Challenges for the Future of Australian Sociology

The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) announced by the Australian Commonwealth Government has received media attention for the inclusion of cost-cutting to universities to the tune of $2.1 billion. The budget ‘savings’ are expected to accrue from a two-year freeze on the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, a cap on funding for Commonwealth Supported Places, and an adjustment of the repayment conditions of government-issued student loans (through HECS-HELP / FEE-HELP). These cuts are of course economic in nature and consequence, quite probably aimed at maintaining the nation’s AAA credit rating and leading to a greater focus on high-return activities in universities, such as teaching full-fee-paying domestic and (especially) international students, to subsidise the university’s operating costs. It seems that market discipline in the higher education sector begins in the Treasury.

Similarly to other public universities around the world, Australia’s public institutions face ongoing pressure to do more with less. It is within this climate that I propose to re-evaluate the challenges facing the discipline of sociology in Australia. In a recent overview of the history of Australian Sociology, Kirsten Harley and Gary Wickham describe sociology’s place in the university as one of both fragility and resilience. Sociology didn’t fare so well in the early six ‘Sandstone’ institutions, which the authors put down to a combination of moral and epistemic issues: the ‘moral, social reformist goals’ of advocates of sociological teaching were not always welcome and sociology had, and perhaps still has, a tendency to define itself broadly to include the study of nearly everything under the sun, seeming less useful than more coordinated disciplines such as economics.

Sociology’s fortunes began to shift with institutional and cultural developments. Institutionally, universities grew from the 1950s onwards, firstly as part of a decision to expand higher education from an elite sector into ‘mass’ education, and secondly during the late 1980s as part of a strategy to create a Unified National System of higher education under a more centralised budgetary control. This expansion allowed sociology to find allies in sympathetic disciplines, such as philosophy, anthropology and social work, sharing teaching, funding and aims. Culturally, the growth of counter-cultures throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s saw an increase in students seeking ‘experiences’, rather than simply professional training. Sociology was ripe to enrich students’ desires ‘to experience the new political, cultural, and sexual ways of living’ that followed the civil-political revolutions of that era.

Harley and Wickham’s book encourages readers to see the history of sociology’s passing fortunes and failures as tied to the university and the state. However, the discipline’s ultimate survival has been more centred in the reproduction of labour markets for self-identified ‘sociologists’. Drawing on Stephen Turner’s chapter, ‘What are Disciplines?’, Harley and Wickham (p. 72) endorse the view that disciplines are ‘shotgun marriages’ of different specialities, often conflicting and ‘held together by the imperatives of the academic labour market’. Sociology does not need a title for its teachings to be practiced or its methods to perpetuate the values of truth, justice and beauty. However, sociologists are not abstract practices like disciplines; they have families, obligations, perhaps sizeable government-issued debts, and exist outside the value-sphere of the academy.

In the surplus-centred budget climate suggested by the MYEFO, a key challenge for sociology-as-discipline is not in scooping up a share of the public R&D pie or huddle additional full-fee-paying students into classrooms (these are challenges for higher education corporations and specific research programs), but rather to foster clearer communication between the applied study of ‘the social’ and other research and education programs that benefit from its presence. This doesn’t necessarily imply ‘Mode 2’ knowledge creation, as social theory (an inter-disciplinary field) has done exceptionally well to work its way into allied disciplines, as Harley and Wickham have noted. Sociology – a productively fractured discipline – expands as it collaborates in interdisciplinary environments, justifying the need for diverting resources to sociological training and disciplinary development.

There is also an economic rationale behind embedding sociologists more solidly among other disciplines and within fields. The Australian university sector, much like universities in the global ‘north’ generally, are struck by what Rob Watts has termed ‘market crazed governance’ (p. 183):

This is a style of state-sponsored policy that starts with some imaginary narrative about higher education as a market, while also and simultaneously actually supporting the production and juxtaposition of contradictory government policy objectives. At the same time, inside the universities, that policy frame, sponsors and encourages a new kind of management culture of practice informed by the ethos of new public management.

This mode of governance assumes that education can be conceptualised as a private good in a marketplace, which Watts claims only becomes possible ‘by some process that involves something like reification’ (p. 164). Because education is an ‘experiential good’ (the contents of which are only apparent after exposure to the good – i.e. though the eyes of an attentive student), ‘consumers’ cannot be fully aware of what they are purchasing, making education unable to be honestly sold in a marketplace. Now, for sociology, the opaque nature of educational goods for consumers means that the value of sociological inquiry can only become apparent after education. A marketing student may not necessarily see the value in attending a course on gender and sex representations in the media or a specialist unit on global consumption chains, but in both instances marketing students who happened upon such classes (“for fun”) have found them thought-provoking for their future careers. The systemic thinking of sociology should hence be spread far and wide to encourage the development of complex social reasoning beyond the core of Sociology majors.

The future of Australian sociology has many challenges ahead to retain the resilience and ‘survival’ skills described by Harley and Wickham. This discipline is a great source of what Steve Fuller describes as ‘undiscovered public knowledge’ (p. 82), and may enrich both itself, students and other scholars through strategic dissemination into less ‘traditional’ arenas.

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