Tōfā Mamao—Developing a Theoretical Approach to Pacific Research

When Dr Aliitasi Su’a-Tavila was collecting data for her PhD, it became clear that undertaking effective research in a Pacific context was difficult while also adhering to academic research protocols and ethics.

Dr Aliitasi Su’a-Tavila
Dr Aliitasi Su’a-Tavila, Senior Lecturer in Pacific Health at the Wellington Faculty of Health

“When I was interviewing the paramount chiefs as part of my PhD, I really couldn’t ask their families to remain quiet or leave the room while we underwent interview recording as it wasn’t my space. Despite my awareness of confidentiality issues when doing academic research, it would be really inappropriate in that context,” she says.

“There is a lack of Pacific research models and frameworks to guide Pacific research, despite the growing number of Pacific academics nationally and internationally.”

Dr Su’a-Tavila, the inaugural Pacific Senior Lecturer appointed in the Faculty of Health, is now developing a theoretical approach for undertaking research from a Pacific perspective, which can then be translated into a decision-making tool or model and applied to different contexts.

The approach will be built around the Samoan concept of tōfā mamao. This means in-depth knowledge and wisdom that is held by the paramount chiefs and applied when decision-making is held at its highest level through deliberation.

“We need to look at everything from the recruitment of participants to the collection and analysis of data and ask: What is the most culturally appropriate way to do it? This is a blending of the academic and cultural lens,” she says.

Dr Su’a-Tavila will interview the paramount chiefs, examine the decision-making undertaken when they exercise tōfā mamao, and interview leading Pacific academics in New Zealand.

She hopes it will be possible to develop the findings into a Pacific health model of practice and will draw on her own experience working in the area of family violence to apply it to justice contexts as well.

“Tōfā mamao is a powerful concept that has great potential to strengthen the cultural sophistication of a Pacific research process,” she says.