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Talanoa, a way of life

Dr Sakul Kundra
Monday, September 04, 2017

THERE has been diverse means of research applicable to wide-ranging geographical areas. Being a historian brings with it a responsibility to highlight varied research ways based quantitative, qualitative and mixed methodologies. The sources may be based on written, material, archeological, linguistic, ethnographic and oral sources.

I wrote an article "Way with Words", published in The Fiji Times on November 12, 2016 highlighting the significance of oral sources. However, this article gives a brief overview of popular researchers' views on another noteworthy way of oratory researches, especially useful in Pacific context known as talanoa.

Timote M Vaioleti's article Talanoa Research Methodology: A Developing position on Pacific Research (2003) describes talanoa as a phenomenological research approach which is ecological, oral and interactive' a personal encounter where people tell their issues, their realities and aspirations; a conversation, a talk, an exchange of ideas or thinking, whether formal or informal…carried out face-to-face.

Tala, according to Vaioleti, means to inform, tell, relate and command, as well as to ask or apply. Noa means of any kind, ordinary, nothing in particular, purely imaginary or void. This literally means talking about nothing in particular and interacting without a rigid framework.

Others calls "to chat or tell stories" which involves deep interpersonal relationship.

Vaioleti stated talanoa's philosophical base is collective, oriented towards defining and acknowledging Pacific aspiration while developing and implementing Pacific theoretical and methodological preferences for research. This same author also says that talanoa research holistically intermingles researchers' and participants' emotions, knowledge, experiences and spirits and is flexible. It provides opportunities to probe, challenge, clarity and realign.

Whereas, Sitiveni Halapua's article Talanoa Process: The Case of Fiji (2008) explains talanoa is basically a "frank expression without concealment" in face-to-face dialogue, where researcher can understand inner feeling and participant's experience.

This author showed Pacific Island societies have relied on this methodology that "advances knowledge about our social identities, extended families, our village, our ethnics and tribal communities, our religious beliefs and our moral, economic and political interest … it reduces tension and conflict and thereby foster stability and complementarity in our relationship … and enhanced understanding, respect and trust among the community".

He believed, "talanoa shaped and reshaped the participants' pre-understandings and opened new perspectives, altering participants' views on the subject matter. Researchers have explained the use of talanoa for communication, critical discussions, collecting information, helps in social conversation, its subjective in nature mostly oral and collaborative.

The objective of the talanoa should be clear, it begins not with predefined questions set in advance, but it depends on the way in which it develops and the conversation ends when it reaches to already cover topics and no new point can be added to already discussed issues. For a successful talanoa session, both the 'participant and researcher reciprocate each other to establish mutual accountability and respect of other person's opinions.

In the similar vein, using talanoa in the Fijian context, Setsuo Otsuka's article Talanoa Research: Culturally Appropriate Research Design in Fiji (2005) highlights this method as most appropriate in the ethnic Fijian community in Fiji where the researchers and participants usually share their time, interest and emotion to establish interpersonal relationship and rapport. Thus the researchers should be aware of Pacific cultural values, practices, norms, beliefs, respect emotions and able to interpret non-verbal communication cues to construct reliable conclusions.

Unaisi Baba's Decolonising Framings in Pacific Research: Indigenous Fijian Vanua Research Framework as an Organic Response suggested Fijian vanua framework for research (FVRF) as a decolonisation paradigm and it is used when researching indigenous Fijian histories, knowledge system, representations, lived experiences, cultures, skills, arts, values and lifeways. She stresses that vanua research (vanua meaning inclusive of chief/chiefs, their people and their relationships, their land, spiritualties, knowledge systems, cultures and values) among Fijians should be based and framed in vanua identities, cultures, languages, ways and philosophies of knowledge; where talanoa is an appropriate process to research in Fijian context to collect information or an interview method (formal or informal).

A well-articulated article entitled Talanoa as Empathic Research by Trisia Farrelly and Unaisi Nabobo-Baba, has explored "talanoa as a culturally appropriate ethnographic indigenous method in the Pacific, and highlighting the connection between talanoa and empathy is vital in ensuring development practitioners and other Pacific researchers are implicitly aware of the political dimensions, cultural appropriacy and socio-ecological impact in the research methods".

They stated talanoa is a method of decolonising research in the Pacific and highlight the merit of "empathic apprenticeship as an intentional, embodied, emotional and inter subjective process between the researcher and the participant… has the potential to enhance shared understandings between all human beings".

They further explained correct "talanoa research as it is a culturally and emotionally embedded reciprocal exchange between researcher and participants which requires a deep, interpersonal relationship and emotional sharing between all parties involved".

Their article describes three different forms of talanoa ie formal, instrumental, more informal and even serendipitous; and vast variety of protocols/ (sometimes referred as ethics) need to be maintained during talanoa research.

She also stressed this research needs to deal with the deeper epistemological and ontological underpinning of the lived realities of our individual participants within their special cultural contexts and in order to understand participants' hopes and struggles so one has to holistically contextualise their words to do a systematic research. But they said empathy was imaginative and emotional, empathic methodology involves sharing a person's emotion while imagining what things must be like for them. It also involved continuing affective attunement.

Therefore, the researcher needs to be highly accustomed and experienced in order to note spoken and unspoken words where empathy plays a vital role. So, these authors call product of talanoa research as a nexus of knowledge-sensation-emotion and stressed on an embodied, holistic and critically reflexive process whereby researchers endeavor to enhance their empathic understanding of their participants.

Researchers have to be mindful of some limitations of talanoa, its research validity and reliability, so it is suggested to establish trustworthiness among the researcher and participants. Information gathered via talanoa sessions, participants may challenge the other group's stories so the researcher needs to made judgment based on his discretion.

Over time, there may be a change in the opinion of participant/s and researcher/s which need to be taken into account for reliable qualitative research. If the researcher is unaware of Pacific communitie's protocol, then it would be highly challenging to acquire and theorise the reliable information gathered from participant/s to achieve the objectives.

However, despite some difficulties, talanoa is an extremely useful methodology in relation to Pacific context which challenge the rigid tradition western research methodologies.

* Dr Sakul Kundra is an assistant professor in history at the College of Humanities and Education, Lautoka Campus of the Fiji National University. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper or his employer. For comments or suggestions, email.

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