What is the impact/importance of a ‘Deficit Model’

Deficit Model

Let’s begin with a definition –

  • research grounded in a deficit perspective blames the victims of institutional oppression for their own victimization by referring to negative stereotypes and assumptions regarding certain groups or communities (Gale Group 209)

An intriguing thing about such a perspective is that, those who are not subject to it, will usually find it quite hard to identify what it ‘looks’ like. Grounded in the language of the more prominent community, a ‘deficit model’ appears reasonable and normal to its members, even while proposing a view of the world where those identified as ‘deficit’ are, in more or less explicit terms, defined as ‘less than’. Conversely viewers, who are members of a community identified as ‘deficient’, eventually succumb to implicit acquiescence in the ‘truth’ of the implied ‘lesser’ perspective.

Sufficient iterations of a message of ‘in-born inferiority’ will inevitably lead to beliefs – and consequent actions – that appear to prove the message. This phenomenon is summarised in the expression ‘give a dog a bad name and hang him’ – in effect

Once we have labelled someone, our – and even their – expectations of their behaviour from then on seem to be almost wholly determined by that label. (Uncommon Knowledge)

If ‘I’ – and others like me – are superior and have abundant evidence to support that fact, then “it stands to reason” that others who are ‘unlike me/us’ must be inferior. And as I enact, and speak, my superiority I simultaneously enact and speak a ‘deficit position’ for those ‘others’. I make them ‘less’ by speaking of them as such.

Arguments, underpinning such an imbalanced worldview, are often presented as ‘facts’ apparently not open to challenge, and may remain un-assailed for generations. See for example the post on ‘What is wrong with this question?’ in this Blog.

Recognizing a ‘deficit model’ perspective in operation is not simple, but is a vital first step in implementing effective engagement with Aboriginal Engineering as a valid, factual, teachable and researchable body of knowledge. In the context of the ‘Engineering Across Cultures’ project we have concluded that it is important to have prior knowledge of the danger of unthinking (mindless) labeling. Catching one’s self in the act of speaking from within a ‘deficit model’ shifts attention to the hidden assumptions unknowingly shaping it. Acknowledging that things may not be as they have been previously described becomes an opportunity to explore what might be available for discovery. It opens up avenues for exploring ‘gaps’ in knowledge that lead to misunderstandings and wrong thinking.

Understanding the nature of Aboriginal society as knowledge-based, and acknowledging the importance of bridging the gaps between false information and accurate data, is a key early component of developing the capacity to work effectively with Aboriginal knowledge, communities and students.

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