Sarah Bourke

Sarah Bourke

DPhil, Medical Anthropology

St John's College

Thesis: 'Indigenous Australians, bodyweight and the urban environment': the impact of social factors on health, wellbeing and obesity for indigenous Australians in Canberra

Research: The high rate of obesity for Indigenous Australians is well documented, yet poorly understood. Recent figures estimate that up to 39% of Indigenous people are obese, compared to 27% for non-Indigenous Australians (ABS, 2011a). Understanding more about the experience of obesity is important as this condition is a major risk factor for many chronic diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers (Hampton and Toombs, 2013). While there is a large body of literature on how social structures contribute to obesity in Western society (e.g. Ailshire, 2009; Friel, 2009; Warin et al., 2008), there is little research which examines the impact of these factors in an Indigenous Australian context, particularly in urban areas where 35% of the Indigenous Australian population reside (ABS, 2011b).

Factors which have often been linked to obesity in Australia are the affordability of healthy food, lack of education about healthy food, and lack of exercise (National Preventative Health Taskforce, 2008). However, beyond these are other factors which have a particular impact on Indigenous people such as structural inequalities, increased levels of stress, and a lack of control over one’s life (Brimblecombe et al., 2014; Burbank, 2011). Inequality as a factor in poor health and chronic disease has been explored previously through the concept of structural violence (Galtung, 1969; Farmer, 2004), which has been defined as “violence exerted systematically – that is, indirectly – by everyone who belongs to a certain social order” (Farmer, 2004:307). Farmer describes structural violence as a process which includes the erasure of historical context and the naturalisation of economic hierarchies and inequalities. These are key issues which have affected the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians since colonisation, but are often overlooked in current health research. 

The primary objective of my DPhil is toinvestigate whether obesity for Indigenous Australians in Canberra may be linked to national and localised structural violence, and whether these links have an impact on other health outcomes, such as wellbeing and chronic disease. I am currently in Canberra conducting my fieldwork, and am a visiting student at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, at the Australian National University.

Research interests: My other interests include social inequality and health, human rights and self-determination, philosophies of the mind, body and being, world indigenous issues, and cultural heritage management.



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