Although the predominant paradigm of epidemiological investigation continues to focus narrowly on the individual and on individual risk factors, there is a growing body of work that calls for a rethinking of the current epidemiological models. In this paper we illustrate the need for a more comprehensive epidemiological approach towards understanding the risks for diabetes, by exploring the lived experiences of diabetes and lay meanings of risk among Aborigines living in Melbourne, Australia. Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted within the Melbourne Aboriginal community in the state of Victoria over a 22-month period (1994-1996). Melbourne Aborigines see non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) as the result of living a life out of balance, a life of lost or severed connections with land and kin and a life with little control over past, present or future. The lay model regarding diabetes that is derived from the narratives of Melbourne Aborigines, consists of three levels of connectedness important in determining an individual's susceptibility not only to diabetes but to all disease--(1) family, (2) community and (3) society. This structure of interactive systems at successive levels from the individual to the population fits within the framework of an ecological paradigm. The strength of ethnography as applied to epidemiology is that it has the capacity to discover previously unknown components of a system at several different levels, and to build models to explain how these components interact. This framework, developed using an ethno-epidemiological approach, has application in other indigenous populations who have been dispossessed of their land, their pasts and their future. There is great potential to apply this approach to the major public health challenges presented by rapid global socio-cultural and environmental change that are impacting negatively on population health.