Mobilising health sociology for impact: How can complex understandings of injustice and inequality be used in policy and practice?

Ally Gibson, University of New South Wales:

On 13 October 2017, the TASA Health Thematic Group and the Practical Justice Initiative (PJI) co-hosted a one-day symposium, entitled Mobilising health sociology for impact: How can complex understandings of injustice and inequality be used in policy and practice? This event was generously supported by funding from TASA and organised by the Health Thematic Group co-conveners, Dr Sophie Lewis (UNSW) and Dr Ally Gibson (UNSW). At the time of applying for funding we were struck by global events unfolding at the end of 2016, along with ever-increasing cuts to national healthcare and growing disparities in health. The focus of this symposium, therefore, was to consider how we, as health sociologists, might apply rich theoretical concepts to illuminate the mechanisms of injustice that underpin experiences of health and illness, and the provision of healthcare.

The symposium was very well attended by local and interstate researchers and students and even some from Auckland. The funding from TASA enabled organisers to subsidise postgraduate student members’ attendance, enabling more students to participate and engage with established researchers in the field.

The day began with a warm welcome – and thought-provoking, critical discussion on achieving ‘impact’ in health sociology – from Professor Alex Broom, co-director of the PJI. Prof. Broom noted the need to go further than simply making adjustments in policy or practice, noting the need to apply social scientific approaches to effect ideological change. In her keynote presentation, Associate Professor kylie valentine discussed how social theory can

A/Prof. Toni Schofield

be used in examining social policy to address disadvantage, especially for marginalised young people. A/Prof. valentine demonstrated how people’s so-called ‘complex needs’ are subjected to categorisation through interventions and services, which only serve to multiply and complicate people’s circumstances. Particularly striking – as pointed out by A/Prof. valentine – is the monolithic apparatus of social services and the ways in which people can get ‘lost in the cracks’ through the overly complicated processes that only render health and other social services even more inaccessible to those most in need.

In the second keynote, Associate Professor Toni Schofield then argued for the need to consider structure and agency as indivisible in a sociological approach to examining health determinants. She discussed the shift we need to take in thinking about the social ‘domains’ that shape people’s health, through gender, race, indigeneity, and class. Finally, we heard from Professor Katherine Boydell, who provided an illuminating account on how social scientists can apply arts-based approaches to explore and disseminate individual and social experiences of health and illness. Drawing on her work with young people with psychosis, she outlined ways in which researchers can work with communities. In talking through some of the creative methods that can be used to translate research into policy or practice, Professor Boydell also demonstrated issues that need to be thoughtfully addressed, to allow meaningful engagement with participants, communities, or other research partners.

Dr Kari Lancaster

After a morning of thinking about a range of theoretical and methodological issues, participants then jumped into a few rounds of academic ‘speed-dating’. This proved to be an energetic (albeit slightly raucous!) series of quick introductions between PhD students, senior researchers, independent researchers, and ECRs. After lunch, there were presentations by researchers from the University of Canberra, UNSW Sydney, RMIT, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Presenters discussed how we can address issues of mental and physical health from a sociological perspective. Presenters also considered the processes and effects of knowledge production, especially for people whose lives would be most affected by a particular illness. Rounding off the day, Professor Boydell and Dr Sally Nathan, co-directors of the Qualitative Research Network Hub at UNSW Sydney, facilitated a workshop. Working in small groups, attendees were asked to engage with a project idea and think about how they might be able to enact justice. Through discussions, researchers paid attention to the design of qualitative projects, and how they might facilitate change for people’s health/health policy. This enabled deeper discussion around the methodological benefits and challenges that we can all face during a research project, and the balancing act that is sometimes required in wanting to effect change while working within the limits of research funding, time, and other limitations.

The 2017 Health Day turned out to be an interactive day of presentations and discussions, enabling health sociologists to come together in sharing their knowledge in health policy, practice, and research. The strength of the presentations highlighted the continued quality of research that is being produced by members of the Thematic Group and the field of research in Australia. It is our hope that sociological theory and research continues to be applied in new ways to create meaningful change in people’s lives, in their wellbeing, and in their access to healthcare. The Health Thematic Group conveners would like to acknowledge the support of TASA, making the event possible by a 2017 TASA Thematic Group Grant.






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