Changing Places

By Bruce Smyth [1]

Until recently, I worked at the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) as a researcher in the area of family law and post-separation parenting. I am now at the Australian National University (ANU) building a research program around family law issues. While both workplaces have very different cultures with respect to collegiality, intellectual property, and bureaucratic process, the reality is that not much has changed. In essence, I continue to work as an applied sociologist conducting specific ‘problem-focused’ research directed at pressing policy problems (e.g. Why after divorce do one in four children in Australia have little or no cont act with their father?)


At AIFS, only applied research with a hard policy-edge is conducted. This means that researchers quickly learn the importance of being able to

  • (a) identify emerging social problems (often via stakeholder networks),
  • (b) argue for funding for a particular project, and
  • ( c) communicate findings to politicians, policy makers, practitioners, and the public.

In this context, there is often not much room for theorising, theory-building or theory-testing. Should some theory  turn up during  the research process,  of course, it can be incredibly helpful in shaping the design of a study, the questions asked, the analytic frames, and the interpretation of findings (especially unexpected ones!).

For me, the divide between pure research and applied research is not that large since either without the other can lead to constricted thinking. The big problems of the world will never be solved by any single discipline. This surely holds true within disciplines too in relation to the pure–applied divide.

My sense from moving to the ANU is that universities are changing. While pure research and abstract thinking are still highly valued, there is increasing interest in attracting applied researchers who can work with government on important policy problems. While my own research rarely produces obvious solutions or answers, it does chip away at our understanding of particular social phenomenon. Hopefully, it also changes people’s lives.

Applied sociology within social policy


Bio at the time of first publication (2008):

Dr Bruce Smyth, PhD, is Associate Professor at the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, Australian National University, Canberra Australian Capital Territory.


[1] This article was first published by Nexus in June 2008. Original Citation for this article: Smyth, B. (2008) ‘Changing Places,’ Nexus June 20(2): 9-10.