Combining mātauranga Maori and psychology leads to research success

Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Tia Neha has spent her career implementing mātauranga Māori into her psychological research.

“Mātauranga Māori is a broad topic, but one explanation is that it pertains to knowledge and the understanding of everything in the universe,” says Dr Neha, a lecturer in the School of Psychology. “My work aims to embed traditional and contemporary Māori knowledge, philosophical transfer systems, storage and goals through a whānau psychology context.”

She has completed a wide range of studies in her 12 years as a psychology researcher, including a longitudinal analysis of whānau and their children’s memory, language and learning outcomes, studies on Māori adolescent health and well-being, and research on statistical modelling techniques on personality development with Māori students. No matter what the topic, Dr Neha’s focus is on research that benefits whānau.

Her PhD research focused on how whānau reminisce with their rangatahi and to what extent this reminiscing impacts the young person’s memory, identity formation, relationships, adaptive functioning and their learning outcomes. She continued this work when she joined the School of Psychology in 2016.

“I wanted to look at young Māori people and how they move through life knowing who they are and how they fit into the world,” Dr Neha says. “My whānau lab team and I have followed the participants of the study from the whānau as young children to adolescents through to their educational contexts. We’ll continue to follow them and see how they continue to achieve in learning and moving forward into employment contexts.”

Dr Neha has a professional background in education and special education, having taught early childhood through to high school mathematics and worked as the head of a school of Māori boys before joining academia. This background led to a strong interest in whānau, developmental, health and educational psychology research—inquiries that are still producing publications three years after completing her PhD. She now plans to work on criminal justice research projects with whānau.

“With whānau research participants, I use an approach where I co-design the study and explain how the research at each phase will benefit whānau,” Dr Neha says. “This approach is different to a conventional research approach in that it requires a lot of legwork, but the results are well worth it for the many communities I serve, including the whānau, research community, wider community, government-based groups and my whānau research programme.”

Dr Neha has worked on a number of other projects related to whānau. She has studied the identity and personality development of Māori students at university, finding that the most important factors are strong relationships and connections with whānau. She has also studied the neurological development of babies who were exposed to methadone in utero, and an upcoming project will see her lead work on the dietary intake of Māori mothers and babies in correctional facilities, including mothers who are incarcerated and separated from their children.

Dr Neha also participated in a health psychology project that investigated how best to disseminate information on gout to patients from different cultures and different parts of New Zealand.

“This project showed a big difference in how Māori and Pākehā patients like to be communicated with,” Dr Neha says. “Māori patients much preferred in-person communication, while Pākehā patients wanted more written work. This study provided useful information to the medical profession on how to make sure all patients can manage their health successfully.”

Dr Neha says the interplay between Māori and indigenous and western approaches is a key part of her work.

“For example, collaborative work which I initiated involved research engagement with one of my hapu, Te Aitanga a Mate, and marine scientists. This research involved administering stocktake marine surveys and the ongoing monitoring of marine life where my hapu provided extensive knowledge and application around the marine life in Gisborne. These documented collaborations and scientific undertakings have led to my hapu and the marine scientists establishing beneficial relationships, identifying reasons for stock depletion, implementing appropriate whānau rituals to safeguard access to kai sovereignty and security, and forecasting kaimoana projections for consumption and significant whānau events.”

“Mātauranga Māori and science have points of similarity and difference, and one is not necessarily better than the other. Rather, they can work in tandem with each other with a common language of benefiting whānau and science. Kia Ora tātou.”