Today’s Weekends With a Sociologist lunges us into the heart of Australian suburbia. There’s revelry in Australiania, a notion that I’ve never been especially comforable with, but we’re plunging in all the same! You’ll see there is much to cringe about, and more delights in store, in Jon Campbell’s Word. The Irish-Australian migrant artist lives in Coburg, an inner Northern suburb of Melbourne. The exhibition is based on his artworks that use numerous light boxes to emphasise the language of the working class in the inner Northern and Western suburbs of Melbourne, the typical signage seen along country roads, and Anglo-Aussie surf culture. Banners host Aussie venacular, pub menu items, live music posters, and peculiar messages familiar to locals.

This exhibition includes Stacks On (2010) and the 65 metre mural commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art.


Continue reading Word

Paternalism, Colonialism and Indigenous Education

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (”Indigenous” or “First Australians”) have been the traditional custodians of the land of Australia for over 75,000 years and longer by other estimates. According to the 2011 Census, Indigenous Australians make up over three percent of Australia’s national population. The majority of Indigenous Australians have an Aboriginal ancestry (90%), six percent are from Torres Strait Islander ancestry, and the rest are a mix of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. 

Indigenous Australians descend from over 400 documented language and cultural groups. Due to colonialism, 145 languages survive, but only 20 languages are considered “strong” (that is, spoken by all generations). 

Pat Dudgeon and colleagues

note that, at the time of British invasion in 1788, First Australians’ affinity to the land was strong, as was the complex kinship system that binds all people together and reinforces their spiritual bonds to nature. The colonialists, however, did not recognise the Indigenous custodianship of the land, declaring Australia an uninhabited land (terra nullius) and launched a violent campaign that decimated the Indigenous population and imposed a campaign of cultural genocide.

Paternalistic violence

Dudgeon and colleagues chronicle that in 1883, New South Wales established the Aboriginal Protection Board. The Board later enacted the Aborigines Protection Act in 1909 which granted the state the power to confine Indigenous people in missions and reserves. Other states followed with similar Boards and legislation that imposed British culture and Christianity, stripping children of access to their land, culture and Indigenous languages. Indigenous people began to be classified under a legally imposed racial system. Using social Darwinism, the state ranked children according to whether they were to be considered “full blood,” “half-caste” and so on, using this system to remove children from their families. At its heart, this legal caste system reflected the social and scientific view that Indigenous Australians were somehow lesser in their humanity than the European invaders.

Indigenous resistance movements fought against colonialism throughout this period. Dudgeon and colleagues note several significant incidents of frontier warfare; the activism of William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines League and William Ferguson’s leadership of the Aborigines Progressive Association both in the 1920s; and a maritime strike in 1936. The latter contributed to the rise of the Island Councillors meeting and the revised Aboriginal Protection Act of 1939 which provided Islanders greater authority.

Human rights

While other Australians had the right to vote federally in 1902, Indigenous women did not get the right to vote until 1962, except enrolling to vote was still optional despite it being compulsory for other Australians. (Though some individual Indigenous people lobbied and voted in protest as far back as the 1890s.)  The 1967 Commonwealth Referendum finally granted Indigenous Australians full citizenship. The landmark native title case in 1992 led by Eddie Mabo affirmed the Meriam people ownership of their land.  

Despite these advances, the legal, cultural, social, psychological, and health damage suffered under colonialism continues to the present day.

The forced removal of Indigenous children meant that families were not only separated, but children were put into institutions that had sub-standard health and educational access. This history explains the connection between socio-economics, health and institutional racism. That is, discrimination through official social policy and the practices of other social organisations.

Health and Education

The Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) released a report in June 2013 which finds a set of mixed health and socio-economic outcomes amongst Indigenous Australians. Death amongst Indigenous children has been decreasing (to 5.7 deaths per 100 000 annually), but Indigenous adults still die at twice the rate of other Australians.

Indigenous completion rates of high school (to Year 12 or equivalent) has risen from 47% in 2006 to 54% in 2011, however in the Northern Territory high school completion is lower by almost 7 percentage points. Most of the Territory is categorised as a very remote region. There are also mixed results for literacy. Reading levels have improved amongst Indigenous children in Years 3 to 7, but numeracy has decreased since 2008. The opposite trend is found amongst older Indigenous students in Year 9. While post-school qualifications have been improving for the rest of Australia, amongst Indigenous people, there has been little improvement.

Only 55 percent of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory are still in school by Year 10. This is the lowest rate of educational retention in Australia in the one area that has the highest proportion of Indigenous people (30% of the local population).

One of the Government proposals to improve literacy and school retention is sending Indigenous children to boarding schools. If this is a local facility that does not take children too far from their local communities, this may possible be workable if approved by families, however, at its heart, this idea of removal of children has troubling undertones mired by Australia’s colonial history.

Bruce Wilson, chair of review into Indigenous education system for the Northern Territory Government, says that educational facilities and administration of the curriculum is substandard in the Territory. Teachers are not adequately trained and children are not motivated to stay at school. The solution, to send children away to boarding schools, is seen as a means to improve student attrition. The premise, however, gives up on improving teacher training and infrastructure. Wilson says that the goal is to entice children to remain at school and to stay connected to their communities:

Young people need continuing contact with their culture, with their language, with their families and communities.

To learn more about other Indigenous-driven initiatives to enhance education, head to my blog, The Other Sociologist. 

[Photo: People gather at an Indigenous stall at a Survival Day event, with the Aboriginal flag in prominent display.]

“Language is a guide to social reality… The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.” Edward Sapier, linguist.
Image: Social Science Insights.

Oppressed groups are frequently placed in the situation of being listened to only if we frame our ideas in the language that is familiar to and comfortable for a dominant group. This requirement often changes the meaning of our ideas and works to elevate the ideas of dominant groups.

Patricia Hill Collins  (via queerintersectional)

Language Police


This is a systematically encouraged way to stop engaging in a conversation when you know you are going to lose the argument. Once you have started your policing, you can then blame the other person for being “Angry” or “Not nice.” If your entire point of contention is that of a kind word, you should never engage with anyone, anywhere, at any time. 

Language policing is a trick used by the weak minded. Nothing more. Nothing less.

This is easily provable. Keep an eye on discussions that cross your dash. Note the next time someone does some form of Language Policing. Did they do it near the beginning of the conversation and make their rules of engagement clear? No, it’s far more likely that they were in the belief that they were correct in whatever their view point. Once it was challenged and on it’s way to being proven false, the policing appeared. 

I see several problems with Language Policing:

  • Who sets these rules?
  • If the rules are not mutually agreed upon by all parties, the rules are null and void.
  • Language policing implies that a person’s point is somehow less valid if said in a tone or in a phrase that someone else deems unacceptable. 
  • Anger does not stop truth from being true. Nor do angry words, loud voices or the Caps Lock key. 

Language Policing implies that one person is on a higher level than another based solely on wording. You can not claim to want to engage in discourse while announcing that you are better than those that oppose you. You can not have a conversation, one that you deem “Civil” or otherwise, while also believing that you somehow have the intellectual high ground based on nothing more than a turn of phrase.

As a matter of fact, I tend to believe the opposite true.  Language policing seems to encompass one of two justifications. One, that a person will somehow be more willing to accept what you are saying if you say it with a smile. Two, that anger is a sign of a lessor being and because of this, that person no longer deserves your “Time.”

An actual intellectual can make their point. Period. No matter your word usage, no matter your kindness or anger. A person that has an actual point, can make it no matter their opposition or the tone their opposition uses. Facts, opinions and even judgments are no more or less valid or invalid if said with a “Fuck you” attached. 

If you were to smile and kindly tell me that I am pretty while also hitting me in the face with a wooden bat, my nose wouldn’t be any less broken. Any pain caused, wouldn’t be lessened and my anger wouldn’t be any less valid because you were “Nice” while you did it. 

Kindness does not eliminate truth. Anger does not eliminate truth.

If you find that you need a person to speak to you in a specific way in order to converse with them at all, you should make that known before you get into any discourse. That way, when the person reminds you that you do not get to dictate actions or emotions, you will know that this person is not someone you can control and you can move on to someone who will fall for your act.

That is what it’s about after all. Control. Your need to “Police” language is an effort to make your opposition seem “Less than” while setting yourself up as the “All knowing” director of the conversation. You are trying to force your way into having the upper hand. If your point is a valid one, you won’t need to police anyone, ever.

No one person get’s this power over another. If you feel you deserve this, you should remove yourself from all verbal/written human contact. 

Symbolic Capital of English Spelling

Why are spelling conventions in English so peculiar, such as with the silent “b” in “doubt”? It’s due to the influence of Latin culture and symbolic capital. Symbolic capital describes the immaterial resources that people draw on in order to maintain or improve their social status. Language, literature, the arts and other forms of culture act as symbolic capital that signal our belonging to a particular class. Language and culture are also used to elevate the authority and economic achievements of dominant groups.

Throughout history being able to speak and write Latin has been a sign of being upper class. Latin was also important to the religious elites who acted as scribes that documented culture and history.

Latin drew on French language rules as French grew out of Latin. The French word for doubt has a “b” which is why Latin scribes used it when they started to catalogue English in written texts. English is a Germanic language that was spoken by the masses long before it was written down and so the elites reflected their own linguistic norms on the English written form rather than following the spoken rules.

This Chalking Points video documents this history on brief.

The Surprising Cultural History of New Year’s Resolutions

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

In a fun rummage through vintage sociology, I found an interesting study by Isidor Thorner. Writing in 1951, he used a survey of Americans from various backgrounds to determine the relationship between New Year’s Resolutions (NYR) and Protestant values. Below I take a look at the major findings of Thorner’s study, exploring the historical and cultural variations of resolutions.

Protestant culture highly valued the idea of being in full control of one’s emotions. This meant being organised and denying oneself frivolous pursuits so as to be free to fulfil religious duty. Not adhering to these strict values brought about great personal shame.

Thorner argues that the New Year’s resolutions helped Protestants to manage their emotional baggage, and that over time, this practice lost its religious connotation and spread more widely.

Photo by Steve Davidson via Flickr.
Photo by Steve Davidson via Flickr.

Continue reading The Surprising Cultural History of New Year’s Resolutions

Sociology of Swearing

Why is swearing on TV more offensive than graphic depictions of violence?

In December 2011, The Australian Minister for Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, created a media controversy when he swore during a live address on the national public broadcaster, the ABC. This live gaff had me thinking about swearing, the power of ‘bad words’ and the regulatory bodies that set and enforce the standards for television programming. It’s popped back into my mind as I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about power dynamics and the changes in linguistic practices.

Speaking to the National Press Club about the proposed tax for the National Broadband Network, Conroy said:

If a tax goes up, God, that is sovereign risk, but if a tax goes down, its fucking fantastic. Excuse me – that is fantastic.

This comment went to air during 12:30 and 1:30 pm. As Aidan Wilson points out on Crikey, Conroy’s offence was not simply using a ‘vulgar’ word, but also that his address was followed by the ABC’s afternoon children’s shows.

The language guidelines for TV shows can be confusing. Why are some words allowed in some contexts and not in others? It’s not simply a timing issue – some swear words are only allowed to escape the mouths of Thespians late at night but not during the day. This makes sense if you’re trying to protect children from being exposed to certain swear words.

The again, some words are generally considered to be more offensive than others – but the social norms on this are not clearly articulated by law. Some words are only allowed to be said a certain number of times per TV episode. Writing for Life’s Little Mysteries, Natalie Wolchover argues that the USA’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines are difficult for the average viewer to fathom as the FCC does not make a list of banned swear words publicly available. These murky laws also affect audiences in Australia (where I live), since a great deal of our TV programming comes from America. Wolchover argues that the FCC ‘leaves it up to programmers to tread carefully through the murky waters of its regulations’.

Wolchover contacted FCC media relations spokesperson Janice Wise for clarification about the swearing guidelines and she felt none the wiser for it. Wise told Wolchover:

No one is going to tell you what you can and cannot do, because it changes on a case-by-case basis… What you would do if you were a TV programmer is look through all the case law and see what the FCC has acted on in the past.

So: in some cases the same swear words are more or less offensive than others? This makes sense when we think about the sociology of social interaction, which illustrates that the verbal signs and visual symbols used in communication take on different meaning in particular contexts. Yet when it comes to particular swear words being said on television, why do regulatory bodies censor on a case by case basis and why can they not be clear about which swear words are especially offensive and why?

Australia has its own regulation agencies, of course. The Press Council has long been referred to as a ‘toothless tiger’ by media analysts and the media itself. For example, see the September announcement of the Labor Goverment’s media inquiry in the The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald, and the coverage of November hearings of NEWS Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan in The Australian. In fact, the media enquiry seems to show that journalists watch the TV show Media Watch ‘with trepidation’, fearing its critique more than a rebuke by the Press council.

Polite use of language is shaped through context. It can be determined by culture, such as in the difference between language use in Japan and Australia, as well as particular situations. Generally, research has found that men swear more than women, but this also depends on context. Swear words are used to add emphasis to masculinity, but younger people of different genders tend to swear just as much as one another. At public schools, swearing is sometimes conceived as an act of resistance but not necessarily meant to be offensive or malicious.

Melanie Burns argues that swearing serves two social functions. First, it is a physiological release of energy – in this sense, swearing is a socially-sanctioned way to express aggression. Second, swearing is a sociolinguistic marker. It helps people to express their belonging to special cultures and subcultures. Some words are taboo at certain points in time, though the shock value can be diluted through repeated use. Burns notes that the word fuck is taboo because it refers to sexual intercourse, but it is is also an adjective and an “intensifier” intended to add emphasis and emotion. It is more commonly accepted in everyday speech in working class areas, and in some Indigenous communities. Burns concludes:

Many people disapprove of swearing, seeing it as 

representing a decline in moral standards or as a sign of limited education. Despite unfavourable perceptions of swearing, it clearly is an important facet of individual and group functioning, and it provides an insight into social interaction.

Here is where one verbal slip during a press conference draws critique. The media revelled in the controversy of a politician using a swear word – a verbal release of emotional intensity. Politicians are supposed to uphold higher morals – fair enough, but the media furore over one word seemed imbalanced when at that same time slot, movies and TV shows allude not only to sex, but also depict graphic violence.

It’s reminiscent of George Carlin’s The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV. He made this same point in the 1970s: killing and rape don’t bat an eye lid, but obscene words draw heavy censorship. Polite spoken language, it seems, matters more than visual violence.

#Sociology defines #culture as something we do (social practices). It involves using things such as dress and food to communicate our social belonging to particular groups, as well as using other physical resources (materials). For example, wealth influences our ideas about what “good” culture is or isn’t. If you’re middle class you may see #graffiti as a nuisance, but if you’re poor or working class #StreetArt is a form of social resistance and community expression. Culture doesn’t just exist in our heads; it is something that is communicated in our every day actions and throughout our socialisation. This means that culture depends upon verbal cues such as spoken, written and sign #language. We also use non verbal communication to convey culture, such as through the arts, our body gestures, jokes, other activities and representations. Verbal and non verbal signs are the “stuff” we think about when we’re trying to describe “our” ethnic or national culture (symbols). Culture guides human interaction: it informs our conversations and it tells us what’s expected of us in different social situations. Culture also shapes our sense of meaning. This is why what we take for granted as “normal” and “natural” in one #society is not necessarily the same in another culture. For example in the book Crested Kimono, Matthews Masayuki Hamabata is a third generation American researcher whose parents and grandparents are Japanese. Traveling to Japan to study family businesses, he finds that even without speaking, other Japanese people can tell he was not born in Japan, from the way he walks, to the way he bows his head incorrectly in different situations, to not knowing where to sit when he walks into a dinner party. Culture contains all the unwritten rules about how we should behave. Given that culture is something that we “do,” it is constantly changing as a result of our interactions with other people. Social media is a good example. Some people think it’s rude to use your phone when you’re sitting down for a meal, whereas for others, it is meaningful to share their activities with other friends who are not with them at the time. The more we “do” culture, the more it changes over time. In sociology, we study our own culture in comparison to others to give us a critical perspective about the world. Culture can make it seem as if there is a right and wrong way to do things but taking a cross cultural and historical perspective we see a different picture. Culture reveals human experience to be much more about diversity than universal “truths.”


#Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke speaks about #film censorship in #China at the #Melbourne #International Film #Festival. Speaking in his native Chinese language here Zhang-ke says his thought-provoking film, A Touch of Sin, made its debut in Cannes in May and that the version we are seeing at the #miff will be released in his homeland in October. He goes on to say that the Chinese censorship board took over 2 months to hand down a decision on his #movie, but they only objected to the language used in a couple of scenes. He subsequently changed the dialogue, as he didn’t feel these minor changes impacted on his artistic vision. He also shares a cheeky aside that when he ran into one of the censorship officials, they said they’d personally loved the film. Zhang-ke says his films are inspired by news stories he read on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site that is similar to Twitter. He was motivated to tell stories of workers’ suffering in remote villages. His film weaves together four tales of people who are exploited, subjected to violence at work without recourse for justice, and who bear the cost of China’s prosperity. The director’s thoughtful responses to the moderator’s early questions were fascinating. I also loved watching the questions and his answers being translated back and forth and the negotiation in between, as the translator would check that her words satisfied Zhang-ke’s meaning. Zhang-ke’s discusion of his film was concerned with sociological themes of alienation, social responsibility and the ambiguous role of violence as a means to escape suffering. The latter section of the Q&A devolved in a way that I found sociologically amusing but which rightfully frustrated the crowd. Two speakers took the mike and gave five minute orations in Chinese languages that did not translate well and confused everyone onstage. Possibly the miscommunication was partly due to the audience members’ excited rambling, or it might have been partly due to the fact that Mandarin dialects can be vastly different. This may be compounded by poor bilingualism; speaking English as well as another Chinese language probably impacts on how Chinese dialects are understood (poorly in this particular case). Two English speakers took the mike next and rambled even more in an attempt to sound intellectual but nobody understood their point. The lack of comprehension about the English language questions among the English speaking audience was farcical and probably mirrored what we’d just witnessed in Chinese. One speaker was asked to repeat his question several times and he kept using jargon words such as the phrase “systemic structures of violence” but he could not simplify his meaning or summarise his question in one sentence. I’ve been to many academic conferences and I’ve seen this happen many times so I was highly bemused. Still, I wish the moderators had worked harder to reign in the ramblers so we could have heard more from Zhang-ke. It was an absolute travesty that the lead actress Zhao Tao, who was sublime in the film, did not get a chance to speak. She did graciously translate a few things when the translator couldn’t translate, which was also interesting to watch. #Language is a complicated beast. My review of the film will follow over the next day or so. #miff13 #sociology #linguistics