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Defining the indefinable: descriptors of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultures and their links to health and wellbeing

2 Nov 2018

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in understanding the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ cultures and how culture relates to health and wellbeing. The first step in understanding this relationship is to identify what is described in the literature as ‘culture’ and then to describe how the literature reports the relationship between culture and health and wellbeing.

Some argue that ‘culture’ is not definable or that it is intangible. However, all people are born into, grow, work and live within a culture or cultures. Cultures are maintained or modified when they are passed on, reinforced and practised in both specific and general situations. The many definitions of ‘culture’ all encompass culture-specific knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours (including within culture variations according to rules), and all human life is culturally bound.

Much work in epidemiology and public health focuses on the presence (or absence) of disease and not on the culture within which illness and wellbeing manifests. We need to understand both wellbeing and culture to have effective public health. This work stems from the desire of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to achieve that understanding in order to improve our health. Culture (the maintenance, revitalising, embracing, nurturing and growth of it) is important to our happiness and wellbeing and for improving health outcomes.

This review provides some insights into what Indigenous peoples across the world describe as culture. There is likely to be much more knowledge held by cultural leaders and others who have not engaged in what is often non-Indigenous led research. This also means that what is described as ‘culture’ is largely through the lens of people from non-Indigenous cultures. The content of this review is not intended to be a tool to measure Indigeneity or cultural proficiency for individuals or groups and should not be read or interpreted as such.

The Lowitja Institute Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Cooperative Research Centre funded this review under project 16-SDH-05-03. Our aims were to identify from the literature the broad domains (and additional sub-domains) of Indigenous peoples’ cultures and describe how these were related to health and, more broadly, wellbeing.

We mainly restricted our review to literature published between 1990 and 2017 and used an iterative search process that initially returned many thousands of results from five online databases and through hand searching. We included grey literature to ensure as much material as possible was included. 

We identified six broad, frequently cited cultural domains or themes, each with a number of sub-domains (see summary of themes in section 3.8). The broad domains were:

  • Connection to Country;
  • Cultural Beliefs and Knowledge;
  • Language;
  • Family, Kinship and Community;
  • Expression and Cultural Continuity; and
  • Self-determination and Leadership.

There were a number of sub-themes across each broad theme.


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