Real- life stories revealed by census
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