Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

The lower two-thirds is an oil painting style photo of an older woman with grey hair. She has her back to us and is reading a piece of paper with a magnifying glass. The top third is the title to this post

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of public sociology because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. What follows has been in the works for a couple of months. As previously promised, I’m now coming back to this because of the ongoing need to increase public awareness about the science of the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, I worked with some colleagues on an early literature review scoping policy responses to the pandemic, and I’ve provided feedback on evolving policy research. As an applied sociologist, my focus has been on how race, culture, disability, gender, and other socioeconomics impact how people understand and act on public health initiatives, as well as ethical considerations of COVID research “on the run.”

Since then, I’ve been keeping up with both the research and media coverage of public health responses. I’ve been providing summaries of unfolding information on my social media (primarily Facebook and Instagram stories, as well as Twitter). This started partly to address some of the misconceptions I was seeing amongst my friends and family and I’ve kept this up as it’s been the most efficient way to help people in my life better understand what the restrictions mean for them, or to correct confusing reports.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation. People are hungry for practical advice, but don’t know who to trust (they don’t know where to look for credible resources), or they feel overwhelmed with too many conflicting directions. This is known as information overload, and it leads to poor decision-making.

One of the patterns that has been especially concerning are people writing social media posts, op eds and even setting up consultancies to profiteer from COVID-19 without any health training or policy experience. This contributes to public distrust, conspiracy theories or poor discussion that is not based on evidence. People are choosing to confirm their pre-existing beliefs, rather than engaging critically with scientific information that challenges their perspective. This is known as confirmation bias. It stops people from considering new information and different points of view that might be helpful to their wellbeing.

Reading original scientific journal articles is not always possible as there is often a paywall. Plus, science papers are, by definition, published for the academic community. The language is technical, and the principles can be hard to follow for people who are not subject matter experts. This makes it more important for scientists who have access to write about science research in an accessible manner and to share findings through different communities.

While data on COVID-19 are evolving, and no one can claim to be a definitive COVID-19 expert, the best sources to trust are official sources, such as state Health Departments, epidemiologists, virologists, health practitioners who are providing front-line services (such as Aboriginal-controlled health organisations), and policy analysts who work on COVID-19 responses. Additionally, reliable news sites include the ABC News Australia live blog, Croakey and individual health researchers, such as epidemiologist Dr Zoe Hyde (University of Western Australia) on Twitter.

If you read about a study, how do you know if you can trust the conclusions? What’s the best approach if you wanted to write about a study’s findings for a broader audience, whether it’s your friends and family reading your Facebook feed, or an article in a major news site? Today’s post gives tips for how to read a study using critical thinking principles from sociology, and things to consider if you want to write about, or share, studies that you read about.

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Land Rights and the Legacy of Mabo Day

I write this as a reflection at the end of Mabo Day, marking the end of Reconciliation Week. This day commemorates the 3 June 1992 High Court ruling that recognises Native Title – land rights of the Meriam people of the Mer Islands of the Torres Strait, which opened land rights for First Nations across Australia.

On 20 May 1982, Eddie Mabo, Sam and David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee, and James Rice lodged their land claim. The case took a decade to finalise and addressed multiple legal injustices, including the myth of terra nullius (that Australian land was unowned before colonisation), recognition of Native Title and cultural definitions of land rights, and establishing the Native Title Act.

Today’s post covers the ongoing impact and challenges flowing from the Mabo case, and the sociological issues it raises. In paricular, non-Indigenous people’s narrow awarenes about the cultural significance of land.

Eddie Mabo on the left; a black and white photograph of him in a suit. On the right is a quote from Mabo: "Oh yes, everybody knows it's Mabo land and my sister is looking after it. And as long as I want that land, it will be there for me when I go back."
Oh yes, everybody knows it’s Mabo land and my sister is looking after it. And as long as I want that land, it will be there for me when I go back.
Continue reading Land Rights and the Legacy of Mabo Day

Police Violence in Australia

Oil painting style image of a group of protesters in front of New South Wales Court. Two of them stand on seats and wear the Aboriginal flag. The title reads, "Police violence in Australia"

It is still Reconciliation Week, and Australia is undergoing two major court cases where police have shot dead young Aboriginal people. Yet non-Indigenous people remain wilfully oblivious. We are collectively spending more energy in feeling morally superior to other countries, rather than acting towards national change. Specifically, Australian media lead with stories of “violent unrest,” “violent protests,” and “mayhem” in the USA, instead of focusing on police violence against Black victims and protesters, and providing insightful analysis on similarities to Aboriginal deaths in custody in the Australian context.

Australian social media and public commentary are preoccupied with either dismissing current events as unique to other societies (“only in America”), or posting aghast (rightfully) over police brutality overseas. We do this despite not engaging with long-running campaigns led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It’s not that we should disengage from world events; #BlackLivesMatter is an important movement that resonates globally and deserves attention. The issue is the disproportionate focus on the USA by Australians. This maintains our perception that police brutality is an American quirk and allows non-Indigenous Australians to ignore local racial justice movements led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This post will illustrate how non-Indigenous Australians other national racism, as if it is the abhorrent opposite of our national culture. This is easier than taking the steps we need to address police brutality and racial injustice right here and now.

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Reconciliation and the ongoing impact of colonialism

Oil painting style image showing protesters carrying the Aboriginal flag

I live on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. ‘Eora’ means ‘here’ or ‘from this place.’ Twenty-nine clans belong to the Eora Nation (of what is now known as Sydney), each with their distinct culture, languages, songlines and practices. Sovereignty was never ceded. This land always was, is, and forever will be, Aboriginal land.

Yesterday was National Sorry Day and today marks the beginning of Reconciliation Week. The meanings and actions of these national events are different for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and non-Indigenous people. Here are some reflections for those of us who are settlers, and what we can do to better listen and walk in solidarity with First Nations.

Continue reading Reconciliation and the ongoing impact of colonialism

And I for Truth

Part 2 of 3 of my visual sociology for 2019. Take in the flavours of April to June. We start with a look at the architecture of inclusion. Then we go backwards, so you may join me in a feminist retaliation. Let’s then reminisce over racial justice at the Sydney Writers Festival, and think deeply on Aboriginal women’s family bonds through the wonderful play, Barbara and the Camp Dogs. We go on to trace the joys of the Finders Keepers market, the Sydney Comedy Festival, and Peruvian treats. We bear witness to the destruction being imposed by the Adani mine. I also bring you a cornucopia of the sociology of trolleys, and a special guest appearance by the enigmatic Bubsy.

Continue reading And I for Truth

Whitewashing Race Studies

In the lower half is a white background, with the spines of two white books on the right handside. At the top is the title: whitewashing race studies

How does a White male student with no expertise in critical race studies, with little sociological training, publish a peer reviewed article in one of the most prestigious journals in our field? How is this possible when the paper misrepresents the Black Lives Matter movement and intersectionality theory? How does this paper make it through peer review to publication in less than six months? ‘Black Lives Matter at Five: Limits and Possibilities,’ by Adam Szetela, was submitted to Ethnic and Racial Studies on 24 January 2019, accepted for publication on 21 June 2019 and published online on 18 July. The expediency of the peer review process, given the content of the article, warrants strong evaluation.

I express my gratitude to Dr Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, who brought this to public attention, and who led a robust discussion on Twitter with sociologists and scholars from other fields. I’m using this and other examples as a case study of whiteness in academic publishing.

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Visual Sociology of Resistance

A building has a roller door with colourful street art. Drawn in a cartoon style from The Planet of the Apes, a purple figure in a military-style helmet says: It's time to end colonial power'

Below is my visual sociology for the first quarter of the year, from January to March, 2019. Take a journey from the Central Coast to Melbourne, and back to Sydney. This is part of my Weekends With a Sociologist series. Much of the imagery feature elements of social justice, protest or resistance, perfectly encapsulating what fuels my perseverance as a blogger and visual sociologist. More coming very soon. Enjoy!

Something for everybody

The year started hot and creative. Having gotten yet another tattoo for my birthday only a month earlier, I went back to Japanese-Australian artist, Hitome, from Broadway Tattoo, to get my next piece. I had long been looking for a woman of colour artist to entrust my intricate pieces, and she was wonderful, smart and easy to work with.

The parlour features a large black and white framed poster with art by Good Time Charlie and a quote from Leonard “Stoney” St Clair (below).  2-4 January 2019

“I am in the business of rendering a service to this community for the small group of people who choose to have their bodies decorated in some way or another. I choose my intelligence and skill, wishing not to offend anyone, but instead with my love of mankind, do what good I can before I die.”

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Racial and Gender Justice for Aboriginal Women in Prison

A room full of majority women watch a mix of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous women panellists at the Sydney Law School

On Thursday 23 May 2019, I attended at the Sydney University Law School Beyond Punishment Seminar Series: Aboriginal Women in the Criminal Justice Network. The speakers discussed data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison, and programs to support them in the state of New South Wales (NSW). ‘Aboriginal’ women in the context of the talks and the discussion below also encompasses Torres Strait Islander women.*

Before I tell you more about the talks, I’ll set the scene, looking solely at the adult prison context affecting Aboriginal women being targeted by the criminal justice system.

Over-incarceration is an issue best examined through a lens of intersectionality, a term originally exploring the limitations of dominant definitions of discrimination under industrial law (Crenshaw 1989: 150). Legal outcomes of Aboriginal women are simultaneously impacted by race, gender, class and other systemic inequalities. Lack of legal resources available to Aboriginal women to navigate the legal system is born of concurrent racial justice and gender inequalities. Economic disadvantage, poor access to therapeutic and other health services, and housing insecurity are preconditions of offending; these are class and racial justice issues. Sexual violence and poverty of Aboriginal mothers are typical of imprisoned women’s backgrounds at a rate that is much higher than male prisoners (Stathopoulos and Quadara 2014). Again, these are both racial and gendered issues, which are interconnected with colonial violence and intergenerational trauma.

I am writing on 26 May; National Sorry Day. This day commemorates the truth-telling of the Bringing Them Home report, the documentation of the Stolen Generations. Around 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly taken from their families under our racist social policy. The first institution built to ‘civilise’ Aboriginal children through the use of violence was in Parramatta, New South Wales (Marlow 2016). From 1910 to 1970, across the nation, Aboriginal children were forced to forget their culture, language and spirituality. They were placed into neglect by Christian-run missions and into White foster care (AHRC 1997). Today, the state continues to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their families at four times the rate as non-Indigenous kids (Zevallos 2017). New forced adoption laws in New South Wales mean children placed in care will be forcibly adopted (Zevallos 2019). For Aboriginal women in prison, this will almost certainly mean losing legal rights to see their children. Fracturing families through the imprisonment of mothers is another way in which colonial violence continues in the present-day.

Forced removal of Aboriginal children leads to cultural disconnection, exposure to child abuse, an increased likelihood of entering the criminal justice system, and trauma for mothers. These are gender, race and class dynamics unique to Aboriginal women, their families and communities. Continue reading Racial and Gender Justice for Aboriginal Women in Prison

Understanding Racism in Social Context

Race is a social construction. This means that biological or phenotypic traits are classified in ways that reinforce inequalities benefiting majority groups. Hence “race” is understood differently across nations, depending on history and culture. White people have a tendency to see racism in subjective and relativist views: White Canadians think that racism is less of an issue in their country than in the USA; White people in Aotearoa New Zealand think racism in Australia is far worse than in their own backyard; and Australians think racism in Australia has “gotten better,” and that we are better off than the USA. These comparisons are one way in which White supremacy is maintained locally. Individual observations about so-called “worse” racism in other countries only serves to maintain racial injustice. Let’s now see how this plays out in everyday discussions of racism.

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Charming Central Coast: Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land

Sommersby Falls with the blog post title overlaid: Charming Central Coast - Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land

I’ve previously mentioned that I’d been away on secondment for six weeks at the end of last year. I was part of a national program that matches professionals from policy and corporate sectors with Aboriginal-controlled community organisations. I worked with Barang Regional Alliance (Barang) on the Central Coast, on their Empower Youth Summit, which was held last weekend, on 23-24 February 2019. Barang looks after the interests of 12,500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on Darkinjung land. It was a pleasure to work on this meaningful project and to learn more about Barang and its partners, whom I touch on below. You can see the Barang team and my fellow secondees below.

Next time, I’ll talk a little on my project, and some photos from the weekend, attended by 120 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.  Today, I’m going to focus more on my broader experience on the Central Coast, especially the Aboriginal-Controlled organisations with whom we collaborated, as well as the cultural walks and sights. I’ll share with you a visual sociology of our visit to Finchley Campground, the beautiful rock art at Baiame Cave and Bulgandry, the Koori Art Exhibition, various national parks and festivals, plus much more!

Continue reading Charming Central Coast: Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land