Social Acts

By Anthony Hogan [1]

I am a sociologist by trade, having completed my undergraduate work at University of Western Sydney (UWS), a PhD with the amazingly wonderful Gary Dowsett at Macquarie and then a Postdoctoral Fellow in Health Sciences at the University of Sydney.

I can see two clear aspects to my career – the part where I undertook deep sociological thinking, research and writing and the part where I have wanted to bring those ideas and other peoples’ ideas into reality through policy and social changes. I did my best deep thinking, reading and writing while employed within the academy during my doctorate and then as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Sydney, working on an ARC post-doc to examine the social aspects of hearing loss. Four years of research bliss that I think has spoilt me for life! Notably, I have done some of my best advocacy and research work outside the academy. It is this latter experience that I want to share with you in this brief paper.

anthony-hogan-social-actsTo provide some context, in the last two years I have worked on a series of projects that have resulted in significant policy and strategic change. The projects were not ab out developing original ideas but taking existing ideas and bringing them into practice. Some were conducted within government and others from within consultancy. Some of the major projects I have worked on have included researching and documenting:

  • the social position of people with disabilities at work
  • occupational health and safety risks faced by Australian workers
  • worker exposures to noise hazards in Australia
  • farmers’ perceptions of climate change and strategies for adaptation
  • cost shifting in the workers’ compensation system
  • a threshold effects model of health and communication disability
  • employment outcomes for deafened people
  • food security in the periurban regions of Australia
  • disease ‘burden’ of hearing loss in Australia; and
  • social values underpinning the use of recycled water in Australia.

When one is at the policy table, you can see policy changes resulting from your work occurring in terms of weeks, months or a year. The work I did within the academy on hearing services took over 15 years before it was adopted into Australian government policy. The two types of work are of course different. The work I did on noise exposures in Australia within government, for example, fed directly into a Commonwealth review of national hazard exposure standards and greatly influenced the out come of the review. However, the original thoughts ab out what constituted hazardous exposures and the like, had already been done by others.

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The work I have done in hearing services policy called for a significant paradigm shift. It seems that paradigms shifts, however well justified, argued or supported, occur slowly. Momentum needs to develop around them. To sustain oneself as an advocate, the slow influential progress of writing papers that certain people do not want to read needs to be offset by the benefits of sitting down at the table with those who actually make the policy decisions that count; the people with access to the resources to make things happen; those who can push through the decisions that change things.

To me there appears to be four key benefits to working outside the academy– the kinds of projects you get to work on (as noted above), the chance to influence, the opportunity to work with a critical mass of like-minded people and a well resourced, tenured working environment.

As a sociologist at the ‘coal face’, I engage in empirical work which documents human outcomes, and I do so in a way that can directly feed into policy development. It is work such as this that challenges the rational with the empirical, the ideological versus the documented. In this setting one cannot work from reified assumptions. The work is informed by theory and is supported by the rigours of social research methods. Critique alone is insufficient – workable solutions are required. This does not mean that critique has no role to play, and it does not mean that critique cannot influence policy. However, I have found it a lot easier to influence the process by being a partner in the change process; through having a seat at the decision-making table. This does not necessarily me an that it is any easier; but you do get to see the fruits of your work changing things on a daily basis. A tension obviously exists here.

In towns like Canberra, the rational economic discourse is all pervasive. However, the realisation is gradually emerging that economics is not enough – values and social perspectives, as well as dollars, inform decisions. Polices resulting from a rational economic perspective can have a hard edge that result in disadvantages for individuals and comm unities. Working as a social scientist, one is able to document the consequences that market forces have in everyday lives and comm unities. As Bourdieu observes, economic theory, when it assesses the cost of policy, does not take account of what are called social costs. This is an information gap that a group of social researchers can, and do, fill.

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The limits of economic rationalism are beginning to be realised in policy circles. The impact of not supporting the left hand of the state (as Bourdieu calls it – comm unity development, social housing, public transport, public health and education etc.) is being realised. Moreover, policy makers are realising that if communities are to withstand shocks that result from climate and the economy, a social infrastructure is required which provides a locus for community, places to focus resistance, and which enable opportunities to build resilience. The economic, in itself, is not necessarily democratic. Such limitations need to be offset. This is the space people like myself are trying to work within.

In recent years the notion of the triple bottom line has been popular in policy circles, with particular emphasis being given to economic and environmental outcomes. However, the third aspect of this equation – the social – has not been well articulated. Some may well say it has been constrained. In the agricultural sector, the social is now seen as important but it is not well understood, documented or described in ways in which it can be taken up and used. The questions to be asked need to be given form so that people can run with them. This is where we, outside the academy, look back to you, inside the academy, for help. With social inclusion on the agenda, for example, one can well ask what does social exclusion look like in the specific contexts of rural communities?

The philosopher Sun Tzu advises that one should never embark on an exercise without the necessary resources. In government in particular, the projects I have been involved in have rarely progressed without the necessary human and financial resources to ensure their successful completion. Moreover, a single project does not pivot off just one person. If a person is away, unwell or the like, the machinery kicks in to ensure that the project continues on. Unlike in academia, it is difficult to own a space in the public sector. At the end of the day it is not your work, even if you write it.

It would be wrong to suggest though that it is all beer and skittles outside the academy. Government employees do not enjoy academic freedom. As in other places, the only constant is change. We are beset with a myriad of daily disruptions, but we are not alone here either. Government processes are subject to a high degree of transparency which me ans reams of paper work and, like everyone else, we need to engage with stakeholders and secure resources for the work we do. Contrary to popularist notions of public servants, we do work hard. It is not uncommon to see people in our team still working at 6.30 pm or 7 pm and Sunday mornings are often the best time to get through the reading one wants to do. Our hands do not tremble on pay day either! However, this life does offer a chance to work on things I value, to publish, to have access to training and conferences each year, to enjoy tenure of employment and have some life balance.

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Author

Bio at the time of first publication (2008):
Over the past few years Anthony has worked as a sociologist in government in areas such as occupational health and safety and rural sociology as well as in the private sector as a research consultant. Anthony can be contacted here.

Credits

[1] This article was first published by Nexus in June 2008. Original Citation for this article: Hogan, A. (2008), ‘Social Acts,’ Nexus June 20(2): 14-15.