Post by Miles Schaffrick
Recently Quinn Boyle and Drs. Paul van Donkelaar and Judy Illes (1), who are affiliated with Neuroethics Canada, wrote about neuroethics methodology for the Encyclopedia of Behavioral Neuroscience. In this piece, they briefly discuss the use of sharing circles in neuroethics research. Here, I will attempt to deepen that overview by summarizing a few key sources that have described sharing circle methodologies, by exploring how this method can be utilized in research in a culturally safe way, and by uncovering future directions for use in neuroethics. I enter this topic as a non-Indigenous settler with experience participating in numerous sharing circles led by Indigenous Elders on topics of health and educational equity.
In response to concerns surrounding extractive research methodologies, and to recognize a need for the decolonization and Indigenization of many research projects, particularly those involving Indigenous peoples and communities, seminal Indigenous scholars such as Margaret Kovach (2) have asserted the “need to take back control of research so that it is relevant and useful” (p. 59). One way by which culturally-conscious scholars have attempted to utilize research methodology in a way that is relevant and useful is through the sharing circle method, a traditional practice used by Indigenous groups across the world (3,4). A cross-database search, absent a test for duplicate results, for the terms “sharing circle” and “talking circle” retrieved several hundred results, emphasizing the range of qualitative work that utilizes this methodological approach. Results revealed studies spanning the humanities, social sciences, and health sciences in a variety of disciplines. Sharing circle methodology is especially prominent in studies that attempt to gather and highlight the lived experiences of communities, groups, and study participants.
Sharing circles (Figure 1), also referred to as talking circles, peacemaking circles, or healing circles, are conversationally-driven and hold space for storytelling (3). Moreover, sharing circles, as Tachine et al. (3) point out, are a cultural practice and research methodology familiar to the Māori people of New Zealand. Likewise, sharing circles, which Margaret Kovach (5) describes as being a space in which “the story breathes and the narrator regulates” (p. 99), are used by Indigenous groups in North America such as the Cree people of Canada. As such, the widespread use of and familiarity with sharing circles can make this method viable and culturally safe for research with Indigenous populations in a variety of contexts. That said, given the traditional value of this sharing circles to Indigenous communities worldwide, research that utilizes sharing circles is best led for and by Indigenous peoples.
Sharing circles differ in several key ways from interviews and focus groups. As Tachine et al. (3) assert, there are three primary features of focus groups: data collection, discussion, and the instrumentality of the facilitator (3). In a focus group, the facilitator holds the power; they take the conversation where they wish. Moreover, focus groups are usually short in timespan, ranging from approximately 45 minutes to 1.5 hours (3). As Tachine et al. (3) point out, focus groups can silence individual voices, lead to nondisclosure of personal stories, and inhibit the generation of new narratives. On the contrary, Tachine et al. (3) describe sharing circles as a place where stories thrive through reverence to cultural practices and solidarity between participants. Moreover, in a sharing circle, all participants, including the facilitator, are seen as equal (6). In a sharing circle, the facilitator is known as a circle keeper and facilitates the community protocols (7). Protocols can include leading opening or closing ceremonies, and ensuring the space is safe (7).
Describing the sharing circle methodology by way of poetic narrative, education and social work scholar Fyre Jean Graveline (8)—who is of Métis (Cree) ancestry—outlines the basic guiding principles and requirements of sharing circles (Figure 1). First, sharing circles require explicit modeling and clear intentions (8 p. 365). Second, sharing circles should allow and guide participants to traditional Indigenous philosophies and practices (8 p. 365). Third, in keeping with Hart’s work, Graveline (8) argues that sharing circles should foster solidarity among participants in addition to individual reflexivity. Fourth, mirroring the observations of Tachine et al. (3), Graveline (8) points out the time requirements of sharing circles; a process not to be rushed.
In sum, literature highlights that, more than just a space to share, sharing circles provide an environment for reflexive listening, cultural continuity, and community-building. For example, work by sociologist Steven Picou (4) found that talking circles provided an avenue for Alaskan Natives to mitigate the social impacts of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In another study, Waddell et al. (9) utilized a sharing circle approach to better understand resources and barriers to mental wellness for Indigenous men. Similarly, a 2020 study by Baldwin et al. (10) utilized a talking circle approach to adapt, implement, and evaluate substance use interventions in three tribes within the United States. Likewise, a study by Greene et al. (11) gathered the experiences of Indigenous women living with HIV through a weekend retreat that culminated in a 3-hour sharing circle which was co-attended by an Elder who offered spiritual and emotional support.
As the above examples highlight, sharing circles can be a culturally relevant and culturally safe way by which to undertake research with Indigenous peoples and communities. In neuroethics research, this method could be utilized in a meaningful and intentional way in the place of focus groups or interviews to advance cultural safety in conversations surrounding neuroethics with Indigenous populations.
Bio: Miles Schaffrick (he/him) is a fourth-year undergraduate student in UBC’s Honours Political Science program as well as the Law & Society minor. Miles’ primary research interests lie in the rapidly developing field of health politics. As such, Miles’ research broadly examines how political actors and institutions influence topics of significance to health. As a settler of German and Austrian ancestry with a background and interest in Indigenous health, Miles supports Neuroethics Canada’s Indigenous research initiatives.
1. Boyle Q, van Donkelaar P, Illes J. Methods of Neuroethics. In: Della Sala S. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Behavioral Neuroscience, vol. 1. Elsevier; 2022. p. 240–245. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-819641-0.00122-5
2. Kovach M. Emerging from the margins: Indigenous methodologies. In Strega S, Brown L (eds.) Research as resistance: Revisiting critical, Indigenous, and anti-oppressive approaches. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Canadian Scholar’s Press; 2015. p. 43–64
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