Binary Busting: A superheroine approach to institutional meaning making

Binaries suck, and I am often reminded of their conscious dominance as structural determinants in how we sometimes make attempts to create a sense of things… I use the word ‘things’ because it reveals a vastness of context. From the overt pressures of gender – boy/girl; to the apparent intellectual domains of institutional discourses, such as, practice-led and theoretical… the world of the binary naming ceremony is vast, and often dangerous… For example, Māori/pākehā; and the potential cultural clumping of  identity, that often results in the grand gestures of ‘all things Māori’ as means to represent and critically attend to, the distinct kōrero of whānau, hāpu, and Iwi (Mutu, 2005, 2013).

It just isn’t that simple.

And just as well, because the appropriation of all things complex are easily accommodated with our humanistic need to name and claim. Because when we name, it can provide an avenue to make sense of the world (Foucault, 1970, 1971). And well, in the institution, that’s what ‘good research’ does. But it just isn’t that, excuse the ‘pun’… black and white. For example, recently I was a guest speaker at a postgraduate forum talking about the complexities of supervision during your PhD. A question from the audience asked if my supervisors were skilled, and more confident in either practice led, or, formal theoretical compositions of thesis arts research.

It’s always a complex question, because I am a ‘dancer’ submitting a ‘theoretical’ thesis that is embedded in ‘Kaupapa Māori’ theory and methods’. The binary of either being a practice, or theory based thesis, ‘feels’ like a binary framed statement that is interrogated by a complexity of knowledge acquisition. As a dancer engaged in the submission of a theoretical thesis, it does not mean that my creative process is void of embodied praxis. My meaning making is not exclusive to the writing on paper, the kōrero from my waha, my pene to pukapuka. In the embodiment of whakawhanaungatanga it is the lived experiences of felt ‘puku’, and the disgruntled moments that challenge formal constructs of ‘good research outcomes’ offering a collage of reality, accountable to a vast community, my community, my whanau, hapu and iwi.

There is no binary in there.

As Indigenous researchers, our ontology, our paradigm, our ‘world views’, provide an agency to unsettle particular formal structures of reality and research. The ‘normalisation’ that may be  situated in Eurocentric institutional logic, becomes problematic. When we consider values, outcomes, and success, as Iwi Māori, ‘who we are’ , our whakapapa, wairuatanga, manaakitanga, awhitanga… reveal human experiences that challenge the formal and ‘binary’ constructs of research (Mane, 2009; Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999, 2012).

That the normalisation of Eurocentric ideologies within the institution can mean that we make palatable and binary explanations of our own world view… is challenging. Concientization (Smith, 2003a, 2003b, 2004), and Graham Hingangaroa Smith’s (2003b) transformative praxis, offers a re-imagining of such binaries. More importantly, that all of our articulations (even the binary ones) are reflective of consciousness and the “freeing up of Indigenous imagination[s]” (Smith, 2003b, p. 3) are significant. Smith (2003b) contends that for tangata whenua (that’s us), “conscientization or consciousness raising” (p. 2) disturbs generic ideals of de-colonisation. And decolonisation should imagine outside binary frameworks… especially those associated with the submission of ‘that’ thesis.

For Iwi Māori, the disruption of binaries that can accommodate colonial ideologies provides a conscious shift, challenging deficit arguments, whilst placing the aspirations of Iwi Māori at its core. In doing so, Smith (2003), describes an occupancy for Iwi Māori of “increased responsibility for transforming their own condition and subsequently ‘getting out from under’ the influence of the reproductive forces of dominant society” (p. 2). Smith (2003b) articulates characteristics of Tino Rantatiratanga, that enable Māori self-determination that is specific in its response to hegemony, therefore critically challenging the socio-cultural values of the dominant culture within our lived experiences.

Binary as a reflection of hegemonic consciousness, sounds like a worthwhile battleground to me. Why?  Because, binaries to make sense of embodied processes are problematic, and when located within te Ao Māori, thinking (and feeling) your thesis is far more within the multi-dimensional meaning making, as opposed to 2 dimensional framework.

So what are the extra dimensions? Our pūrākau, that open to a vastness of experience and whakapapa. Where the complexities of language (even for me as a non-fluent te reo Māori speaker) exist.

So when I am asked about the constraints ‘or binary’ of my doctoral format, it seems irrelevant to a process that is inherently embodied in whakawhanaungatanga, encompassing a relational discourse of people, place, environment, and cosmos.

It just can’t be communicated in a binary terminology.

And neither can my inherent livingness as wahine.

Mauri Ora

Tia Reihana-Morunga (Ngāti Hine)

Tia Reihana-Morunga is a freelance dancer and choreographer. Her works Handful of kumara and A caravan of kōrero and Mareikura were performed at the Auckland Tempo Dance Festival. Tia has also been a secondary school dance teacher for 15 years working creatively in Australia, United Kingdom and Aotearoa, New Zealand. Recent travel to Europe and the South Pacific have also provided opportunity to share in her creative research interests. Tia works extensively in Indigenous Arts education. Currently a Doctoral candidate at the University of Auckland, current research interests and publications explore community and formal sites of arts education informed by Indigenous ways of knowing and doing.


Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. (1971). Orders of discourse. Social Science Information, 10 (7), 7-30

Mane, J. (2009) Kaupapa Maori: A Community Research. MAI Review. 3, Article, 1.

Mutu, M. (2005). In search of the Missing Māori Links—Maintaining Both Ethnic Identity and Linguistic Integrity in the Revitalization of the Māori Language. International Journal of the Sociology of Language2005(172), 117-132.

Mutu, M. (2013). Ko Puwheke te maunga-Puwheke is the mountain: Maori language and Maori ethnic identity-Reaffirming identity through language revitalisation. He Pukenga Korero6(2).

Smith, G. H. (2003a). Kaupapa Māori theory: theorizing indigenous transformation of education and schooling. In Kaupapa Māori Symposium: NZARE/AARE Joint Conference.

Smith, G. H. (2003b). Indigenous struggle for the transformation of education and schooling. In Keynote Address to the Alaskan Federation of Natives Convention, Anchorage, USA.

Smith, G. H. (2004). Mai i te maramatanga, ki te putanga mai o te tahuritanga: From conscientization to transformation. Educational Perspectives, 37(1), 46-52.

Smith, G. H. (2005a). The Problematic of Indigenous theorizing: A critical reflection. AERA annual Conference. Montreal, Canada: AERA. Pp. 1 – 15.

Smith, G. H. (2005b). Transformative praxis: Indigenous reclaiming of the academy and higher education. In Paper delivered at the Canadian Indigenous and Native Studies Association annual conference (Vol. 9).

Smith, L.T. (1999, 2012). Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New Zealand: University of Otago Press.


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