May/June 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 4

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International Perspectives

Sociology in Australia:
A Disciple Finding Its Way in the World

Salvatore Babones, University of Sydney

University of Sydney

Main Quadrangle at the University of Sydney

Sociology is a relatively young discipline in Australia. The first department of sociology was started at the University of New South Wales in 1959. The Sociological Association of Australia and New Zealand (SAANZ) was founded in 1963, with the respective national associations separating in 1988. My own department at the University of Sydney—now the largest in the country—only became independent of social work in 1999.

Though it may be young, perhaps because it is young, sociology has grown rapidly in Australia in recent years. My year-long Introduction to Sociology course at the University of Sydney enrolls more than 1,000 students. Perhaps also because of its youth, sociology in Australia is poorly institutionalized. There is no model curriculum. Classical sociological theory and quantitative methodologies are rarely encountered. Entire subfields are simply missing from the curriculum.

Moreover, the structure of the BA degree in Australia makes it difficult to flesh out the sociology major. Students take only eight courses for the major (over three years). Students who wish to go on to further study can complete a fourth “Honours” year. The Honours year is a holdover British institution, not quite a master’s but more highly regarded because it is more competitive than a master’s. In the Honours year students take two more courses and then complete an 18,000-word thesis, usually based on original research.

The result is that an Australian sociology graduate with a BA (Hons) has completed roughly the same amount of coursework as a U.S. sociology major, but has also undertaken a quite serious research and writing exercise. The question is whether or not Australian undergraduates are truly prepared to engage in original research at such an early stage in their careers. Most Australian academics fiercely maintain that the answer is “yes.”  Having spent two years as an Honours Coordinator myself, I am not so sure.

A PhD “Program”

Most people agree that it is wonderful for undergraduates to gain hands-on research experience, but Australian undergraduates do so in a high-stakes, sink-or-swim environment that determines their future eligibility for PhD study and government funding. Since they know no statistics, their projects are inevitably qualitative. Since they’ve typically had no formal qualitative training other than a large-format lecture course, their qualitative research is often of poor quality.

The Honours thesis is the proving ground for PhD admissions. A first-class Honours mark admits a student to PhD study. A high first class earns the student a government scholarship. Once admitted to a doctoral “program,” students are expected to start their theses immediately. That is to say, there is no program. Students arrive, meet with their supervisors, and off they go. No coursework, no training, no in-depth discussions of the contemporary relevance of classical theory, no comprehensive exams, and definitely no statistics.

Not surprisingly, Australian-trained PhDs tend to have relatively meager skill sets compared to their U.S. counterparts. In principle this deficit is made up during three-year post-doctoral fellowships. In fact, there are far more graduates than there are post-docs available.
My Australian colleagues all seem to be well-trained, highly accomplished sociologists. But as a sociologist, I worry that in observing them I am selecting them as the dependent variable. I wonder what happened to all the Honours students who didn’t swim in the sink-or-swim meataphor and all the PhDs who didn’t get post-docs. My fear is that much human talent and potential is lost to the discipline every year through aggressive winnowing out. I fear that I would not have ended up a sociologist had I been born an Australian.

On the other hand, for those who make it, conditions are excellent. There is no high-stakes tenure system. Permanent staff are permanent from the beginning, and if you are denied promotion this year you can simply reapply next year. Sociologists who are actively publishing can expect a sabbatical in every seventh semester (six on, one off) followed by “long-service leave” of an additional semester every 10 years. Australian Research Council grants are slightly more generous and slightly easier to get than NSF grants.

Greater Equality and Support

The intellectual atmosphere in Australia is extraordinarily vibrant. At the top research-focused institutions, university-sponsored intercontinental travel is commonplace. Australians are active in the British Sociological Association, the International Sociological Association, and (to a lesser extent) the American Sociological Association. Australians draw on theories and facts from all over the world without preference for any one region or country. Australian sociology is the most cosmopolitan sociology imaginable.

Best of all, the entire university sector in Australia is unionized—at least for now. This means that wage inequality is much lower in Australia than in the United States. Relatively high starting salaries combined with relative security of employment make it possible for junior academics to live reasonably comfortable lives. Of course, another implication of low inequality is that salaries for academic “stars” are comparatively low in Australia. This can make it difficult for Australian universities to retain top senior scholars, many of whom emigrate.

Many of the top scholars are attracted back to Australia—sometimes after “retiring” from their overseas universities—by generous research-only fellowships. The result is that many of the best-known academics in Australia are exempted from classroom teaching and leadership service. In effect, their research output has been “bought” by the university through a no-work salary. This illustrates just how difficult it is to run a highly equitable system in one small country when the rest of the world has moved to a winner-take-all system.

Nonetheless, it is an absolute pleasure to work in a (relatively) equitable system. Although every family has its fights, the fact that money and jobs are usually not at stake removes much of the viciousness from intra-departmental squabbles. Australian sociology is much less obviously political, and much more obviously intellectual, than its American counterpart.

Australian sociology is healthy and growing. The discipline faces some problems with student training, but these are generated by the national university system; the discipline itself has little control over the structure of degrees. For a discipline that is only 50 years old and serving a country of 23 million people, Australian sociology is incredibly robust. In this Pacific century, look for Australia to be a leading node in the global disciplinary network. In many respects it already is.

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