The Sociological Imagination in Human Service Work

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When we consider Human Service work, the sociological history of Australia isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind; not unless of course, you are a sociologist or a professional in Human Service work. Although Human Service work largely addresses issues at the individual level, in most cases, these issues can be recognized at both community and global levels. Accordingly, it is essential to recognize the responsibilities of the key social structures (class, race, and gender) in capitalist Australia, and how these structures influence men and women in daily life.

The industrialisation of Australian society rendered extreme socio-economic change, pioneering technology and the mass production of goods transformed an agricultural society into a cultivated society, and instead of making things by hand, commodities were more cheaply manufactured in greater measures by steam-powered machines (Linge 1979). This offered much wealth to factory owners but came at great social costs; the mass production and importation of these machines meant a rise in manufacturing production and conditions of labour became increasingly unfair (Marx 1867/1995). This led to decreased job security and income stability; introducing vast wealth, income disparities, and subsequently, “class” (the exploitation of labour in the relation to production) (Linge 1979; Marx 1867/1995). Sheppard and Biddle (2017) identify that almost all Australians perceive themselves as belonging to a social class and six class types exist Australian society; ‘precariat’, ‘aging workers’, ‘new workers’, ‘mobile middle’, ‘emerging affluent’, and ‘established affluent’, so although we like to believe that we are beyond a class-based society, this simply isn’t true. According to the ABS’ latest Survey of Income and Housing (ABS 2017-18) - much as in history - Australia’s wealthiest 20% own 80 times that of the lowest 20%; that is to say, the privileged hold much of the wealth and power. These indifferences not only divided society on the centre of class, but similarly on race (Linge 1979).

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The generalisation of commodity from across the globe into everyday life forced Indigenous Australians to fall outside of the labour ranks of the upper classes. They were employed in lesser paid jobs, and until the late 1960s, Indigenous workers could legally be paid less than non-indigenous workers (Anthony 2004). Sadly, evidence suggests the discrimination of Indigenous Australians still exists today. In a survey of over 1,000 Australians, TNS Social Research (2014) reported 21% of participants admitted they would move away if an Indigenous Australian sat near them, and 9% of participants would not hire an Indigenous Australian for a job. However, 42% of participants believe that Indigenous Australians are given unfair advantages by government. The systematic and institutionalised discernment of Indigenous Australians’ has impacted their access to employment, housing, education and health care (TNS Social Research 2014). This inequality increases physical and mental illness, often resulting in death. Ranking as the 2nd leading cause of death for Indigenous males, and 7th for Indigenous females, and the leading cause of death for both Aboriginal children and young people aged between 5-17, Indigenous Australian suicide rates have reached unprecedented levels (ABS 2017). The Socialist Alliance (2016) proposes that ‘record-high suicide rates of Aboriginal people should be considered a result of the government's racist policies and discrimination that continues to disempower Aboriginal communities every day’. The industrial state and the culture of commodity are equally “liberal” when it comes to issues of gender.

The industrialisation of Australia was a mixed blessing for the importance of women in society. Historically, the role of the working-class housewife was equivalent to “domestic slavery”, and under the structure of capitalist wage labour, women were particularly manipulated while working outside of the home as labourers; often exploited as “cheaper labour” (Engels 1884/1972). These historical gender norms are rooted deep within the social bases of Australia, and though society has progressively moved away from these norms, evidence implies that this inequality remains. The 2016 Census (ABS 2016) identified the typical Australian female spends between five and 14 hours a week doing unpaid domestic housework in comparison to the typical Australian male (less than five hours per week). Likewise, in The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report (2014) Australia ranked 24th on the list of countries that possess gender inequality, indicating that women were delimited concerning political empowerment, educational attainment, trade and industry contribution, and basic health outcomes. Furthermore, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, while women account for 47.0% of all employed persons in Australia, with 25.6% of all employed persons working full-time being women (ABS 2018), the full-time average weekly ordinary earnings for women are 14.0% less than for men (ABS 2018). Biological explanation suggests these inequalities are unavoidable and play vital roles in society (Nelkin & Lindee 1995).

In the words of Nelkin and Lindee (1995); “Biological explanation diminishes one to a molecular entity, equating human beings, in all their social, historical, and moral complexity, with their genes”. Biological explanation often leads to the belief that things evolve according to predetermined, underlying genetic means that largely depend on environmental influence and is thus unchangeably beyond our control, specifically concerning race and gender (Meehl, 1977). This is to say, biological explanation allows for social inequalities within our social structures to be accepted as “natural” or “morally appropriate”. According to biological explanation, you are simply born into your “respective role” – black, white, female, male, whatever. Not only does biological explanation naturalise social inequality, it also plays an important role in the way that people understand different social groups, for example, people who perceive groups as sharing common genetics are more likely to adopt stereotypic or prejudiced beliefs about those groups (Keller, 2005). “Men are stronger than women”, “black people are slaves”, “women give birth”, “white people are rich”, “men earn more money”, “black people don’t earn any money at all”, “women belong in the home”, “white people are privileged”, “men are violent”, the list goes on, but it is certainly not hard to understand why the theory of biological explanation in justifying social inequality provides no reasonable argument.

Inequality is a fact amongst class, race and gender, and these social structures are concrete and highly relevant to everyday life. Human Service work provides a service to society, especially in times of need. Shifting perspectives on these structures puts pressure on traditional ways of seeing the world and knowing how to behave accordingly. By understanding the significance of their role in the world, we can better understand the importance of their influence in the day to day lives of struggling men and women.

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