationship in mind, that the relationship progresses and moves forward. Not to do this will incur the wrath of the gods, the keepers of tapu, and positive successful outcomes will not eventuate; progress will be impeded, parties to the relationship will be put at risk, and appeasement and reconciliation will need to be sought.
Va’ai (2017) adds to this va discourse through a hermeneutical lens. In his exegesis of relational hermeneutics as a key to decolonizing the Pacific mindset, Va’ai evokes Pacific itulagi. This cultural reference is defined literally as “a side of the heavens,” but in this context it is the different “sides” that condition one’s thinking, including culture, family, religion, people, land ancestors, ocean, language, and spirituality (p. 6). How these diverse realities make up our life-worlds thus suggests that our consciousness always operates in a world of meanings that are culturally and historically conditioned. In this view relational hermeneutics can be defined as “returning to relational expressions of life, how a person freely dialogues and connects with his/her whole itulagi and how this holistic context shapes one’s imagination and the search for meaning” (Va’ai, 2017, p. 23).
This hermeneutical va, further expanded on, begins with the body—with embodied relations, knowledge, interconnections, environment and everyday life—stirs up imagination and disrupts conventions; encourages critical engagement with global inducements in favor of Pacific itulagi; questions paternalistic attitudes of oppressive systems; critiques colonial mindsets and embraces healthy alternatives grounded in the Pacific itulagi; affirms the intrinsic dignity of indigenous knowledges and the Pacific itulagi as the starting point for understanding and seeking knowledge; promotes dialogue and celebration of diversity; critiques anthropocentric developments but is also geared toward achieving sustainable ways existence with all cosmic life; is holistic and ground-up; and is able to attain harmony with opposing polarities and realities (Va’ai, 2017, p. 24).
PRM and relationality from Va’ai’s (2017) hermeneutical perspective necessitates the principles of mutual exclusiveness, truthfulness, knowledge embodiment, holistic spirituality, and cosmic-community interconnectedness. Mutual inclusiveness, for example talanoa (dialogue and conversation), should be open (Havea, 2010; Vaioleti, 2011), receptive talanoa, thereby creating an otherward dimension of relationship through the spirit of hospitality, dialogue, sensibility, vulnerability, and risk and an appreciation that one’s horizon of understanding is widened and/or changed by the encounter with something/one opposite, new, or unfamiliar (Va’ai, 2017, p. 29). Truthfulness is defined as trusting and looking after each other in a truthful and honest way, despite the hierarchy of status and positions (Va’ai, 2017, p. 31). Knowledge embodiment is understood as knowledge that is based on relationships and the emphasis on active participation of ordinary people in the creation and implementation of policies and frameworks, rather than passive acceptance of top-down approaches (p. 32). Holistic spirituality results from the flow and fluidity of relationality, thus the sacred is in the secular and vice versa, meaning that relational life is spiritual life. Finally, cosmic-community interconnectedness, defined as interweaving of the self, God, and the cosmos, deconstructs any colonizing thinking that is human-centered and instead evokes living relationships that not only exist in the other but also constitute each other (Va’ai, 2017, p. 33).
My reading of these principles is that in the va, we are relationship, and as people we see ourselves mirrored in the other. Ultimately, Va’ai (2017) is contending that relationality is the key to life and that “relationality is a Pacific itulagi response to the ‘moral crisis’ now faced by the world today” (p. 37). He states that the challenge for relational hermeneutics is “to rediscover what is found within the womb of people’s itulagi as tools for reshaping and reforming development, and indeed all of life in the region” (p. 38). What he is calling for is a reformation that continually questions and deconstructs foundations of knowledge of both colonizing traditions and Pacific indigenous knowledges that have shaped our everyday lives in relation to political, religious, economic, and social issues. What follows this reformation, then, is a reconstruction of knowledge and life that is unique and distinctive to Pacific peoples.
In the context of research, the gift of relational spirituality is found in the relational accountability in the va across all stages of the research process—from setting the research questions, methodology, methods and design, fieldwork, data analysis, and data dissemination to the va with all research collaborators in the hope that the ideas we share here can adequately articulate ways for bringing our spiritual lives more fully into our professional relationships as Pacific researchers.
Relational spirituality has the potential to manifest through the practice of spiritually sensitive research. In practice, this means that, with those with whom we are relationally connected (researcher/researched and researcher/collaborators), we are open to mutual discoveries of ways to more fully engage in significant relationships across all levels and stages of the research. This process thus provides ways to identify what people need to make their relationships more meaningful, and, ultimately, a means for transcending difficulties. Since relational spirituality is at the core of the encounter, the research relationship itself has the potential to enhance life-worlds and meaning for all parties. In this way there is the possibility that in this process of providing spiritually sensitive care, researchers have the potential to change themselves.
Relational Responsibility: Teu le va—Theory in Practice
Hoskins, Martin, and Humphries (2011) note that relational ethic responsibility has the power to address the planetary, ecological, and human challenges of our time. Drawing from the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (1981, 1986, 2004), they, as indigenous researchers, offer a powerful critique of the tenets of classical liberalism and associated economic theory by their claim that indigenous knowledge systems are premised on putting the “other” before self-interest and are “remarkable for their shared priorities of responsibility, obligation and relationality as pre-eminent values” (Hoskins et al., 2011, p. 22). The drivers for successful educational outcomes for Pacific learners as an urgent priority for researchers across all educational fields are premised on these shared priorities and values.
Up to this point, I have been espousing the resurgence of the focus on relational accountability (va) documented in PRM literature. I now turn my attention to relational responsibility, which is about theorizing a relational web of Pacific research under the theory of teu le va with key principles of relational accountability and responsibility for transformational research outcomes.
The Pasifika Education Research Guidelines (Anae et al., 2001) were commissioned by the MOE to provide a clear understanding of the cultural and sociohistorical complexities involved in doing Pacific research in educational settings and practical protocols for carrying out research. These guidelines were seminal in outlining Pacific research contexts and some of the specific and sensitive issues around how research should be carried out between researchers, their teams, and Pacific peoples and communities. The document develops a PRM that insists on incorporating Pacific ontological and epistemological considerations into all stages of the research process—from defining the research “problem” to research design, implementation, analysis, and dissemination of findings. These considerations are defined as the need to acknowledge contemporary Pacific contexts: inter- and intraethnic dynamics (Anae, 1998; Tiatia & Deverell, 1998; Tupuola, 1993); collective ownership (Fana’afi Le Tagaloa, 1996), shame; authoritarian structures (Mavoa & Sua’ali’i, 2001); and implicit gender, status, and gerontocratic principles (Anae et al., 2001, p. 28).
In retrospect, these guidelines could have delineated the need to examine and expose the complex nature of ethics in Pacific research in clarifying further questions such as: Who am I? Who are you? What is our connection? What happens when the ethical moment is enacted? It was not until 2007 when I was asked by the MOE to write a conceptual paper (Anae, 2007) for the “Is Your Research Making a Difference to Pacific Education?” Symposium, held in Wellington, to inform a second iteration of the guidelines, that I had an epiphany of sorts, which did not really mature until that paper was published (Anae, 2010).
A paradigm shift and a change in mindset about the need to do Pacific research “properly” yielding more robust and more meaningful evidence that could translate into policy was needed—an emancipatory paradigm that shifted research as a means to an end, to the saliency of people and the importance of relationships between people in the research process. My own research trajectory had revealed tragic flaws in traditional research culture in New Zealand pertaining to Pacific peoples and communities. Much Pacific research in New Zealand, for example, has glossed over cross-cultural contexts, ignoring the cultural complexities not only of the multiethnic nature of Pacific communities but also the intraethnic nuances of the diverse groupings and identities of Pacific peoples in New Zealand. I knew that, until this was addressed, Pacific research in New Zealand would be ineffective and lack the ability for transformative change for Pacific peoples and communities in New Zealand.
Second, I realized that the proliferation of PRM being developed in New Zealand was in response to the centrality of research relationships and the importance of indigenous references in the way Pacific researchers were engaging in their moral and ethical praxis. Third, and more important, at the core of these considerations and developments was the need for an overarching philosophical paradigm that could umbrella these diverse but closely related PRM. I realized that by reframing PRE using the indigenous concept of teu le va, a paradigm shift could occur. This paradigm is important as it will later flow back into Pacific theses, research, and communities. Moreover, its philosophical and theoretical import is in the form of human capital as well as research outcomes (Burnett, 2012).
Concomitantly, my own personal experience as a Samoan woman born in New Zealand, my faasamoa upbringing, and my valuing of Samoan cultural references in acknowledging the centrality of aiga (extended family), va tapuia (sacred relational spaces), and va fealoa’i (spaces between relational arrangements), tautua (to serve), faaaloalo (to respect), feagaiga (special covenant between brother and sister and their respective lineages), gafa (genealogy), lotu (church), and faamatai (chiefly system) provided inspiration for the kind of transformative change I was seeking. The seed of the teu le va philosophical approach had been planted in the fertile soil of relational ethics.
Teu le va: Relationships Across Research and Policy (Airini et al., 2010), the second Pacific education research guideline document, makes explicit the underlying nuances of the philosophical and methodological issues contained in the original Pacific Education Research Guidelines 2001 and expands on already introduced issues, themes, reference points, and praxis contained therein. However, while the first set espoused the importance of relationships between researchers and Pacific participants/communities, this second set of guidelines, published some 10 years later, built on that platform by then focusing on the last epitome of transformative change—translating robust research into policy and more effective educational outcomes for Pacific learners in New Zealand.
In this second guidelines document, the Samoan indigenous philosophical teu le va paradigm is presented as a conceptual reference, ontology, philosophy, and methodology for future Pacific educational research in New Zealand. Its purpose was to bring research collaborators into PRE relationality to help provide optimal education outcomes for and with Pacific learners. It is clear that colonizing conventional approaches and thinking have not always been up to the task of dealing with Pacific education issues. After discussion with Pacific education researchers, policymakers, and other change leaders in education, Teu le va (Airini et al., 2010) was developed to provide the case for developing new and different kinds of relationships for the exposure and translation of knowledge into policy aimed at Pacific success in education. This guideline document takes a strategic, evidence-based, outcomes-focused, Pacific success approach, outlining three interactive principles focused on optimal relationships that will lead to directive action.
It was envisaged that emphasizing the importance of relationality and the significance of the context would enhance the acknowledgement and understanding of the centrality of the spirit of “relationship,” which would in turn influence all research relational collaborators to work together for optimal outcomes. In this way, types of research, research problems, findings, and linkages to policy formation can be more explicitly conceptualized, strategically formulated, approached, valued, and acted on in terms of the aspects of the va in relationships (in)formed by the research process.
Work on developing both MOE documents (Airini et al., 2010; Anae et al., 2001) has moved my understanding of relationality further along and enabled me to realize that the teu le va approach adds to the discourse and inroads created by the fertile soil of relational ethics. This approach gives language to the action that Pacific research practitioners can enact in their daily work for all research relational communities, not only for the Pacific people(s) and communities who need their services and support but also for those who work alongside them (Pacific colleagues/research teams) and above them (policymakers, research institutions, and funders).
I and other Pacific authors of these interdisciplinary Pacific research guidelines and cultural competencies are calling for the valuing of relationships as the central location for ethical action, given that human flourishing is enhanced by healthy and ethical relationships (Bergum & Dossetor, 2005). All professionals involved in research processes should be committed to spiritual va—with the people they serve, both individually and collectively, and with each other. Today, needing to engage in the knowledge economy, this commitment to the va can be obscured by an emphasis on advanced technology, consumerism, legal liability, bureaucracy, objective rationalism, and individual autonomy. By delineating a comprehensive and philosophically grounded PRE for Pacific research in the diverse fields of education, health, justice, social needs, and so on, teu le va evokes the need to attend to the art of ethics. The focus of PRE is on whole people as interdependent moral agents and the quality of the commitments between them. The space between people is defined by the relational discourse as the ethical space or the relational space, a space that must be nurtured and respected if ethical practice is to be enacted. Teu le va means that each person has power that is fundamental to human development. In dialogue, all sides can be heard, and one’s autonomy is fostered through gaining voice and perspective and through the experience of engagement with others.
Ethical behaviour is not the display of one’s moral rectitude in times of crisis . . . it is the day to day expression of one’s commitment to other persons and the ways in which human beings relate to one another in their daily interactions.
(Bergum & Dossetor, 2005, p. 96)
For me this symbolizes that teu le va provides the connection between the researcher and all the other research relational communities. It is a connection built on compassion and the cultivation of physical, mental, ethical and spiritual energy. What is of paramount importance is the relationship of fa’aaloalo—of trust and respect—between the researcher and the researched (Verbos & Humphries, 2014). Both MOE guidelines (Airini et al., 2010; Anae et al., 2001) provide insight as to how teu le va can be applied. Given that relational ethics will always be contested terrain on which battles rage about concepts, values, practices, and how ethics should be taught and applied, teu le va provides a tangible way forward. These guidelines are not only about encouraging exemplary moral action but also acquiring a deeper knowledge of ethics, in the hopes that improved moral behavior will be promoted by knowing what is the right and good thing to do—and seeing how decisions are made and implemented in practice. The worth of community and of relationships in research praxis needs to be valued. Teu le va enables us to understand what relationships are about, how they are created, what they mean, and how they are sustained. Human flourishing is enhanced by healthy and ethical relationships, and morality is rooted in the collective life (Bergum & Dossetor, 2005).
Limitations, Responses, and Possibilities
The development of PRM and PRE and socially transformative educational research is significant and is a result of pressure exerted by Pacific communities and researchers to decolonize and reindigenize both educational research agendas and Pacific primary, secondary, and tertiary schooling influenced by educational research. In his study of postgraduate research in Pacific education, Burnett (2012) posits that it is important to identify the Pacific research paradigms chosen by education researchers because they represent the Pacific education theories that will later flow back into Pacific communities (p. 4). But how is PRM and PRE actually being used by these postgraduate students, and how is it impacting on schooling realities for Pacific learners?
Burnett (2012) provides some answers. He states that the theoretical flow is in the form of human capital rather than research outcomes (confined to bound theses), but a significant finding is that the real change results from the way students’ educational thinking has changed and the research skills gained. When it is realized that most of these postgraduates return to their Pacific communities as leaders with increased influence in their respective fields with regard to education policy change and education delivery, then PRM and PRE are seen to have concrete outcomes. There is much to be said about the fact that many of the PRM and PRE development authors cited in this article are MA/PhD theses writers from both local and international universities. Writ large as political responses and critiques of colonizing research agendas used by these postgraduate researchers, Burnett identifies teu le va (preservation of a respectful social space between researcher and researched) and talanoa (data collection reflecting dialogue within Pacific communities) methodological approaches (p. 5). But how do PRM and PRE flow back into schools, learners, and communities as transformational change?
Reynolds (2016) reminds us of a point made earlier in this article, “A checklist of ‘what to do’ to teu le va is unlikely to produce the level of harmony that is ideal” (p. 199). We are faced with an unjust and inequitable education system (Anae, Anderson, Benseman, & Coxon, 2002; Benseman, Coxon, Anderson, & Anae, 2006). In his informative exegesis of teu le va as transformative negotiation (p. 197), adaptive nesting (p. 198), reframing (p. 198), and character development (p. 198), Reynolds concludes that Pacific education success relies on a network of relatedness that extends beyond the classroom and thus centrally defined achievement goals are unlikely to be fulfilled where the diverse configurations of va and teu le va at various levels of the education system are exclusionary or invasive. There are also concerns regarding the power imbalance between teacher and student that may not be able to be addressed by an indigenous, sacred, spiritual ideal of PRE. However, Reynolds goes on to say,
In the complex situation of education, developing teu le va as an embedded perspective involves a disturbance of existing power relations, the removal of the school or the teacher as the dominant and unquestioned centre of power, and effective intercultural communication. An understanding of va has the potential to transform the flow of power since it poses a challenge to the legitimacy of otherwise invisible “natural” ideological positions. (p. 199)
This is the transformative potential of PRM and PRE in negotiation with Western understandings.
Perhaps the most compelling argument that PRM and teu le va theory as practice can produce transformational change for Pacific learners can be drawn from Reynolds’s (2017) PhD thesis in education Together as Brothers: A Catalytic Examination of Pasifika Success to Teu le va in Boys’ Secondary Education in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Using PRM and PRE theory, Reynolds introduces his integrated model of Pasifika education. In it he offers pan-Pacific metaphors of a flower garland of Pasifika success as a gift for a Malaga (journey beginning); a Pacific stick chart depicting how poto (being clever) helps one to navigate effectively; the va of a vaka (canoe) as Pacific student resilience; a fala (mat) as Pacific success as Pacific in education (p. 259), metaphors that can only be understood through the relational concept of va. This model challenges the New Zealand education system and those in it to know why students have come to find a good education, understand the value of that education, and be able to implement it relationally. This can only be achieved by changes in classroom activities by teachers who are poto (wise) or becoming poto via professional development programs. But, more importantly, Reynolds recognizes that
Without deconstruction of existing thinking around Pasifika education, classroom changes are unlikely to challenge the pervasive assimilationist and deficit theorizations which have historically permeated Pasifika education . . . understanding Pasifika education through the development of an integrated model is to support the va between theory and practice by suggesting a framework which: articulates ideas and actions; supports theory to explain practice and practice to develop theory; and integrates Pasifika success as Pasifika with the cultural development of poto teachers. (p. 259)
He examines relational va between student, parent, and teacher, revealing contextual considerations in the profile of Pacific success as Pacific and asserts that “The research has sought to teu le va by making strategic decisions upon which action can be predicated” (p. 261). In its design Reynolds’s research has offered ways of consulting people and gathering data guided by the obligation to teu le va. Rather than being primarily based on the rights of individuals, this ethical framework advocates for the kind of relationality embedded in this article.
As the decolonizing cycle and circle of PRM and PRE relational theory, pedagogy, and practice expands, and as we as researchers and scholars liuliu (deconstruct), liliu (reconstruct), and toe liliu (return) to repeat these processes (Va’ai, 2017, p. 35), more questions and challenges will arise. More researchers will center their work on the complications that can arise in relations across diverse va—Western and indigenous philosophical/ontological/epistemological/methodological/theoretical va, pan-Pacific/ethnic-specific va, Pacific islands/diaspora va, collaborational va, and class/gender/sexuality/ability va. What remains constant will be the creation and practice of new—but ancient—approaches to educational policy and education delivery to future generations of Pacific learners.
All that has gone before in this article about PRM and PRE—the va as relational accountability and teu le va as relational responsibility, the points I have made, the questions I have asked—have come full circle. The 2001 MOE guidelines as Pacific theory sought to “hold the past and the present in a creative tension” in the need to reclaim Pacific indigenous knowledges and support worldviews of Pacific origin (Reynolds, 2016, p. 194). Teu le va (Airini et al., 2010) purposively takes a relational, strategic, evidence-based, outcomes-focused, Pacific success approach, clearly focused on achieving optimal Pacific education and development outcomes.
In this article I have provided a gafa (genealogy) of the development of philosophical, ontological, epistemological, and methodological underpinnings of PRM and PRE and teu le va development as theory and practice. Burnett (2012) provides strong evidence of teu le va and talanoa PRM as powerful political responses and critique of colonizing research agendas by many Pacific teachers and education leaders. Reynolds’s “Integrated Model of Pasifika Education” (2017) based on relational teu le va provides a professional development tool aimed at successful educational outcomes for Pacific learners, through meaningful relational engagement between students, parents, and “poto” teachers. These developments provide a strong platform for a community of practice expanding Pacific theorizing, PRM, and PRE for more critical discourse on reflective Pacific research praxis and are extending into more nuanced complexities. Poignant examples are new discourses on the va as a concept in conversation with Kaupapa Māori (Naepi, 2015; Suaalii-Sauni 2017), and in the value of combinations/comparisons of ethnic-specific PRM experienced in fieldwork (Suaalii-Sauni & Fulu‐Aiolupotea, 2014).
When all these contributions are examined holistically, it is clear that our espousing of PRM and PRE through the va and teu le va as relational accountability and responsibility allows us as Pacific education researchers to understand and respect the myriad relational va in our research endeavors; to teu le va with all our relational research collaborators for optimal outcomes; to risk respect, trust, love, anger, joy, and pain in our endeavors; and to know that PRM and PRE are not just a means to justify an end. What counts is the careful selection of appropriate PRM and, if necessary, Kaupapa Māori or other methodologies, and the embodied respectful care of the va between these, and to teu le va with all research collaborators within and during the entire research process is crucial, no matter who is doing the research.
Relationships are the essence of humanity. The PRE of teu le va in Pacific research context allows us to define a moral and ethical relational space for discovering knowledge about others through dialogue and sensitive interaction for positive outcomes in all our relationships with research communities. Teu le va is a spiritual experience. It is about relational bodies literally affecting one another in the va and generating intensities between and across human va, discursive va, thoughtful va, respectful va, and spiritual va.
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