People need real opportunities to live the kind of life to which they aspire - to undertake livelihood activities they have reason to value, to achieve good health and well being outcomes, and to have resilience to shocks and stresses. A range of stakeholders consider that economic development is constrained by lack of engagement between Aboriginal people and labor markets, particularly given planned expansion of horticultural and mining operations. Aboriginal people of the Anmatjere region of Central Australia speak their own languages at home, have customary responsibilities for care of the region’s natural and cultural resources, and have low levels of formal mainstream education. They aspire to jobs in their region and are engaged relatively strongly in employment in the community services sector and seasonal work in the pastoral industry, but not in other private sector employment. Their high dependence for income on social security payments and government funded jobs makes their livelihoods vulnerable to changes in government institutions. The modelling work presented in this paper is based on the views, attitudes and experiences of people living in the Anmatjere region about jobs and livelihoods. We have organized these as a collective knowledge representation, using semantic networks. This has elicited understanding of the structure, strength and quality of connections amongst social, economic, environmental and cultural dimensions important in people’s livelihoods. The qualitative data were analysed using (a) natural language processing and linguistic algorithms; (b) exploration of semantic associations among knowledge constructs using a Hopfield-type Artificial Neural Network; and (c) graph-theoretic network analyses. We present the findings of this analysis in light of critical challenges that the Anmatjere community is facing. We show that culturally-explicit local Aboriginal institutions, world views and behaviours play significant and central roles in maintaining the community’s knowledge representations. They connect people and establish the social and cultural roles that are critical in people’s search for opportunity, income and the sustainability of their livelihoods in the region. ‘Top down’ actions including changes to government institutions aimed at enhancing individual Aboriginal people’s engagement with employment have little chance of success unless they take into account the locally and culturally-specific ways in which the community is collectively functioning.
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