Sociology in the Land Down Under: Challenges and Opportunities for Australian Sociologists

Issue 43: Sociology Beyond Europe Mon 15 Jul 2019 0

Dan Woodman, President of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA)

Like other countries, the major challenges Australia faces are not ours alone. They are also at their core about inequality and how we live together. These include the regulation of financial markets, human rights (our refugee policies are providing a horrible example to other countries moving to the right), the rise of populism, and even the stability of our political system. Australia is a stable democracy on many measures, but we’re now world leader in the rate we replace Prime Ministers.

Arguably the biggest threat facing Australia, and the world, is climate change. This requires the expertise and resourcing of natural scientists, but it also demands the attention of social sciences. Water management and drought mitigation, a pressing and even populist issue in contemporary Australia, is as much a social problem as a technical one.

These would seem to be the conditions, however unfortunate, in which social sciences, including sociology, would thrive. While the natural sciences, particularly around energy and climate, are increasingly politicised, in Australia there is still wide support for the high level of investment in natural science research and to building scientific literacy. The social sciences, however, are constantly being asked to justify their worth in a way the natural sciences are not, and in narrow terms.

The Impact Agenda and Social Sciences Week
The pressure on the social sciences in Australia to justify the ‘return on investment’ is wrapped up with the current Australian Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda. One of the major changes brought in by this agenda was a new Engagement and Impact Assessment framework to measure and eventually reward and punish universities’ engagement with end-users and their ‘real world’ impacts. It is based on similar assessments elsewhere, particularly the UK.

In November 2017, the then Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham outlined the expected benefits of this new assessment in a press release: ‘These new Engagement and Impact Assessment measures will give us a clearer view of what Australian researchers are achieving but will also help focus some of our brightest minds on how to help families and businesses’.

The pressure to demonstrate an ‘impact’ outside the academy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. C. Wright Mills famously told us that the purpose of the sociological imagination is to link personal troubles to public issues and for applied sociologists inside or outside universities, engagement is obviously a core part of the job. Metrics, and families and businesses for that matter, probably have their place, but most sociologists would push for broader ways of thinking about the public value of their work.

Social science data, and the theories developed around this data rarely provide just one single answer to how we must act, but they are essential if we are to be able to act at all in an increasingly complex world and have a politics that can ever reach above facile mud-slinging and hyper-partisanship. The greatest impact of the social sciences is probably not through concrete interventions or findings, or policy suggestions, but the value of giving people new ways to think about and discuss the structures and inequalities that shape our lives.

The British political scientist Matthew Flinders calls the narrow and market-based thinking behind these engagement measures the ‘tyranny of relevance’. However, he argues that a capacious understanding of impact can be created if social scientists get better at ‘translating’ their work for a broad audience and engage actively with politicians and policy-makers to shape the unfolding external agenda. Flinders is probably, on the one hand, more pessimistic and, on the other, more optimistic than me, partly because he sees the response to the impact agenda in relatively individualistic terms. Australian sociologists are already doing well at ‘translation’, already regularly featured in the media, talking and working with multiple publics, and contributing to the policy making process. Yet this seems to make little dent on the discourse, at least from many politicians, that sociologists are disengaged and our knowledge esoteric. In other words, it is harder than Flinders thinks to push back against a ‘tyrannical’ impact agenda and success in doing so will take collective effort.

With The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) taking the lead, several of Australia’s Social Science peak bodies and key associations made such a collective effort this year, with Social Sciences Week, a series of almost fifty events across the country, showcasing the diversity and relevance of social science. As well as over two thousand attendees in person, several events were recorded for broadcast on the major public radio station (the ABC) and there were opinion pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian. I along with others on the organising committee also met with key parliamentarians during the week, aiming to build a cross-party collation of supporters of the social sciences. After a successful first outing, hopefully Social Sciences Week becomes a recurring way of collectively advocating for the value of the social sciences, including but beyond their value to ‘businesses and families’.

Putting Australia in Perspective
Sociologists have a tendency towards crisis narratives about the discipline. I’ve been reading about the crisis of Australian sociology since I was an undergraduate. There are challenges, yet there is much to suggest sociology is in good health. The overall share of prestigious Australian Research Council Discovery funding going to the ‘Studies of Human Society’ category has been increasing, even if this funding remains vulnerable to the passing whims of politicians and cultural warriors. And, despite ups and downs in particular institutions, our student numbers are trending upwards. As I covered above, we have work to do. Yet the challenges elsewhere are much more significant, where academics are silenced in very concrete and visceral ways.

Highlighting the relative privilege that can come with being an Australian-based social scientist, over the past two years I have spent quite a bit of time travelling, supported by an Australian Research Council fellowship. During these travels I have been reminded of these more serious threats to sociological work. An event was moved at the last moment, after the local authorities interfered with the programme one of my hosts, the head of a major social science association in the Middle East, was arrested and kept incommunicado by the local security apparatus for two weeks, apparently due to comments made on Twitter! Another of my hosts was barred from travelling to the USA as he was born in Sudan (despite now holding other citizenship) and I’ve seen colleagues withdraw their work from review as they came to fear the consequences for their safety if it was published.

Australian sociologists are doing work with political bite and are active in the media, helping to shape the debate, even as they put up with an increasingly vicious (social media) environment, particularly for those who do work on gender. Yet, it is challenging, even for our most publicly engaged members to cut through in a crowded media environment and to shape the direction of policy. However, being ignored is better than being arrested. We are lucky in this regard.

The 20th World Congress of Sociology is coming to Melbourne

The International Sociological Association’s 19th World Congress of Sociology has only recently concluded, in Toronto Canada. The conference theme was “Power, Violence and Justice”, which felt depressingly perfect for a time when even researching violence and social inequalities is seemingly becoming increasingly difficult in many places, if not outright dangerous.

The 20th Congress will be coming to Melbourne, Australia in 2022 and I spent a large part of my time in Toronto taking meetings to start the planning process. I left these discussions convinced that the relative stability of our politics (despite the rapid turnover of Prime Ministers) and the relative safety of our cities is one of the reasons the International Sociological Association awarded the next congress to TASA, another is Australia’s place in the world.

In the title of this piece I use the colloquial ‘Down Under’ to refer to Australia. In our current geo-political era, the ‘land down under’ fits less and less with the facts. The rise of the Asia-Pacific is one of the most significant of these changes reshaping our world. We are hoping that coming to Australia provides an opportunity for a global conversation about the South, East, North and West in our shifting world, including Australia’s somewhat awkward positioning in any portioning of the world between the Global South and North. In this, our Congress will build on the ISA’s and others ongoing efforts to build a global sociology, indeed building on the theme of the ESA’s 2019 conference, “Europe and Beyond: Boundaries, Barriers and Belonging”.            

Despite the travel time, which could be considered a good excuse to read a whole PhD thesis, while still having a little time to watch a movie, I’m looking forward to hopefully welcoming you to Australia in 2022. It will be a great opportunity to showcase Australian sociology to the world.

(This piece draws on reflections in my regular ‘President’s Letter’ a feature of Nexus, the TASA newsletter)

Authors