Real- life sto­ries re­vealed by cen­sus

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Research Round - Up - Bernard Lane

SO­CIAL sci­en­tists hope to do some­thing un­usual with of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics: tell sto­ries.

‘‘ They wanted in­ter­est­ing sto­ries about un­der­stand­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of Aus­tralian life that you could learn from the cen­sus,’’ says Sue Richard­son, ex­plain­ing the approach made last year by the Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics.

At the time Richard­son, a labour econ­o­mist at Flin­ders Univer­sity, was pres­i­dent of the Academy of the So­cial Sci­ences in Aus­tralia.

‘‘ We said to them, we know where the tal­ent is, we’re very good at com­ing up with in­ter­est­ing ques­tions, we know how to man­age aca­demics.’’

Ten schol­ars, among them fel­lows of the academy, have be­gun work on eight es­say top­ics, rang­ing from creative Aus­tralia ( bo­hemi­ans at work and play) and dif­fer­ent lives ( the move­ment of peo­ple, in­clud­ing in­land de­pop­u­la­tion) to the new so­cial pro­duc­tiv­ity ( how the time- poor jug­gle car­ing for and el­derly par­ents, vol­un­teer­ing and paid work).

Richard­son and David de Vaus, from La Trobe Univer­sity, will write about liv­ing alone. ‘‘ We want to tell a story about what it’s like to live alone,’’ Richard­son says. ‘‘ Is it a kind of mis­ery and so­cial iso­la­tion or is it free­dom?’’

Aca­demics of­ten dig through of­fi­cial fig­ures, but this is a dif­fer­ent kind of ex­er­cise.

‘‘ The dis­tinc­tion is that it’s a real col­lab­o­ra­tion where the ABS brings its strengths and we bring our strengths,’’ Richard­son says.

‘‘ This is work that the ABS wants done, it’s not just aca­demics do­ing what in­trigues them.’’

Plus, the ABS pays ( about $ 100,000 over two years).

The agency ad­vises the schol­ars on pos­si­ble analy­ses of vari­ables, the kinds of his­tor­i­cal com­par­isons that may be made. But the academy alone, and in­for­mally, de­cided on the top­ics and chose the schol­ars. And the academy, not the ABS, will pub­lish the es­says.

That makes it an in­de­pen­dent aca­demic af­fair and gives the ABS cover should any of the es­says stray into con­tentious ar­eas.

For the ABS, the es­says are a way to show or­di­nary Aus­tralians the value of the cen­sus.

‘‘ It’s a big im­po­si­tion on the Aus­tralian peo­ple to col­lect all this in­for­ma­tion ( for the cen­sus),’’ Richard­son says.

‘‘( This project) is a way for the ABS to give feed­back. I think that’s a very ad­mirable thing.’’

There was an at­tempt to do some­thing sim­i­lar with the 2001 cen­sus but it did not quite come off.

Richard­son says the academy’s project is un­prece­dented in its ‘‘ sys­tem­atic and broad’’ approach.

The idea is to make ‘‘ clever use’’ of cen­sus data, es­pe­cially of its unique fea­tures. Of course the writ­ers will bring to bear their the­o­ret­i­cal perspectives as schol­ars.

‘‘ But ( the­ory) will be hid­den be­cause we want the sto­ries to be told in read­able and en­gag­ing ways,’’ Richard­son says.

‘‘ They’re not schol­arly pieces that are go­ing to be buried in a jour­nal and read by three peo­ple.’’

She hopes the es­says will ap­pear in print and on­line by the end of the next year.

Fresh approach: Sue Richard­son

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