Special Session Summary the Odyssey Downunder: a Qualitative Study of Aboriginal Consumers

Ronald Groves, Edith Cowan University
[ to cite ]:
Ronald Groves (1995) ,"Special Session Summary the Odyssey Downunder: a Qualitative Study of Aboriginal Consumers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 303-305.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 303-305



Ronald Groves, Edith Cowan University

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

After months of planning and preparation a team of 5 marketing academics, 9 students (including two of Aboriginal descent), and a 3-person video crew, conducted intensive qualitative field research in Aboriginal communities in the far north of Western Australia during July of 1993. The Odyssey Downunder was inspired by the 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey in the United States. This session included a screening of a videotape produced from the project and three additional research papers that further explore substantive findings. We believe this to be the first major qualitative consumer behavior study in Australia and the first major consumer behavior study conducted in another culture (for the non-Australians) and among indigenous people (for the Australians). The project focused on the major consumption problems faced by contemporary Australian Aborigines, including the lures of consumer culture versus tribal tradition, severe alcoholism, gambling, and drug abuse, dependence on government welfare programs, desire to return to traditional and sacred lands, erosion of the sharing ethos on which prior survival depended, and consumption-related aspects of discrimination and prejudice by the dominant population. The session included a professionally produced video, slides, and participation by two observers of Aboriginal descent who monitored and facilitated the project. If consumer researchers are to begin to make the field of study truly global, we hope that this project will prove inspirational, instructive, substantively rich, and provocative.

Studies of culture contact and acculturation in consumer research have previously focused on immigrants' adaptation to a new culture. But in countries where locals have been overwhelmed and overpowered by the new arrivals, the greatest amount of change has been expected of and has occurred among the original inhabitants. This has been the case in countries in North and South America and in New Zealand and Australia. Because Australia is a large continent with fewer inhabitants than most European countries, there is the possibility that many Aboriginal Australians could either continue or regain a way of life closer to traditional lifestyles than to non-Aboriginal ways. Recent court action regarding native land claims (the Mabo decision) enlarges this possibility. But what do Aborigines themselves want? What are the attractions of traditional and nontraditional ways of life and specifically, what role does consumption play in these desires? How do Aborigines view the current consumption problems faced by their communities including poor health, dependence on government welfare programs, rampant alcoholism, widespread gambling, and, if it is a problem, the attractiveness of consumer culture? What is the historic and current role of politics, religion, education, employment possibilities, and discrimination in helping shape the consumer lifestyle choices now facing Aboriginal populations? What is the meaning of land to Aborigines and how does this differ from non-Aboriginal land meanings? These are the key issues addressed by the Odyssey Downunder.

The concept of the Odyssey Downunder was developed by Ron Groves and discussed with Russ Belk, a co-leader of the American Odyssey who visited during early 1992. Later that year Ron Groves began teaching an applied qualitative research class to a small group of hand picked students who became researchers in the Odyssey. Students and faculty participants also studied Aboriginal Australian culture and prior research in the region where we would work. Melanie Wallendorf, the other co-leader of the American Odyssey, conducted seminars with the students as well, and she, Russ Belk, and Ronald Hill critiqued their fieldwork, analysis, and research papers. Early in 1993, preliminary site visits were made by Ron Groves along with Kim Bridge, Noel Bridge, and Ernie Bridge (the first Aboriginal Minister in the Western Australian Parliament, who supported the project in a number of significant ways). Donations were obtained from firms including Quantas, Ansett Airlines, Shell Australia, and Nissan Australia and on July 1st the group set out from Perth for the 3500 kilometer journey north. Three four-wheel drive vehicles carried us to our research sites. In addition to the participants, these vehicles carried camera equipment, audio and video recording equipment, and camping equipment for the project. The group had previously been divided into three teams, each including an overseas professor experienced in naturalistic inquiry. To the extent possible, teams were balanced by age (21-51), gender (5 F; 12 M), and culture (1 HK Chinese; 2 Australians of Aboriginal descent; 11 other Australians, 2 Americans, 1 Dane) in order to enhance access and triangulation across potentially diverse perspectives. The sites were selected to provide contrast between communities. Three of the sites were on the Dampier Peninsula where the Bardi inhabitants have a close link with the sea. In contrast to this setting three additional communities were studied in a desert region within a day's drive of the coastal sites. The smallest of the communities has 60 inhabitants and all but one have populations of fewer than 600, with at least 80 percent being Aboriginal. The exception is a desert community of 3500 people, of whom approximately half are Aborigines.

As well be seen from the abstracts, two unique features of the research were the presence of a film (video) crew and the presence of two men of Aboriginal descent who observed the observers in process of conducting the research. This allowed us to present the key video produced from the project in the session (a total of 14 primarily instructional videos have been produced in total), as well as a final paper which examines biases of the research team and the effects of their presence. This is made possible because of the intimate familiarity of Kim and Noel Bridge with the areas studied. They were raised in one of the communities and one is a government liaison officer who frequently visits the other sites. Both men are well known in the three desert field sites. In February, 1994, Ron Groves and Martin McCarthy (a graduate student participant from the University of Western Australia) returned to the field sites, brought them copies of the videotape to be shown in the session, and obtained feedback from our informants before the final editing of this tape. The research continued later in 1994, but the results of this session do not include that work.

The videos produced from this project have been shown on Australian television. Because the Mabo land claims issue is politically volatile at this time, we hope that these videos contribute an Aboriginal voice to the critical public debate. For the ACR audience we hope to increase understanding of the complex consumer problems facing Aboriginal Australians and the cultural systems in which these problems are imbedded. Secondly, because naturalistic research methods are still new in consumer research, we hope to demonstrate their potential for investigating consumer groups and issues that are inaccessible in other ways. And thirdly, we hope to provide an assessment of the opportunities and problems of conducting research in another culture in this global age.




Ron Groves, Edith Cowan University

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


The video shown in the session begins with a brief contextualizing history of Australian Aborigines and the areas studied. The Aboriginal inhabitants of the Kimberley lived in harmony with their land as hunter gatherers for at least 40,000 years. Theirs was the oldest living culture known, based upon remembrance of the origin of life. Their land and the natural world it supported represented a symbolic footprint of the metaphysical ancestors responsible for creation during the Dreaming. They had no concept or word for either the passage of time or the accumulation of possessions. Despite centuries of contact with Asian traders, Aboriginal cultures remained little changed. Within twenty years of Western contact however, these cultures were under threat. A century later most traditional tribal lifestyles had perished, replaced by western consumer culture.

The video is a distillation of the naturalistic research conducted by the seventeen person research team and some of the emerging insights from this research. Three of these participants formed a video crew that captured both on-camera interviews and observations of everyday life and special events. After briefly introducing the project and its historic context, four descriptive findings are emphasized: the meanings of possessions and sharing, alcohol abuse problems, the meaning of the land, and attempts to revive parts of traditional Aboriginal culture. In addition three interpretive themes are discussed: tradition and change, consumerism, and freedom and control. In explicating these themes, the video shows portions of interviews with the members of the communities studied. In addition, observational footage, photographs from the research project, and some historical photographs are employed. By combining these "perspectives of action" with the interview material emphasizing "perspectives on action," a richer portrait emerges. Scenes of daily life, work, play, rituals, and environment help to contextualize and deepen the presentation. In the full length video (it was only possible to show a shortened version in the session) the titles and closing footage employ original music by one of the researchers, Noel Bridge. The result, we hope, is an intimate, scholarly, and empowering document.



Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

Ronald Groves, Edith Cowan University

Per +stergaard, Odense University


After a 40,000 year history of self-sufficient living in harmony with the land, in the brief 200 years since contact with Westerners, Australian Aborigines have become dependent on the cash economy. A key dialectic tension that permeates contemporary Aboriginal culture is that between the consumer culture brought by the Westerners and the traditional cultures of Aboriginal people. This dialectic was a major focal point of the Odyssey Downunder. While this critical tension continues to create uncertainty regarding the future for Aborigines, we also found two systematic reactions: one is resistance and the other is selective adaptation. Both offer potential pathways to preserving Aboriginal values in the face of the growing attractiveness of the consumer lifestyles that typify the now dominant Australian culture. The resistance strategy is crystallized by an out station movement in which Aborigines are repatriating themselves to ancestral lands where they are able to gain access, thus separating themselves from the dominant culture as well as urban Aboriginal culture. This is a back to the land movement, but not one of voluntary simplicity. The other reactive strategy of selective adaptation seeks, on the production side, to develop Aboriginal industry and to acquire assets that will provide jobs and income. On the consumption side, selective adaptation involves embracing consumer culture but with a continued ethos of non-attached possession and sharing based on traditional cultural patterns once needed for survival. Although some of this ethos has eroded, it has by no means disappeared, nor is it likely to do so. We develop these perspectives using the voice of our informants in an effort to understand the role of consumption in contemporary and perhaps future Aboriginal culture. We conclude that both strategies are beneficial to Aborigines and that despite their mutual exclusivity they are simultaneously viable.



Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University


The culture of Australian Aborigines is founded on the creation of life (Lawlor 1991). According to this ideology, their Creative Ancestors moved across an undifferentiated topography during the original "Dreaming," a time when they shaped a featureless world. Each night they would sleep and dream of their activities for the following day, which would then shift from dreams to actions. In this way, the Ancestors created all living things as well as structured the physical world. Wills (1982, p. 26) describes this epoch aptly, in an almost poetic way:

The Dreaming, this mystical, mythical core of Aboriginal culture is the land itself, the songs, the dances and the ceremonies; it is the ancestors who made the trees, the animals, the birds, who formed the mountains and the rivers, the bays and the inlets. The creation of life is the Dreaming.


As the world filled with vibrant life and physical beauty, the Ancestors tired and withdrew into every aspect of nature, "to reverberate like a potency within all they created" (Lawlor 1991, p. 15).

This creation myth has been passed from generation to generation, and has fundamentally the same assumptions across tribes and clans (Berndt and Berndt 1989; also see Partington 1985). The result is that Aborigines view land as a religious phenomenon, and believe that the relationship between themselves and the land originated with the Dreaming (Maddock 1972). For example, Aborigines often develop intimate ties to key ancestral sites in the land. Munn (1970, p. 147) states:

...in one instance, the rights of a particular patrilineal group to certain sites were explained by pointing out that the ancestors of the present owners had travelled there, singing as they went. To sing one's way from place to place implies that marks and names are being 'put' at each placeCthat is, that the site is being claimed. Thus group claims are based ultimately upon ancestral claims made through the marks of personal identification with which the ancestor imprints a place.

Given this perspective, Aborigines view rights to land as originating with the design of the world rather than with alienable legal title (Maddock 1972). As one Aborigine asserted, "[Europeans] look upon land as 'my land, I own that land'. Whereas Aborigines look at something as a part of the whole, a part of themselves, and they are part of thatCthe land. The land and they are one" (Bowden and Bunbury 1990, p. 54). Thus, land is seen as part of their "extended selves," something to be preserved and maintained (Belk 1988). Its loss or despoliation can result in a diminished sense of self, and, as the following Aborigine suggests, the possibility of damnation of their entire culture:

If we lose this land we lose our culture...What's under the earth, whether there's gold or riches, we don't want the riches. We want the land. We want our culture. This land has to stay as it is today (Wills 1982, p. 25).

The research presented as part of this session explored the relationship between the dreaming and deep spiritual ties to the land by Australian Aborigines based on naturalistic inquiry conducted in the Kimberley. The primary focus is on their relationship to traditional lands as well as the location of their current homes.


Belk, Russell W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (September), 139-150.

Berndt, Ronald M. and Catherine H. Berndt (1989), The Speaking Land: Myth and Story in Aboriginal Australia, Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin.

Bowden, Ros and Bill Bunbury (1990), Being Aboriginal: Comments, Observations and Stories from Aboriginal Australians, Maryborough, Victoria: Australian Broadcasting Corporation Enterprises.

Lawlor, Robert (1991), Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime, Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International.

Maddock, Kenneth (1983), Your Land Is Our Land: Aboriginal Land Rights, Victoria: Penguin.

Munn, N. D. (1970), "The Transformation of Subjects into Objects in Walbiri and Pitjantjatjara Myth," in Australian Aboriginal Anthropology: Modern Studies in the Social Anthropology of the Australian Aborigines, ed. Ronald M. Berndt, Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press.

Partington, Geoffrey (1985), "The Australian Aborigines and the Human Past," Mankind, 15 (April), p. 26-40.

Wills, Nancy (1982), Give Me Back My Dreaming: Background to the Australian Aboriginal Claim to Land Rights, Lota, Australia: The Communist Arts Group.



Per +stergaard, Odense University, Denmark

Kim Bridge, Edith Cowan University, Australia

Noel Bridge, Edith Cowan University, Australia


Results from a study conducted within The Odyssey Downunder are presented. Inspired by recent developments in anthropology (e.g., George W. Stocking, Jr. and James Clifford) the authors (two Aborigines and a Dane) observed how the other members of the Odyssey team (two Americans, eight Australians, and one Asian) coped with the Aboriginal culture.

The study draws on different data sources: 1) participant observation during the Odyssey, 2) interviews with participants during the Odyssey, 3) the transcribed interviews conducted by the participants on the Odyssey, and 4) the participants' fieldnotes. The methods used for interpretation of the data were derived from the above mentioned anthropologists.

The area for this study differs from traditional consumer research, because, until a few decades ago, the Aboriginal cultures studied were based on hunting and gathering and were not much influenced by a commodity consumption. This original culture seems to have allure for the researcher's imagination. Results indicate that very often the researchers seemed to look at this original culture as something good and the westernized commodity culture as something bad. Many Aborigines don't seem to have the same antagonistic impressions of the two different cultures. Another interesting aspect of our findings is how the researchers perceive the Aborigines. On the one hand they have sincere respect for these people. On the other hand it seems to be very difficult not to look upon the Aborigines as someone they (the Western researchers) have to help, since they cannot take care of themselves.

These results are interesting and shed light on the consumer researcher's own imagination as part of the Western culture and how this imagination biases the perception of the Aboriginal culture. It is shown how research results depend upon the researcher's own cultural background and the researcher's capability to be conscious of the "side-effects" of his/her westernized imagination. The objective is to understand the studied culture on its own premisses.