January 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 1

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International Perspectives

Sociology and Public Arenas:
A View from Australia

by Raewyn Connell, University of Sydney

Australia is a rich country in the global periphery. Historically, it is the product of British colonialism’s violent encounter with a very ancient indigenous civilization. Now, it is a highly urbanized country with a neoliberal political regime and an economy based on mineral exports and services. Australia is rich enough to afford a good university system, which has had sociology departments for about 50 years (the history is traced by Germov and McGee, 2005).

In several fields, Australian sociology has deliberately tried to have an impact in the public sphere. I will briefly give four examples, all being fields in which Australian sociology has done high-quality research.

Australian Specializations

The first concerns migration and ethnicity, which in the 1950s and 1960s was the main focus of research in the new discipline. Ethnographic, statistical, and historical studies of immigrant communities were undertaken. Two leading sociologists, Jean Martin and Jerzy Zubrzycki, were particularly influential in creating a public understanding that Australian settler society, formerly regarded as “British to the boot-heels,” was ethnically plural. In the 1970s, multiculturalism rather than Anglo-conformity became official policy and remained so until a right-wing government re-discovered the advantages of coded racism in the late 1990s. A permanent shift in migration policy, anti-discrimination law, and public consciousness has been achieved, for which sociology can take part of the credit.

The second example is class inequality in education. There was an official view that the great postwar expansion of high schools and universities had solved the problem of educational access. But Australian sociologists from the 1950s to the 1980s showed that this was not true. Using surveys, enrolment data, school ethnographies, and family studies, sociologists demonstrated that class inequalities were rampant within the notionally equal school system, and laid bare some of the mechanisms of educational injustice. Again, there was a policy response, including a highly creative national program for disadvantaged schools. In this case, however, the effect did not last: The dominant class interest in maintaining privilege proved too strong. After the mid-1980s the redistributive programs were gradually weakened or abandoned. Despite excellent continuing research on this problem, class inequalities in education are now off the political agenda.

The third example concerns gender. Australian sociology took up gender analysis with great energy, producing studies of family structure, gender ideology, gender divisions in the workplace, motherhood, sexuality, masculinities, segregated schooling, and more. In the 1970s and 1980s, this became the most active field of research in the discipline. Sociology had a distinctive influence on gender equity policy through scholar-activists such as Claire Burton and Hester Eisenstein. However, in masculinity studies, despite being among the international pioneers of research, Australian sociology strikingly failed to influence popular thinking. In the 1990s, the public arena was captured by an essentialist discourse of natural difference and “real masculinity,” which has had damaging effects in education, health policy, and, I would guess, in human relations.

australia.gif It is strongly oriented toward the global metropole; throughout its history, Australian sociology has relied on importing methods, theories, and terminology from Europe and the
United States. The main structure of knowledge
here is a hybrid formation combining imported concepts with local data.


The fourth concerns sexuality. Australian sociologists, cooperating with psychologists, were involved early on in research about the sexual practices through which the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) spread. This research, informed by theories of practice, developed alternatives to the stereotyped medical “behavioral” research prominent in other countries, and fed into the very successful community education campaigns mounted by Australian gay communities. In this regard, social science contributed to a relationship between policy, knowledge, and practice that has made Australia something of a model in AIDS prevention.

Sociology’s Uneven Success

Sociologists’ record, therefore, is mixed. We have some success stories. But the “force of the better argument” does not always prevail, even when trying to project solid research findings or cutting-edge concepts, into the public arena

Why is this so? Colleagues in the United States will be familiar with many problems of establishing “public sociology.” In the global periphery there is another set of problems as well.

Sociology has never become a major cultural focus in Australia. We have not produced books that capture attention in the manner of The Lonely Crowd, The Weight of the World, or Bowling Alone. The sociological text that came closest to this effect was Economic Rationalism in Canberra by Michael Pusey (1991), a pioneering study of the neoliberal takeover of the state, which aroused controversy at the time of publication. But there has been little else like it.

Australian sociology is an extraverted science, to use the terminology of philosopher Paulin Hountondji. It is strongly oriented toward the global metropole; throughout its history, Australian sociology has relied on importing methods, theories, and terminology from Europe and the United States. The main structure of knowledge here is a hybrid formation combining imported concepts with local data. The reading lists for our courses highlight Foucault, Bourdieu, Giddens, Beck, and Butler, as they once highlighted Parsons, Althusser, and Gouldner, without stopping to ask where these theorists come from and how their geo-social location might affect their ideas.

Retailers or Manufacturers of Ideas?

That means Australian sociology is admirably internationalist. But it also means we do not have a substantial body of concepts and argumentation—regarding our specific historical situation and generated on-site—that can confidently move out from academia into other cultural forums within Australia. Our global positioning tends to make us retailers of ideas, rather than manufacturers.

This is perhaps changing. In my book Southern Theory, I collected examples of powerful theorising from the periphery, and it seems that such traditions of thought are gaining more recognition internationally. In Australia, the idea of a settler society, in which relations between indigenous and settler communities are historically central, has now come into focus in sociology (see the special issue of Journal of Sociology, 2006).

Extraversion is, of course, not only in sociology. The majority of Australian print media are owned by transnational corporations; half our television content is imported and most of the rest is modeled after U.S. shows. Our popular music is sung with an American accent. It is not surprising that the ideology disseminated through mass media is neoliberal, at times neo-imperialist, providing rationales for rising levels of inequality and intolerance in Australian society. The question of cultural autonomy in Australia, as Néstor García Canclini (2002) has argued for Latin America, partly depends on the development of regional alternatives to global media systems and on bringing marginalized social groups into new communications-based arenas. I believe that sociology will be important in creating such a democratic public sphere, and perhaps more so in the periphery even than in the global metropole. logo_small

This article is extracted from the plenary address to the first ISA Forum of Sociology, Barcelona, Spain, September 2008.


Connell, Raewyn. 2007. Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Sydney: Allen & Unwin Australia.

García Canclini, Néstor. 2002. Latinoamericanos Buscando Lugar en Este Siglo. Buenos Aires: Paidós.

Germov, John and Tara Renae McGee, eds. 2005. Histories of Australian Sociology. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Hountondji, Paulin, ed. 1997. Endogenous Knowledge: Research Trails. Dakar: CODESRIA. Pusey, Michael. 1991. Economic Rationalism in Canberra: A Nation-Building State Changes Its Mind. London: Cambridge University Press.

Walter, Maggie, Priscilla Pyett, Bill Tyler, and Annie Vanderwyk, eds. 2006. Special Issue: Beyond the Margins/ Beyond Marginality. Journal of Sociology, 42(4).

Submit Ideas for the International Perspectives Column

globeFootnotes invites contributions from knowledgeable non-North American sociologists on the state of the discipline and profession of sociology in countries outside North America for publication in the new occasional column, "International Perspectives." Sociological analyses of significant national events in these countries that would be of interest to North American sociologists are welcome for publication. Original contributions must be in English and no more than 1,100 words. To discuss possible contributions or send material, contact Lee Herring, Associate Editor (herring@asanet.org), or Johanna Olexy, Managing Editor (olexy@asanet.org).


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