Teaching sociology in Australia

15 Dec 2009

The aims of this project were to gain an overview of the extent and nature of sociology teaching in Australian universities and some understanding of the most pressing issues faced by teachers.

Collecting accurate data on the numbers of students proved impossible, but mapping sociology subjects showed that the discipline is found in the vast majority of universities. The most common areas taught were: Methodology; Health, Medicine and the Body; Deviance, Social Control and Criminology; and Feminism, Gender and Sexuality. There is a reasonable fit between the interests of sociologists (as suggested by their research interests listed with The Australian Sociological Association (TASA)) and areas within sociology taught in Australian universities. The most notable finding from the mapping exercise is that the discipline is not well advertised.

A review of literature suggested that sociology is characterised by theoretical disputes, fragmentation of subject matter, and some contention over moral/political commitments, amidst an Australian higher education sector that is in a state of upheaval. Interviews with sociology teachers suggested that issues connected with the nature of the discipline provide significant challenges for those who teach it. These ‘identity issues’ raise questions of how to communicate the core of sociology, competition with other disciplines, the place of theory in sociology, and sociology as an activist discipline. Issues following from the state of higher education in Australia can make teaching difficult for any discipline. The major issues identified were cost-cutting, the invisibility of sociology in restructured universities, the problem of balancing research and teaching, workload issues, problems with class size, and the needs of contemporary students. Those who teach subjects like  ‘sociology for youth workers’ or ‘health issues in society’ as ‘service’ subjects to students in professional training raised some special issues, such as being caught in competing sociological versus vocational paradigms and competing for scarce
curriculum space.

While interviewees sometimes struggled to find reasons for optimism, there were some suggestions of opportunities for expansion or improvement in teaching sociology. Interdisciplinary contact offered opportunities, and teaching research methods was suggested as a way to connect sociology with vocational agendas.

These findings led to seven recommendations for consideration by the TASA Executive:
1. Raise the profile of curriculum issues within TASA
2. Increase reflexive understanding of the ‘metamorphous’ discipline via further research
3. Focus on methodology as strength of sociology
4. Pay attention to branding the discipline within universities
5. Work on making the discipline more visible outside universities
6. Link with interdisciplinary allies, and
7. Seize opportunities for dealing with the changing environment in Australian universities.

Authors: Dr Helen Marshall, Dr Peter Robinson, RMIT University; A/Prof John Germov, The University of Newcastle; Eileen Clark, La Trobe University

Authored by Helen Marshall, Peter Robinson, John Germov and Eileen Clark

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